2018-11-08 / Opinions

Book Review

Pit Bull

This reader has had a number of dog friends over the years, but has not known a “pit bull” well. However, many friends have introduced me to delightful members of the breed. In this book, Bronwen Dickey explains that there has been confusion over the breed standard. The American pit bull terrier is a recognized breed, but the term also includes the Staffordshire terriers, “a lot of mutts, and almost any stocky muscular dog with a large head.”

After adopting her own wellloved pet, Dickey decided to find out how these dogs received such a bad reputation. For seven years, she interviewed pet owners, dog trainers, animal rescuers, law enforcement officers, as well as experts in veterinary medicine, animal behavior, and canine genetics. Notes and a bibliography give the details. Her book is informative and disturbing. Some of the stories about prejudice and cruelty are hard to read. “For the better part of two hundred years, the history of bull-and-terrier dogs was illustrious, rather than infamous.” Sir Walter Scott, Helen Keller, James Thurber, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, and Jimmy Carter had them as pets. Several became beloved movie stars. Then, in the 1970s, everything went wrong. The crime of dogfighting was publicized, and the attempt to stamp out this barbaric animal torture resulted in an idea that pit bulls were biologically “hardwired to kill.”

In 2007, Michael Vick, star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons was arrested on charges related to the operation of a professional interstate dogfighting ring. The news stories and pictures of the horrors involved got the attention of the media and the American public. Vick served time in federal prison and made some financial restitution, but the good part of the sad story is what happened to those dogs. “The rescue and rehabilitation of the surviving ‘Vicktory Dogs’ was a powerful moment in animal welfare. For the first time, fighting pit bulls were seen as victims of a terrible crime, not co-conspirators in it.”

Dickey tells about the history of dogs, and states that the dog is the only animal that will place our safety and survival above its own. She relates wonderful tales about dogs who lived and fought with armies in many wars. She looks at genetics and behavioral science, exploring the origins of breeds and Kennel Clubs.

Among the people she spends time with are Diane Jessup, who has spent years breeding and training high-drive American pit bull terriers, and Jane Berkey, who spearheaded a rescue operation for the dogs abandoned in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Both women are devoted to the pit bull, but with very different attitudes.

The author’s argument is that pit bulls are no more inherently aggressive than any other breed. They are no more likely to bite humans than other breeds, and in any case serious dog bites are relatively rare. She agrees with Jane Berkey that “the day will come when America relinquishes its tight grip on the image and identity of the pit bull and simply lets them be dogs.” Pit Bull is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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