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A dog in the crosshairs

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We have a way of creating monsters. American hysteria has led to the demonizing of women (Salem Witch Trials) and to the invention of imagined Satanic child care centers in the 1980s. Bronwen Dickey’s look at the history of pit bulls in America is very interested in how hysterias happen and she examines the ways in which pit bulls became monsters in the American imagination:

“The mere presence of a pit bull caused Eric Hall [a Cookeville, TN police officer] such anxiety that he abandoned his professional training, his good judgment, and his common sense in the line of duty. On the evening of January 1, 2003, he didn’t see a family dog at all. He saw a monster.”

Dickey, of course, does not see pit bulls as demons. She has one (Nola) as a companion, and she documents the loving, loyal relationship most pit bulls have with their families. Even the designation of pit bull is misunderstood and controversial. Dickey uncovers several studies that ask experts in dogs and dog breeding to declare the mix of breeds present in a variety of “mutts.” DNA tests of the dogs then prove that the experts are wrong in a majority of their opinions. So the designation of a shelter dog as “a pit bull mix” is often just a meaningless assumption with serious consequences.

Whether it is police officers in perceived danger or shelter workers overrun with “pit bull mixes,” humans can be deadly to pit bulls. Much more so than the reverse. Dickey also looks at studies of deadly encounters between dogs and humans and finds the incidence of pit bull attacks far less common than many other breeds.

But the fact that dogs of all kinds can and do occasionally kill humans does make us afraid—sometimes irrationally. Dickey’s look at the hysteria around the “spitz” dog in the late 1800s and the “treacherous” German-identified dachshund in the World War I era are especially instructive, if not completely ridiculous and entirely anti-scientific.

Pit Bull does not shy away from the awful, violent history of our relationship with the breed. Her depictions of the fighting dens in the taverns of the Five Points neighborhood of New York are revealing: “According to one intrepid reporter there was just enough space for an audience of ‘250 decent people or 400 indecent ones.’ Another writer characterized the crowd as a ‘brutal, villainous-looking set…They are more inhuman in appearance than the dogs.’” Dickey sees the issue as much more of a humanspecific problem than it is a breed-specific problem.

Dog fighting continued on into the Michael Vickera (and surely still exists in small pockets today), and the terrible images of pit bulls as tireless fighting machines incapable of feeling pain created the public imagination of a modern monster. As is always the case in America, race becomes a real factor. In the 1980s and 90s, pit bulls become identified with black culture—especially low-income and gang culture—and the fears become conflated. Dickey’s writing on race and pit bulls is the book’s most compelling reading, and includes an epilogue on the role of dogs in the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri uprising in response to the killing of Michael Brown.

I suppose it will be surprising to some to discover what a literary book Pit Bull is. A book about dogs includes quotes from and references to: Franz Kafka, Richard Wright, Charles Darwin, Descartes, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Jung, Chimamanda Adiche, Nietzsche, and James Baldwin, among many others. Bronwen Dickey is the daughter of the poet and novelist James Dickey—the author of Deliverance (a recent interview with Terri Gross on NPRs “Fresh Air” tilted voyeuristically into a relentless discussion of Bronwen’s relationship to her father and nearly ignored the brilliance of Bronwen’s own work)—and she writes for the great southern literary magazine the Oxford American.

In an email, Dickey revealed her reasons for writing Pit Bull: “Because dogs are so intimately woven into the fabric of our lives, the subject of pit bulls allowed me to explore lots of other topics I was interested in, such as scientific skepticism, cognitive psychology, risk assessment, media sensationalism, and human prejudice.” All of these issues continue to play out even as she tours behind this book’s publication.

Bronwen Dickey has been appearing throughout the south (and will appear at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro on Friday, August 19), and has met some problems along the way. Disruptions of her events have occurred as anti-pit bull demonstrators have tried to shout down Dickey’s reasoned discussion of pit bulls and America. It’s easy to imagine an addendum to the paperback that continues to explore the strange behavior of humans around pit bulls. !

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