I’ve always loved dogs that look like pit bulls: wide and smiling faces, goofy expressions, broad chests, sturdy bodies, short coats, enthusiastic tails. I grew up not knowing about dog fighting, or about this breed’s vicious reputation. My terror was reserved for German shepherds (my equally frightened little brother tremulously called them “sheffers”), with their pointy, mean faces and loud barks. There were some territorial ones in the yards in my Providence, Rhode Island, neighborhood.
But after moving to New York, I came to understand that pit bulls are hated. My little East Village copy shop, where we got Josie’s bat mitzvah invitations, has a big, short-coated, wide-chested, flat-faced dog behind the counter. His name is Curtis. He comes when you call and accepts head-pats with dignity. But when I asked the owner, Santo, what kind of dog Curtis was, he hesitated. “He’s a mix,” Santo said. “Terrier, other things … pit bull.” He clearly was reluctant to say those two words. He thought I’d recoil.
You know what people say about pit bulls: Violence is in their genes. They have double rows of teeth. Their jaws can unhinge like a snake’s. Their jaws lock after they bite. They don’t feel pain the way other dogs do. In 1987, U.S. News and World Report called them “the most dangerous dog in America,” able to “chomp through chain-link fences.” The Guardian called pit bulls “dogs of war who can bite through concrete.” Time called them “time bombs on legs” and started a story on them with a quote from The Hound of the Baskervilles:
Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face.
A friend had her family dog genetically tested, and when she discovered it had some pit bull lineage, she gave it away. Her kids sobbed. But what if the dog just lost it one day? That’s what pit bulls do, right?
None of this, of course, is true. Bronwen Dickey’s fascinating new book Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon charts the evolution of pit bull stereotyping. (It begins with a quote from André Gide: “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”) In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pit bulls were considered the family-friendliest dogs. Dogs that looked like them served in the Battle of Gettysburg and in Normandy. One accompanied Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family in their covered-wagon journey across the prairie. Helen Keller owned and adored one. Another (named Votes!) accompanied suffragist Virginia Watrous on the campaign trail in 1915. Still another starred in the “His Master’s Voice” campaign for RCA and another in the “Our Gang” kiddie comedies. Dickey observes that pit bulls were then seen as “quintessentially American: good-natured, brave, resilient, and dependable.” But within a few decades, they’d become DNA-driven vicious beasts, “biologically hardwired to kill.”
You know what these stereotypes and assumptions, the notion that genetic heritage will out, reminds me of? Yup. The historic beliefs about Jewish phrenology and physiognomy, the idea that we have horns, the notion that we’re genetically driven to be shifty, money-grubbing, and pervy. They’re as grounded in truth as stereotypes about pit bulls—the Jews of the canine world.
Dickey’s research was driven in part by her love for her dog Nola, a 38-pound pit bull “with a caramel-and-white coat, a pink nose, and eyes the color of honey,” whose “pronounced cheek muscles and a cleft in the top of her head gave her face the shape of a small but eager heart.” But Dickey quickly discovered that there’s actually no such thing as a “pit bull.” The name can refer to a constellation of breeds: The American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American bully. And of course, since only a tiny percentage of dogs are purebred, the term “pit bull” has also come to mean mixed-breed dogs with “pit bull characteristics,” such as blocky heads and brindle coats.
People’s anxieties about class, race, and crime are projected directly onto these animals. “Pit bulls” (meaning “any dog that looks the way we think a pit bull looks”) have been banned or restricted in over 850 U.S. communities as well as the entire United Kingdom (which, incidentally, doesn’t consider the Staffordshire bull terrier, a classy breed that originated in England, to be pit bull, so guess what, only that kind’s not banned). And many apartment buildings and public-housing projects refuse to allow pit bulls on the premises. This despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that breed-specific legislation is ineffective as well as harsh. (PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk contrarily disagrees, saying dismissively that pit bulls are kept “by almost every drug dealer and pimp.” Oh, PETA, never change.)
There are websites devoted to the evilness of pit bulls, calling them “Frankenmaulers,” and “mutants,” among other worse names … just as there are a zillion websites devoted to the unsavory innate nature of the Jew. (First I Googled “pit bull stereotypes”; then I Googled “Jewish phrenology,” which I really do not recommend.) The Nazis possessed actual measuring tools for faces to determine how closely they hewed to Jewish and Aryan characteristics. Aryans had narrow faces, strong chins, thin noses with high bridges, wide eyes and “pinky-white” skin. Jews had dark skin, fleshy faces, weak chins, hooked noses, beady eyes. Hitler also felt that Jews had a specific odor. Thus the Blutschutzgesetz (laws for the protection of the blood) and the denotation of Mischling (“mixed blood”) for someone who had both Jewish and Aryan ancestry came to be. (Similarly, see the “one-drop” rules banning dogs with any pit bull ancestry or features from communities and housing.) Hitler himself was fascinated with dog breeding—particularly of German shepherds—and of course, passed a ton of laws designed to separate Jews from their own use of animals. He banned both kosher butchery and Jewish possession of pets, what with Jews being inherently cruel. So, Jewish pets were confiscated and put to death, to save them—and to keep Jews’ pets’ impure blood from tainting the blood of good German animals.
But eugenics wasn’t confined to Nazi Germany. In America in the 1920s, Dickey points out, the executive secretary for the American Eugenics Society was a prominent veterinarian and breeder who called for “Fitter Families for Future Firesides,” in which “humans were physically evaluated like livestock in formal shows held at Midwest county fairs.” In 1934, the guy wrote a book called The Case for Sterilization, which “applauded Hitler’s efforts to establish a master race in Germany and was eventually used to justify mandatory sterilization laws in the United States.”
Nowadays, people associate pit bulls with thugs. And the word “thug,” as we all know, is barely coded shorthand for a young African-American man. (Truthfully, I’d thought of pit bulls being Jews … but comparing pit bulls to African Americans is even more resonant, in terms of the stereotyping both face.) Pit bulls are seen as murderers, even though, as Dickey points out, only about 35 Americans a year are killed by any type of dog (as opposed to the 36,000 who die in car accidents). Study after study has shown that pit bulls are no more likely to bite than any other breed. And Dickey cites a study in which shelter workers were shown pictures of different dogs and asked to identify their breeds; their guesses failed to match the animals’ DNA results 87.5 percent of the time. Finally, no one has yet identified a gene for canine aggressiveness in any kind of dog. Fear of the word “pit bull” and misplaced fear of the breed, combined with a healthy dose of racism, have trumped common sense.
What this means is that the rules for interacting with all dogs should be the same. Keep away from strange dogs. Ask the owner before you pet a dog. Supervise kids when they’re around dogs—all dogs. All dogs have the potential to bite when teased or threatened. Finally, a 2011 peer-reviewed study of dog bites and what they had in common found that in 84 percent of cases, the dog wasn’t neutered, and in 76 percent of cases, the dogs were habitually isolated from people. So, uh, neuter and socialize your dog.
I liked Dickey’s metaphor of pit bulls as Honda Civics. Both are pretty small, generic in appearance, cheap, and available in many places. Those four characteristics are why the Civic is one of the best-selling cars ever. But those four characteristics are also why it’s the most commonly used car in drag racing, which is illegal and dangerous. No one has ever proposed banning Honda Civics.
Yet people are determined to believe that pit bulls are monstrous, despite actual pit bulls being nearly impossible to define. (As with pornography, people feel they know it when they see it.) When voters in the city of Miami, which banned pit bulls, were asked whether being shown actual scientific evidence that pit bulls aren’t inherently more dangerous than other dogs would make them vote to allow pit bulls back in Miami, they said nope. The evidence didn’t matter. They knew pit bulls were bad. After the city of Denver banned pit bulls, it soon began impounding and killing them. Between 1992 and 2009, the city put 3,497 to death. Pit Bull contains a black-and-white 2006 photo from the Denver Animal Shelter showing a huge mountain of dog corpses arranged in rows. For a Jew, a black-and-white photo showing mountains of stacked-up dead bodies has one specific resonance. You know what it is.
Because of ingrained prejudice, dogs with pit-bull-esque characteristics are subject to violent attacks. Dickey presents a litany of stories of mixed breed dogs being targets, like the puppy who was tortured and baked to death in an oven by two Atlanta teenagers. (During their trial, the prosecutor felt that even showing a pit-bull-like puppy would negatively sway the jury, so for demonstration purposes a German shepherd puppy was used instead.)
Let’s not generalize about an animal based on the shape of its head or the texture of its coat. As it turned out, even Dickey’s dog Nola, who inspired her to write about pit bulls, was only part pit. DNA testing showed she was 25 percent American Staffordshire terrier, 25 percent Staffordshire bull terrier, 25 percent “terrier mix,” and 25 percent Australian shepherd. Individuals are individuals. Generalizations—about dogs, or about people—are odious.
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Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.