“The dog is a gentleman,” Mark Twain wrote in a letter to William Dean Howells. “I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.” I’m not sure if I’d want to spend eternity drinking from a toilet bowl, or eating the canned mystery meat cunningly marketed as Cowboy Cookout, but I recently got a taste of how un-gentle both men and women can be when you critique their choice of canines. In the two weeks since I wrote an article for The Daily Beast in which I described a vicious (but nonfatal) attack by a pit bull on my Wheaten terrier as I walked her on a nocturnal byway in Brooklyn, noted how much mayhem pit bulls cause on a daily basis, and pointed out that you should question the motives of pit bull owners at your own peril, I have personally felt the force of that breed’s blitzing defense.
By listing similar recent attacks in my earlier piece, I was labeled a racist by people who think that you cannot “slander” an entire breed based on “isolated incidents.”
The piece so far has drawn 400 comments on this site, most of them bitterly opposed to my position, and I received many emails and Facebook messages informing me that I was an idiot, a pussy, a fool, a wimp, a racist (more about that in a moment), a crybaby, a puppet of the left, a typical New Yorker, a Nazi, and an ignorant hack for suggesting that people like them were hypersensitive. A few insulted my dog Frankie (who’s much better now, thank you) who at that point was still limping around post-surgically and looking like the carpeting at the No-Tell Motel, saying she was “not the kind of animal I’d want guarding my property” and was “too stupid to defend herself”—a failing that of course led to the real tragedy here: more bad press for pit bulls. Gee, and I thought people only came to look like the dogs they favored.
• Get Rid of Pit Bulls I revisit this topic with trepidation, since the debate it has already sparked—yes, Frankie and I did have our share of supporters—has, with a few glorious exceptions, not been distinguished on either side by fineness of thought or expression. The people in my camp tend to come off as an unorganized but pop-culturally savvy bunch who for example knew, when the opposition tried to engender sympathy by noting that the dog in the Little Rascals comedies was a pit bull, that the pibald Petey was on record as having chomped a few of the child stars. Meanwhile, when it came to clichés and other low language, the pit-bullies stooped faster than a professional dog walker on Michael Bloomberg’s block, and they backed their claims that pit bulls were no more dangerous than, say, Chihuahuas, with sketchy studies (fabricated by pit bull lobbying groups, according to at least one commenter) and anecdotal evidence. They cited numerous occasions on which pit bulls did not rip out peoples’ Adam’s apples but instead snoozed or licked something or chose benevolently to limit themselves to guttural growls or leash-testing lunges which were easily eliminated once Gunther Gebel-Williams was flown in and given a few months to work his magic.
I think it said something about the minds working on the pit bulls’ behalf that Chihuahuas, that most tiresomely obvious of counterpoint breeds, came up early and often. The very first commenter said that he or she held a grudge against the little guys since being bitten by one at age 6 while on the way to school. A commenter called bobvious claimed that “more people have been bitten by Chihuahuas in my presence than any other breed.” Of course, such bites would not result in death or traumatic injury, as they often do with pit bulls—yet I will concede bobvious’ point if this witness to so much ankle abuse will promise to write a memoir.
Besides dragging in other dog breeds, many commenters who took umbrage at my remarks revealed that guns, automobiles, and alcohol are also capable of causing problems. To those people I say without hesitation that Santa Cruz de la Sierra is the largest city in Bolivia and that unless Jose Reyes stays healthy the Mets are doomed. None of these facts has anything to do with the fitness of pit bulls to live among people and other animals. Such blather does, however, take the focus off the inconvenient truth that pit bulls are always updating their bloody résumés. In the three or four days preceding this followup piece, pit bulls have seriously injured two young girls in the Washington, D.C. area, as well as children in Billings, Montana, Frederick, Maryland and Jersey City; they savagely attacked a couple of adults, too, and killed or hurt other animals.
By listing similar recent attacks in my earlier piece, I was labeled a racist by people who think that you cannot “slander” an entire breed based on “isolated incidents.” But isn’t it racist to think that certain people (blacks, Asians, and Muslims were the groups that had the dubious honor of being defended) are analogous to dog breeds? The number of races in the world is a controversial subject, but however anthropologists divvy up Homo sapiens, no group aggregates traits that make it more or less fit for a certain kind of employment, or more or less fit to be around other living creatures, than any other race. Meanwhile, the various dog breeds owe their very existence to man’s desire to, for example, hunt, herd, travel by sled, have companionship, live without rats, impress the ladies, and watch dog fights. If we couldn’t generalize about dog breeds, there wouldn’t be any. Why is this even an issue? We generalize about the African lion and, based on our shared perceptions of its habits, have banned its ownership in all but a few special circumstances. Cats are legal as pets, lions are not because a lion, by the standards of civilized society, is a cat taken to ridiculously dangerous extremes.
Yet no one gets mad at lions for being the way they are, and no one should be upset with pit bulls for being the kings of the dog jungle. They are not evil, immoral, or, as is often said, “untrustworthy.” Indeed, they can and should be trusted to act like pit bulls. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the people, including the female owner of the pit bull who attacked Frankie, who say “My dog is the sweetest, most loving creature you can imagine.” Her promised check for Frankie’s vet bills may still be in the mail after almost four weeks, but her heart is in the right place; she isn’t hoping for aggressive, anti-social behavior from her beloved animal, and she regrets what happened—though she can’t understand, like so many pit bull owners, how such behavior could come “out of the blue.” The thing is, it doesn’t come out of the blue; it comes out of the DNA, and those who say “it is the owners, not the dogs” who are responsible for “bad” pit bulls are being dangerously naïve. Very few of these dogs are being trained to be killers. The rest of us are at risk precisely because they don’t need to be.
Charles Leerhsen is the author of Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, The Most Famous Horse in America.