When my girlfriend and I adopted Moe, our gray and white forty-five-pound pit bull from Chicago’s public animal shelter, the first call I made was to my mother, lover of all dogs. She told me how she couldn’t wait to meet him, asked if we had all the supplies we needed, and offered one piece of advice: “Don’t get too close to his face. You have to be careful with pit bulls.” Later that week, a friend praised us for choosing a dog with such a nasty reputation—because otherwise, he would have likely been euthanized—adding, “it’s all about how you raise them.”
We hadn’t chosen Moe because of his breed or his reputation. We chose him for reasons anyone might choose a pet: he was cute, he seemed to get along with us, and he needed a home. However, it soon became clear that nearly everyone feels strongly about pit bulls—no matter which side of the debate they’re on—and many are quick to offer their opinions on how (or whether) they should be kept as pets.
In Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, Bronwen Dickey masterfully traces the contentious history of these dogs and examines the varying narratives through a scientific lens. Dickey spent over seven years researching for the book, a process that took her through hundreds of interviews and scientific journal articles. And though she teaches us quite a bit about dogs, perhaps more important is what she teaches us about humans, the ways we latch onto beliefs, and the rhetoric we use to defend them.
I spoke with Dickey over the phone about how the book developed, how pit bulls became stand-in targets of racist and classist outrage, and the backlash she’s received from anti-pit bull advocates.
The Rumpus: When did the idea for this book come to you? You mention early on that you and your husband adopted a pit bull. Were you thinking of some of these questions before that?
Bronwen Dickey: Yes, I was thinking of some of the questions. At that point I did not anticipate that there would be a book somewhere down the line. I never thought I would write about dogs or pit bulls. I started researching stuff in 2008 on my own as a hobby or side interest, and then my husband and I adopted a pit bull in 2010 and I started getting more into the research but I still never anticipated that I would write about it. And then Sid Evans at Garden and Gun needed someone to write something for a column called “Good Dog,” and he asked me if I wanted to do it. At first I said no, because I just didn’t have any interest in that, and my understanding of what they write about in the column is like hunting dogs and that kind of thing, and why would anyone be interested in pit bulls?
But I did it, and it was kind of a short, fluffy personal essay about my dog, but when it was done I was like, “God I have so much actual research and it’s a shame that I’ve collected all this stuff. Where is that going to go? Wouldn’t it be great to dig into this stuff in a really sustained, rigorous way as a journalist?” So that’s kind of how that happened.
Rumpus: I can imagine feeling that way starting an essay like that. I’m sure I would start out writing about my dog in a very personal-essay kind of way.
Dickey: Exactly—when it’s yours it’s kind of fluffy, but it really made me want to look at the subject from a historical point of view, from a scientific point of view, from a social point of view, and really think about this phenomenon.
Rumpus: Based on what I read in the book, the widespread hatred or panic surrounding pit bulls really began with the supposed dog fighting “epidemic” in the 1970s. But it seems that time around, as opposed to the 19th century when some of that was happening, Americans made the dogs themselves out to be the villains rather than the owners who fought them. What do you think caused that shift?
Dickey: I think for one, the media culture had changed a lot, and then on into the 1980s it changed even more with the appearance of cable news. But even in the 1970s, the media culture was a lot different than it was in, say, 1870, when some of those dog fighting pits were being shuttered. But in the 1970s, that kind of media push invited a lot of speculation about the dogs from people who were not qualified to speak on scientific issues of behavior or biology or genetics. And that was really the most damaging thing. It also took the boasts of dog fighters as scientific fact. Just because a dog fighter who has a financial stake in abusing animals says “the dogs love to do it and I don’t have to force them at all,” doesn’t make that a scientifically valid statement, yet it was treated like one.
I think mostly it was a big shift in the media culture, but also the political objective was different. The humane movement was trying in a very well-intentioned way to pass a federal law that would give law enforcement the power to actually shut these operations down, and it would be hard to eradicate the crime without some kind of federal law. The problem was that people would vote for that law and politicians wouldn’t even attach their names to a bill unless their constituents felt that dog fighting would somehow impact them personally—to make it feel like “this is something that could happen to you,” or “maybe your dog might be stolen to be used in a dog fighting ring.” So it just snowballed into a lot of fear and wild speculation, and it got really out of control. And as I say in the book, the one problem in bringing in “consciousness raising campaigns” is that you can’t really control what happens after an issue is on the public radar. And with this one, the issue got on the public radar and everything really got out of hand.
Rumpus: You spend a lot of time discussing “moral panic,” the idea that a mass group of people is suddenly outraged or fearful about a certain phenomenon. Before the so-called outbreak of pit bull attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, had there ever been this level of hysteria that had to do with an animal, to your knowledge?
Dickey: There were definitely flares of panic around certain animals. There was a frenzy/panic about wolves on the American frontier, and that caused the wolf to be virtually extirpated in the lower forty-eight states for a long time before reintroduction programs helped those populations come back. But there were wolves being strung up in front of general stores, and the kind of delight that wolf hunters took in not only killing wolves but torturing them, skinning them, putting their heads up, that was really ugly. It was a tremendous free-for-all on an animal that represented, to a lot of people, the fear and danger of the wild in the West.
But even with dogs, in the 1870s there was this idea that the spitz, this tiny little fluffy lapdog, was somehow uniquely susceptible to rabies. So there was this big push to exterminate the spitz, which was ridiculous. But that was because, again, we didn’t have all the scientific knowledge that we have now. And it was kind of the same thing with pit bulls in the 1970s and 1980s, or with any kind of dog panic, when it focused on a certain group of dogs attacking humans, injuring humans, or even killing them. We didn’t have all the animal behavior science back then that helps us understand all the human-related factors that go into those interactions and those horrible tragedies.
So there were certainly moral panics about animals, but I think the fact that the domestic dog lives with us and becomes almost an extension of its person, kind of situated that panic to be more severe.
Rumpus: People make moral judgments about other people based on what they own, whether it be guns, or expensive cars, or whatever. But you note that many people make moral judgments about people who own pit bulls, using racialized language and calling them “thugs.” Was this something you expected to find so often when you began your research?
Dickey: I didn’t expect it to be as pronounced as it was. But even in the very beginning of the research, part of what I did was really just to ask anyone I knew what they thought about pit bulls. And even if it was a stranger, part of what I did was when I traveled around I would literally ask a server, “What do you think about pit bulls and why do you feel that way?” As well as paying attention to comment threads on articles about pit bulls and just trying to get a sense of where America’s head was on the pit bull issue. And the amount of times that something overtly racial came up really floored me—I mean truly astonished me. So many people would say, “Well, I’m not really sure how I feel about the dogs, but those people seem to be a problem,” “those people want them to be macho,” “those people get them and just abandon them,” “those people get them because they want to intimidate other people.” It was just this constant refrain about really overt, coded racial language. At one point—I think this is in the book—a pit bull ban was proposed in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and a resident of that town said, “We have enough inner-city people here; they don’t need to bring their pit bulls here.” And it became an overwhelming thing. We’ve had other dog panics before, but none was like this, and that really alerted me that there’s a lot we need to be talking about here. We can’t pretend this is just about animals.
Rumpus: I was surprised to see one particular instance of sexism, which I didn’t expect to come across in the book. You talk to a pit bull opponent named Tony Solesky who is discussing animal welfare advocates, and he says that it’s mostly a “Caucasian female thing” and that this is a problem because women’s “empathy and nurturing instincts debilitate their ability to be reasonable.” What was your reaction to that and did you experience more of that?
Dickey: There’s a lot of that in the anti-pit bull world. I always want to be careful because there are some people in that world who have legitimately been harmed by other people’s dogs. So I don’t think they have any kind of ulterior motive. That gentleman’s son had almost been killed by a dog, so I truly understand why that horrible trauma caused him to feel the way he did. But in that movement, the tendency to justify things like bans that are not based in science sometimes causes people to scramble for this other rhetoric that’s really ugly and unfortunate, such as that.
But even that has a history. During the spitz panic of the 1870s, there was one physician who wrote in a medical journal that if women will have dogs instead of babies, then they should pay the price for that unnatural fancy.
Dickey: Yeah, like, “How dare you not be a baby machine? How dare you choose to have a dog instead of having child?” I saw a lot of derisive comments about how childless women or barren women or whatever are involved in animal welfare because they have nothing going for them. And it is true that most of animal welfare is female, but the derisive comments were pretty hard to handle.
Rumpus: It makes me think of the stereotypes surrounding the so-called “crazy cat lady” who is widowed or doesn’t have any kids but she has all these cats, and people make judgments about those women.
Dickey: And there’s so much there. I mean, the way we perceive other people’s relationships with animals is really interesting. It’s a really interesting lens to see things through because we make judgments about other people and animals all the time and we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
Rumpus: The line that stood out to me the most is in a chapter called “The Sleep of Reason.” You say, “Once misinformation takes hold, actual facts can do very little to dislodge a false belief.” I’m very intrigued by that, especially because it applies to many political and religious belief systems.
Dickey: Yeah, and if you’re interested I could send you tons of studies. That was one of the most fascinating parts of the research. I could’ve written six chapters just on that.
Rumpus: I would have read them.
Dickey: Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth has done some excellent stuff on this. The social science research shows that if someone has a strongly held belief, and you present them with a mountain of facts that proves them wrong, they don’t leave that conversation swayed. In fact, they leave that conversation entrenched even more in their beliefs because their self-esteem has been so badly threatened that they feel they need to protect themselves and defend the idea even more.
Which is why I tell people: don’t get into debates about this stuff, because you’re not going to change minds, you’re usually going to cause them to dig in more. Share information in a compassionate way if they’re interested, but don’t force people into a debate where they’re going to dig in their heels.
Rumpus: A lot of pit bull opponents didn’t respond to your interview requests, so I’m wondering if that idea, that maybe people don’t want to know facts, contributed to that?
Dickey: I think so. I think people want to have their strongly held beliefs validated for them. And you look at how social media creates echo chambers that do just that. You don’t have to read the entire newspaper anymore. You can have people who think the same way you do, and basically curate all the news you’re getting in this very myopic way, and that reinforces self-esteem for people.
And not to mention that outrage spreads so fast on social media, and it spreads faster than any other kind of emotion. So if you feel strongly that these dogs are biological mutants, and that group does feel that way, and a book comes out that pretty systematically refutes that, that’s going to be highly threatening to your identity around that issue.
Rumpus: You said the book systematically refutes these narratives about pit bulls being overly aggressive killers, but is it safe to say that as a journalist you didn’t start writing this book to advocate for pit bulls?
Dickey: Oh, I definitely did not. I love mine, but in terms of scientific rigor, just because my dog happens to be great doesn’t mean that, say, Tony Solesky’s son was not almost killed by a dog. The existence of my nice dog doesn’t negate the fact that there are dogs out there that have hurt and killed people. But what was most convincing for me, even early on, was that people in the sciences were saying this is not accurate, this is not true, and we really need to revisit this. The consensus in the animal sciences was so overwhelming, and yet the media—and I always hesitate to portray the media as a monolith, because without people to give them those sound bytes, they would have no stories.
I certainly didn’t start the book wanting to put a rosy glow on pit bulls or advocate that everyone should go out and get one, or that they’re better or smarter or cuddlier or more affectionate. And there are lots of myths from advocacy that are very much along those lines. There are people who will tell you they’re not more likely to bite, they’re less likely to bite. There’s no science to bear that out. Or that they’re somehow more resilient or more tolerant, and I don’t think that stuff is helpful. I don’t think the antidote to negative bullshit is positive bullshit. Both are still bullshit. So I really wanted, for my own curiosity, to unpack all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But where I ended up, as you saw, is really neutral, that we make everything a breed issue because of this branding culture of breed that doesn’t even apply to the world of dogs we live in. We live in a pet dog culture, yet the branding of breeds has made us believe that every single dog out there has this very concrete set of traits because someone 150 years ago decided that’s what the dog was going to be for.
But American dachshunds are not bred to hunt badgers. That’s ridiculous. Rhodesian ridgebacks in America are not bred to bay lions.
Rumpus: And early on in the book you talk about how, even though pit bulls were originally bred to fight, there’s this idea that if one generation is pureblooded and has certain genetic traits, the moment that dog mates with another type of dog, half that genetic material is lost, and the same goes for the next generation and the next. So now, 200 years later, how are we supposed to attribute those same genetic traits to today’s dogs?
Dickey: Yeah, it’s insane. And yes, there are still a small number of American pit bull terriers that are used in that way, and they are selected for that purpose, but it’s such a tiny number. And you can’t possibly extrapolate to all the dogs we call pit bulls from that tiny number. Not to mention, other dogs have that heritage. The boxer was originally a fighting dog. The shar pei was once known as the Chinese fighting dog. And let’s not forget the breeds that were specifically developed to go after people. The German shepherd has never been a herding dog. That’s absurd. From 1899, when it was developed until now—well, now most German shepherds in America are just for confirmation and show—but the ones that were working were always developed to go after people. So how is a thirty-five pound dog that was selected, isolated, and trained to go after other dogs, how do we isolate that out and say they deserve to be either eradicated or subject to all these special laws when we have dogs that were bred for all kinds of things that we’re not too proud of?
Evolution is an ongoing process, and we always forget that, especially with dogs. We have this very Victorian mindset about dogs being like widgets on an assembly line. They’re not clones, and there are all kinds of breeders making all kinds of choices around the world, and only a tiny number of them are involved in anything awful. That doesn’t mean you can’t have pit bulls that are simply mentally unstable or anything else, but you have those in other breeds, too. So we have to look at the human factors that are contributing to the really negative incidents that are affecting public health.
Rumpus: I’ve read a number of reviews of the book, and I’ve seen quite a bit of comments from anti-pit bull advocates.
Dickey: Don’t read the comments!
Rumpus: I know, I shouldn’t. I’m sure you’re aware of those, but have you received other backlash in response to the book? Did you expect that?
Dickey: I expected some of it because I know how motivated the people are who really hate and fear the dogs. I knew they were a very, very small group, but I knew they were highly motivated and spent a lot of time online. If you go to any pit bull story on the Internet, you will see the same group of names, and many of them have various aliases that they use to give the impression that there are more of them than there are.
I knew I would get some of that, but I did not expect that it would be as sustained or as personal as it was. I had people making jokes about my deceased father. I had people posting photos of my home online. At one reading, there was a guy who was so disruptive that the owners of the bookstore had to call the police.
Rumpus: I read about that.
Dickey: He did not physically threaten me or anything, but he kept hammering on these points and he wouldn’t just let it drop, and then he kind of positioned himself outside the entrance of the store and was handing out flyers and saying I’m a fraud. He was making a spectacle. So I didn’t expect that kind of thing—and it’s exhausting to deal with as a journalist—but at the end of the day, these people are working extraordinarily hard to discredit themselves and to kind of prove the central thesis of the book right, that we’re not talking about animals, we’re talking about culture wars between groups of humans, and the animals have just gotten dragged into that.
Rumpus: We talked about how people are afraid of facts, and that facts aren’t going to make them think otherwise, so I’m wondering if there’s an antidote to these people doing this, or if as the book becomes four, five, six years old, they’ll just sort of let it go.
Dickey: Probably. It’s really outrage theater at this point. They tend to fixate on various figures, whoever is on their radar at any moment. But it’s clear to me that someone making personal attacks about me and my family and acting in a menacing and threatening way, they aren’t interested in public safety. They aren’t interesting in solving problems or creating policies that keep all of us safe and create more humane communities to live in. They are interested in the outrage theater of the comments section, and they’re going to continue to do that as long as other people engage them. The only way to win that game, for me, is not to play. And I refuse. I refuse to address any of that directly because one, I don’t want to dignify it. But two, the more you address it, the more it continues. They live on attention and they live on the stimulation of the Internet fight. And I refuse to give that to them.
Rumpus: I really appreciate you talking to me about all this. Before I read the book, I didn’t pretend to know much about the history behind the pit bull debate, but I was interested because I have a pit bull myself. Of course, we don’t really know what he is, but he has that quintessential look—the image most people think of when they hear “pit bull.”
Dickey: It’s like that line from Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” Whatever your dog is, he will be reacted to as though he’s a pit bull. And the policies that you’re subjected to and the real circumstances of your life can be affected just by the way he looks and people interpreting it that way. So the lived experience of pit bull is there with you all the time.
Author photograph © Rebecca Necessary.