On (Loving) Pit Bulls

July 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Nathan Scott Phillips-Menning

Nathan Scott Phillips-Menning, terrifying Pit Bull

Yesterday Tom Junod at Esquire published a long, thoughtful, and at moments utterly heartbreaking article about pit bulls in America. As he explains, pit bulls –a category that includes pit bull mixes– are ubiquitous nationwide, not just in the inner cities but also, increasingly, in suburban areas. One would think that this would translate to greater acceptance of the breed (or perhaps more accurately, the classification, as pit bulls aren’t really a breed as much as a mix of common traits), but nope, not so much. As he writes:

We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

This is an interesting, and ultimately disturbing, idea — especially within the context of so-called “post-race” America, where demographic shifts towards diversity have simultaneously given rise to Tea Party-flavored xenophobia and racism. With pit bulls, this is just what our dogs look like now — but that hasn’t helped, at least within more conservative circles. Pit bulls are still the bad kids on the block, the ones that landlords won’t abide and city councils won’t abide and which some entire states won’t abide.

Having laid the underlying political stakes of the conversation, Junod then describes his experiences with his first pitt bull, a rescue named Carson:

Now, any dog that comes as a rescue comes with its own apocrypha. Nobody knows his past, so a past is ascribed to him. But when we met Carson, his past as a “bait dog”—a nonfighting dog whom fighting dogs gnaw on as a prelude to combat—was inscribed on his body. He had broken teeth. He had filigrees of scarring around his eyes. He had broad hairless patches of scarring around his neck that revealed his pale porcine skin. He had a ten-inch burn down his back that people often mistook for raised hackles. And yet he managed to strike a comic figure instead of a tragic one—that was his glimmer. He had one ear up and one ear down, protuberant green eyes, a panting grin that wrinkled his cheeks, and an air of insistence and optimism that was never anything less than ridiculous given his circumstances.

Minus the description of physical trauma, Junod’s description of Carson reminds me of Nathan, the pit bull mix I have lived with since last year. Nathan is what you might call a rambunctious sweetheart (a “happy handful” is what one of our NYC vet tech’s called him), and approaches every task, walk, and glance out the window as the defining moment of his life. He will stop in the middle of one of our runs and just…look around, because wow, did you ever notice those trees before?? Most of the time the answer is no, I haven’t noticed what Nathan is noticing, despite the fact that I’ve run whatever route a thousand times before and would assume I’d seen all there was to see. But not according to Nathan, for whom every experience is something to savor.

Of course, we’re still talking about pit bulls; people would panic when they saw Carson, and panic when they see Nathan, apparently expecting each smiling cartoon gargoyle to spontaneously lockjaw on their ankles or initiate their children into a gang. “And that is the heart of the matter when you own a pit bull,” Junod writes, “The language of institutional animosity toward your dog—the language of breed bans and insurance restrictions—takes great pains to declare that your dog is not like other dogs but rather something less and at the same time something more: something Other.”

Junod admits that there was something different about Carson. He was always happy. He was a broken dog overjoyed to go for walks and sit on his parents’ laps and be alive, despite everything. For anyone who has been friends with a pit pull –particularly one that has been treated well– they’d tell you the same basic thing. Nathan, who has by the grace of [insert deity] experienced a sum total of zero physical or emotional trauma, takes his sweetness to the extreme. We have never once seen him bare his teeth, let alone try to bite anyone, even as another dog was chomping down on his ear. This isn’t how it always goes, of course; the most people-friendly, tail-waggingest of pit bulls can respond aggressively to other dogs, sometimes due to past trauma and sometimes due to general dog aggression. And when this happens, the results can be horrific, as Junod recounts from his own experiences with Carter and latest pit bull Dexter. There is no question that dogs –all dogs, including pit bulls– can be very dangerous to other dogs and to people, especially when those dogs’ human guardians have behaved inhumanely.

But this idea, that there is nothing inherently dangerous about pit bulls (at least no more so than with any other large dog breed), doesn’t line up with the common wisdom, to the extent that it can even be referred to as wisdom, about pits (or half-pits, or quarter-pits, or one-drop pits). Certain people are terrified, regardless of how much assurance the human might give, regardless of how big and how goofy the dog in question’s grin might be, regardless of how patiently the dog might be sitting. People are scared because they’re pit bulls, a designation that carries with it more than a small amount of classist and/or racist sentiment — not just directed towards the people who choose to live with pit bulls, but towards the animals themselves. “The opposition to pit bulls might not be racist,” Junod writes. “It does, however, employ racial thinking. If a pit-bull-Labrador mix bites, then the pit bull is always what has done the biting, its portion of the blood—its taint—ineradicable and finally decisive.”

There is, in other words, a whole lot of subtle and not-so-subtle stuff happening in that initial -often awkward- introductory moment when a pit bull parent passes another person on the sidewalk. It is a simultaneously defensive and hopeful moment — at least for those of us who love pit bulls, and wish other people would give them the same basic chance.

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