By COLIN DAYAN
Just 50 years ago, the pit bull was America’s favorite dog. Pit bulls were everywhere. They were popular in advertising and used to promote the joys of friendship between pets and humans. Nipper on the RCA Victor label, Pete the Pup in the “Our Gang” comedy shorts, and the flag-wrapped dog on a classic World War I poster were all pit bulls.
With National Pit Bull Awareness Day celebrated on October 26, it’s time to ask how these dogs became a dangerous threat.
Beginning around 1990, multiple features of American life converged to inspire widespread bans that outlawed pit bulls, referred to as “four-legged guns” or “lethal weapons.” Drivers included dog attacks, excessive parental caution, fearful insurance companies, and a connection to the sport of dog fighting.
As a professor of humanities and law, I have studied the legal history of slaves, vagabonds, criminals, suspected terrorists, and others considered threats to civilized society. For my books “The Law is a White Dog” and “With Dogs on the Edge of Life”, I explored human-dog relationships and how laws and regulations can deny equal protection to entire classes of beings. .
In my experience with these dogs – including nearly 12 years of living with Stella, the daughter of champion fighting dogs – I have learned that pit bulls are not inherently dangerous. Like other dogs, they can become dangerous in certain situations and in the hands of certain owners. But in my opinion, there is no valid reason to condemn not just all pit bulls, but any dog with a single pit bull gene, as some laws do.
I see such action as canine profiling, reminiscent of another legal fiction: the taint or bloodstain that ordered human degradation and racial hatred in the United States.
Bred to fight
The pit bull is strong. His jaw grip is almost impossible to break. Bred over centuries to bite and hold large animals like bears and bulls around the face and head, it is known as the “hunting dog”. His bravery and strength will not allow him to give up, no matter how long the struggle. He loves with the same force; his loyalty remains the stuff of legend.
For decades, the tenacity of pit bulls has encouraged the sport of dogfighting, with dogs “opposing” each other. The fights often went to the death and the winning animals brought huge sums to those who bet on them.
But betting on dogs is not a high class sport. Dogs are not horses; they cost little to own and maintain. Pit bulls easily and quickly associated with the poor, and especially black men, in a narrative that connected pit bulls to gang violence and crime.
This is how prejudice works: the one-on-one layering of the pit bull on the African-American man has reduced people to their props.
Dogfighting was banned in all 50 states in 1976, although illegal businesses persisted. Coverage of the practice spawned broad claims about dogs fighting. As breed bans proliferated, court rulings proclaimed these dogs to be “dangerous to the safety or health of the community” and held that “the public interest requires that the worthless be exterminated”.
In 1987, Sports Illustrated put a pit bull, bare teeth, on its cover, with the headline “Beware of this dog”, which it characterized as born with “a will to kill”. Time magazine published “Time Bombs on Legs” featuring this “vicious hound of the Baskervilles” who “seized little children like rag dolls and mauled them to death in a frenzy of bloodshed.”
If a dog has “vicious propensities”, the owner is assumed to share in that projected violence, both legally and generally in public perception. And once considered ‘contraband’, goods and people are at risk.
This was evident in the high-profile 2007 indictment of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for running a dogfighting business called Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia. Even the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – two of the country’s leading animal welfare groups – have argued that the 47 pit bulls recovered from the facility should be killed because they posed a threat to people and other animals. .
Without the intervention of the Best Friends Animal Society, Vick’s dogs would have been euthanized. As the movie “Champions” tells, a special court-appointed handler determined the fate of each dog. Eventually, almost all of the dogs were successfully placed in sanctuaries or adoptive homes.
Debating breed bans
Pit bulls suffer even more than any other dog because they are one type of dog and not a separate breed. Formerly recognized by the American Kennel Club as an American Staffordshire terrier, popularly known as the Amstaff, and registered with the United Kennel Club and the American Dog Breeders Association as an American pit bull terrier, now any characterized dog as a “pit bull type” may be considered an outlaw in many communities.
For example, in its decision Tracey v. Solesky’s 2012 Maryland Court of Appeals changed the state’s common law in cases involving dog injuries. Any dog with pit bull genes was “inherently dangerous” under the law.
This subjected landlords and landlords to what the courts call “strict liability”. As the court stated, “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the pit bull(s) in question are dangerous.”
Dissenting from the decision, Judge Clayton Greene acknowledged the absurdity of the “unenforceable rule” of the majority opinion: “How many ‘pit bulls'”, he asked, “must there be in a dog to subject him to the strict liability edict?”
It’s equally impossible to tell when a dog is a pit bull mix. The shape of his head? His position ? The way he looks at you?
Riddles like these challenge statistics that show pit bulls to be more dangerous than other breeds. These figures vary greatly depending on their sources.
All statistics on pit bull attacks depend on the definition of a pit bull – but it’s really hard to get good dog bite data that accurately identifies the breed.
Over the past decade, awareness has grown that breed-specific legislation does not make the public safer, but penalizes responsible owners and their dogs. Currently, 21 states prohibit local government from enforcing breed-specific legislation or naming specific breeds in dangerous dog laws. Maryland passed legislation reversing the Tracey decision in 2014. Yet 15 states still allow local communities to enact breed-specific bans.
Pit bulls demand a lot more from humans than some dogs, but alongside their way of being in the world, we humans learn a different way of thinking and loving. Compared to many other breeds, they offer a more demanding but still touching fellowship.
Colin Dayan is Professor of English, Robert Penn Warren Professor of Humanities, and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University.