When Bronwen Dickey brought her new dog home, she saw no traces of the infamous viciousness in her affectionate, timid pit bull. Read more...
When Bronwen Dickey brought her new dog home, she saw no traces of the infamous viciousness in her affectionate, timid pit bull. Which made her wonder: How had the breed--beloved by Teddy Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and Hollywood's -Little Rascals---come to be known as a brutal fighter?
Her search for answers takes her from nineteenth-century New York City dogfighting pits--the cruelty of which drew the attention of the recently formed ASPCA--to early twentieth‑century movie sets, where pit bulls cavorted with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton; from the battlefields of Gettysburg and the Marne, where pit bulls earned presidential recognition, to desolate urban neighborhoods where the dogs were loved, prized--and sometimes brutalized.
Whether through love or fear, hatred or devotion, humans are bound to the history of the pit bull. With unfailing thoughtfulness, compassion, and a firm grasp of scientific fact, Dickey offers us a clear-eyed portrait of this extraordinary breed, and an insightful view of Americans' relationship with their dogs.
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A dogged defense
Pit bulls used to be beloved family pets, movie stars and even war heroes. But over time, the dogs that had been America’s darlings developed a bad reputation. If you think that’s as it should be because pit bulls are bred to fight, or because their jaws exert more pressure than other dogs, or because they have aggressive temperaments, think again. Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon traces the breed’s current pariah status to some shameful and familiar sources.
Author Bronwen Dickey looks at pits throughout history. Their eagerness to learn made them ideal for acting roles, and they were brave companions to Civil War regiments. There’s no statistical support for the notion that pits harm more people than any other breed of dog, and they don’t actually have magical vise-grip jaws (a “fact” not supported by any real evidence). Media hysteria and scapegoating of the urban poor combined to make the pit bull an easy target. In fact, overblown reporting on the dog-fighting phenomenon not only led to an increase in this cruel sport but also gave the activity additional street cred.
Dickey, a contributing editor at the Oxford American, repeatedly draws parallels between treatment of poor and disenfranchised humans and their dogs, and it’s damning testimony. Animal advocates take pets away from owners they’ve deemed “unfit” when what the owners really need is access to services that many others take for granted. Breed-specific legislation has yet to lead to a decrease in dog bites, but it’s still widely supported. If you’re bitten by a poodle it’s unlikely to be news, but a pit bull “attack” still sells papers in much the same way shark attacks do (one paper called pits “sharks on paws”). As one observer tells Dickey, “As long as there are different classes of people, there will be different classes of dogs.”
With Dickey’s thorough reporting on a provocative topic, Pit Bull shows how the human need for something to blame can put innocent victims in the crosshairs.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our interview with Dickey about Pit Bull.