I’ll admit it: I’m not a huge pit bull fan. I don’t hate them with a fiery passion, as many people do. I’m not sure banning them is the greatest idea. But I’d certainly rather not hang out with them in my spare time, and I’d be alarmed to see one off a leash. In my brain, fair or not, they look about as cuddly as a king-sized, long-clawed, chain-smoking crocodile.
This is rather bad news for me, considering that in many parts of the country, legions of pit bulls—and enthusiastic pit bull supporters—seem to be falling from the sky. After the sad story of Michael Vick’s multiple dog abuses broke in 2007, pit bull adoptions skyrocketed. Pit bull rescue organizations are popping up everywhere; here in Austin, Texas, I’m greeted by panting pit bulls sporting cheery “Adopt Me!” jackets almost every time I go out for a run. I saw one just this morning, in fact, towed by a young, optimistic-looking volunteer—and wearing a suspiciously hefty choke chain.
This week, Esquire magazine published “The State of the American Dog,” a personal, almost mystical paean to pit bulls. Written by Tom Junod, who has won two National Magazine Awards and has owned at least two pit bulls, the article outlines the sad state of the breed in America. Pit bulls are overbred, abused, neglected, abandoned, and euthanized in stunning numbers: as many as 3,000, Esquire reports, are put down every day. Pit bulls are also, at least in the eyes of Junod and thousands of pit bull lovers across the country, horribly misunderstood. There is no such thing as a bad dog, in this view. There is only a bad owner.
Pit bull enthusiasts will tell you their dogs are sweet, loving, and funny—and that their dogs wouldn’t hurt a flea. Unfortunately, my experience has been different. One woman I know was randomly attacked by an unleashed pit bull while she was lying on the grass in an Austin park. A former co-worker of mine, meanwhile, was attacked by her pet pit bull when she was 9 years old. “Oh, but really, he didn’t mean it—he was the sweetest dog ever,” she insisted, showing me the massive scar on her leg.
Denial, as always, ain’t just a river in Egypt: It’s a common trait among pit bull people. Statistical reports from a wide range of sources—including the CDC, PETA, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Annals of Surgery, and a multi-decade, comprehensive report from the editor of Animal People magazine—show one common theme: Pit bulls, like it or not, are far and away the most dangerous dog in America. In terms of fatal attacks, maulings, and bites, no other dog, not even the Rottweiler, comes close. Pit bulls are also known for attacking suddenly, without warning, and after years of apparent “sweetness.”
This shouldn’t be surprising. Pit bulls were originally bred to fight other dogs to the death, not to sit on your lap. Here in the U.S., with the resurrection of dogfighting, many breeders have worked to amplify pit bull aggressiveness. Dogs of a certain breed may not be identical drones, but they do tend to share common traits. This, of course, is Dog Breeding 101.
But these days, it seems, no one wants to be a dog racist—and this is where things start to get really weird. “The opposition to pit bulls might not be racist,” Junod writes in his Esquire piece. “It does, however, employ racial thinking.” Jeez, Louise. I suppose, then, it is time that I confess: I am a pug supremacist. Go ahead and judge me, America. Say what you will, but the worst thing a pug can do is fart you to death.
Wade into the Great American Pit Bull Debate—and believe me, it’s raging, online and elsewhere—and you’ll find a fascinating microcosm that closely mirrors American political polarization. When it comes to people and their dogs, nuance is nobody’s friend. On one side, pit bulls are demons, fit for extermination; on the other, they’re angelic godsends fit to babysit infants. Lest you think I’m exaggerating on that last point, check out a pit bull advocacy page or two. You’ll see photos of “pitties” with their snouts right next to a baby’s face (something dog experts will tell you to never, ever do, no matter the breed) and various claims that pit bulls used to be viewed as “nanny dogs,” fit for the care of children. The “nanny dog” myth has become so widespread, in fact, that even pit bull advocacy group BADRAP recently felt compelled to call off the proverbial dogs, warning parents “there was never such a thing” and that the term was a misleading “recipe for dog bites.”
Pit bull fans can get so intense, in fact, that they sometimes favor dogs over people. Back in March, when an Arizona pit bull named Mickey mauled a 4-year-old boy, protesters hit the streets—in favor of Mickey. A “Save Mickey” Facebook page earned 70,000 likes; the page for Kevin Vicente, the boy torn to shreds, gained less than 500. Thanks to his fans, who largely blamed the boy for “provoking” the dog, Mickey will live out his days at a no-kill shelter.
Pit bull adopters and rescue centers, no doubt, are acting out of an admirable sense of compassion. It remains to be seen whether they’re also acting out of a dangerous level of naivete. Knowingly or not, the growing, feel-good pit bull rescue movement is conducting a massive experiment in American homes. Perhaps it’s true that, when it comes to dogs, breeding isn’t destiny. Perhaps all you need is love. I hope that’s the case. We shall wait and see—but in the meantime, please keep your “pittie” on a very strong leash.