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Pondering Pit Bulls

Nanny Dogs or Bullies?


My favorite line in one of my favorite novels, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (much better than the movie, by the way): “Life isn’t fair.” The example that comes to mind at the moment: the American pit bull dog. (Stay with me on this.)

Back in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina put most of Louisiana under water, I ended up in Baton Rouge, volunteering at an emergency shelter for the thousands of animals displaced by the storm. There I met a woman named Hilary, who had come to help however she could. For her, that meant greeting people at the front gates — because Hilary, despite her devotion to animals, was too terrified of pit bulls to go back to the kennels where she might actually encounter one.

Lee Heller

Hilary had never had a bad experience with a pit; she’d never had any experience with a pit. She is highly educated, an author, and an activist. Yet the zeitgeist had created in her an irrational fear. She’s not alone, either. I’ve had potential adopters of my foster puppies ask anxiously, “There isn’t any chance they might have some pit bull in them, is there?” It doesn’t matter that my own pit mix is sitting in their laps at the time, wearing his Therapy Dog tag. The Myth of the Vicious Pit Bull supersedes the evidence of their senses.

On the other side of this are the Father Flanagans of animal rescue, who believe that there is no such thing as a bad pit. These folks will point out that pits are very human-oriented and often known as “nanny dogs” for their submissive affection to children. True that. But by insisting on those traits only, they refuse to accept the complexity of the breed or the problem of their over-representation in our shelters. They will protest if it is pointed out that pit bulls are terriers, bred to burrow and kill — a trait requiring high drive and perseverance, to stay in that hole until you’ve nailed the badger. They ignore the fact that the very name “pit bull” refers to the pits used for dog fights, and to the “bully breed” characteristics of incredible strength and a willingness to stick it out to the death — theirs or the other dog’s.

Samantha, longtime resident of the shelter, highly adoptable yet repeatedly passed over because - well, because she's a pit bull.
Click to enlarge photo

Samantha, longtime resident of the shelter, highly adoptable yet repeatedly passed over because - well, because she’s a pit bull.

The truth is that pit bulls are victims of racial profiling and that many individuals of the breed are loving, friendly, trustworthy. But it’s also true that some pits, especially those that are bred for fierceness, or are mishandled and undersocialized, pose a threat to other animals and even to human beings. All of which leads to a painful, unfair fact: Our shelters are full of pit bulls. As of this writing, 34 of the 70 or so dogs at the Santa Barbara County Animal Services shelter in Goleta, where I am a volunteer, are pits or pit mixes. What do you do when you have so many dogs of a breed type that, justly or not, most people do not want?

Oh, you can try to educate people — tell them how great the breed is, how misinformed they are. It’s a pretty rare person who will then say, “Oh, of course, I’ve been a dupe of media hype — I’ll gladly adopt that large, strong dog that I’ve been conditioned to fear.” Instead, they walk around our kennels, see the predominance of a breed they don’t want, and leave, saying (not accurately, but nonetheless), “Oh, all you have are pits.” That’s a losing outcome for the shelter, and for the dogs who need to get out of our overcrowded cages and into homes.

Under the stress of an unnatural life in a cage, a few do develop aggression. Everytime our shelter euthanizes one of these dogs, there is an understandable outcry from volunteers who have come to know and love the dog. But when a pit bull repeatedly fights with other dogs or demonstrates signs of aggression to people — well, do you want that dog living next to you, or on your street? That’s the litmus test that most of us apply, as we try to walk the line between saving dogs and keeping the community safe.

Here’s the real bottom line, for pit bulls and for our community as a whole: Life is not fair. In a just world, the owners of neglected or abandoned dogs would be the ones forced to live in crowded cages. Pit bulls are disproportionately the victims of an unjust reality, no doubt. But until we have unlimited money for animal sanctuaries, or a cultural change in which pits become the golden retrievers of dog popularity, it’s the reality we have.

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