In 2014, while playing near his house in Phoenix, Arizona, four-year-old Kevin Vicente was savagely attacked by a pit bull named Mickey. But when the authorities sought to put the dog down, public opinion swung behind the dog, not the boy.
The incident illustrated the bitter divide in perceptions of pit bulls—as Bronwen Dickey, author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, has discovered to her own cost. By attempting to show that negative views about pit bulls have often been shaped by misunderstandings of the breed and its history, she has unwittingly become a heroine for the pro-pit bull community and the target of threats and harassment from those who see her as an apologist for a vicious animal. Her bookstore appearances now require security, and her home has been equipped with surveillance cameras.
When we caught up with the author by phone, she explained how her own pit bull, Nola, confounded her fears of the breed; how the story of the pit bull is deeply interwoven with the history of the United States; and how a foundation in upstate New York is trying to restore the reputation of this most polarizing breed. [Travel to the Chinese festival where dogs are on the menu.]
From 2005 to 2015, pit bulls killed 232 Americans, about one citizen every 17 days. They are banned in the United Kingdom and several other countries. Shouldn’t they be banned here?
No. The first thing I did when I was consulting this book is reach out to the experts in the animal sciences to talk about what’s going on with these incidents and how best to prevent them. Fatalities are incredibly rare. In the U.S., we have 320 million people and between 77 and 83 million dogs. So your chance of being killed by any type of dog in the U.S. in any given year is one in 10 million.
People who have studied these cases, like Jeffrey Sacks at the CDC, have shown that when it comes to fatalities caused by pit bulls, the breed identifications are often not accurate. The title “pit bull” has expanded so dramatically over the years that people are lumping any dog with a large head and short coat into that category rather than separating out each of the pit bull breeds.
So you are disputing the statistic?
I am. A study on fatalities between 2000-2009 in the journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that in over 80 percent of those cases there were four or more significant factors related to the care and control of the dog. These were dogs that had not been socialized; were large and sexually intact; and had no relationship to the person who was killed. In other words, perfect storm of factor upon factor.
I have to confess: I have never met a nice pit bull. They are the only breed I avoid when walking my Dalmatian. It is an inherently aggressive breed, isn’t it?
[Laughs] I guess it’s dueling anecdotes. But, first of all, it’s not one breed, it’s four. There’s the American pit bull terrier; the American Staffordshire terrier, which was the American Kennel Club conformation breed that branched off from the American pit bull terrier when folks wanted AKC legitimacy and didn’t want to be associated with the American pit bull terrier riff-raff. There’s the Staffordshire bull terrier, which has been a conformation breed since the 1930s; and the newer breed called the American bully, which was derived from the American Staffordshire terrier in the 1990s.
Secondly, there’s no science that bears that idea out. When people say, “Oh, these dogs are bred for fighting,” it’s true that the original breed, the American pit bull terrier, which originated in 1889, was developed for fighting. But the three other breeds that are lumped into this category have always been dog show conformation breeds. They don’t have that heritage. The fact that they get lumped in is part of the problem because we’re basing things on what they look like and not necessarily what they are. [Meet the United States' most popular dog breeds.]
You tell us that pit bulls used to be among America’s favorite breeds—Petey, the famous dog who was part of Our Gang/The Little Rascals was a pit. How did they go from mascot to monster?
It’s a long, involved story. The short version is: The dogs were really popular during WWI and the Depression, when there was this nostalgic feeling around the average blue collar working Joe. That’s always been the demographic the dogs were most popular with. They were seen as all-American: no fuss, no frills, everyday dogs. In the 1950s, with the consumer boom after WWII, there was a huge push toward kennel club breeds and the pit bull fell by the wayside.
But in the 1970s, there was this well-intentioned move by the humane movement to stamp out what was left of illegal dog fighting. In order to do that, they partnered with the media to put dog fighting on the front page of every newspaper in America. In doing so, they encouraged wild speculations about these dogs that were not based in science or historical fact—things like they have 5,000 pounds of jaw pressure. And the more terrified everyone became, the more people who probably should not have had these dogs, wanted them.
Tell us about your own experiences with pit bulls. Have you owned them? Would you trust them around your children?
I grew up in the 1980s, and I was always terrified of them. It wasn’t until I started to meet some that I began to question those assumptions. My own pit bull is called Nola. She is seven and is extremely affectionate, wonderful, and smart. I always hesitate to invoke that example because the fact that mine is wonderful doesn’t negate the fact that there are really nasty dogs out there! [Laughs] You can’t make broad generalizations. I have met everything from the most scary and unstable pit bull to the most bombproof and mellow. It’s such an individual thing.
Mickey the pit bull nearly killed a child but ended up in a cushy, air-conditioned cell while the boy could not find funds for medical surgery. Aren’t we in danger of treating animals better than human beings?
Yeah, if we aren’t careful we are. That was one of the things that troubled me. It was a major media spectacle. Kevin Vicente was severely bitten. He was temporarily blinded in one eye and his jaw was broken. Everyone thought the dog would be euthanized. Instead, there was this social movement, with thousands of people signing petitions to save the dog and sending in donations, while the fund for the boy’s treatment hardly gained any donations.
Today, Mickey is living in an air-conditioned cell in an Arizona jail with a thousand-dollar webcam so people can see what he’s doing. Thank goodness, after the attention the case received, the Vicente family has had more donations. This is a child who really suffered, his family suffered, and that deserves an incredible amount of compassion. But once a dog becomes a symbol like that, people can act in ways that are not rational.
You use the term “battlefield mentality” when discussing the number of dogs shot by police. Unpack this problem for us, as police in America today seem to be shooting more than just innocent dogs.
There’s a great book about this by Radley Balko called, The Rise of the Warrior Cop. We don’t know the exact figures, because no one’s required to keep a comprehensive list of dog shootings, but we can probably guess there are thousands every year. It seems to be shoot first, ask questions later. There have been police who shot and killed dogs at the wrong house or killed dogs who were just going about their business.
It mostly comes from fear. Obviously, the police have a very difficult job. But the trigger-happy mentality is pretty bad. There was a case in Idaho recently where a policeman shot a dog in a car because it barked at him. The officer claimed that he was shooting a vicious pit bull. In fact, the dog was a registered black Labrador.
Is dog fighting still a serious problem?
Dog fighting is a serious problem, but all the cruelty investigators I consulted said that it is decreasing. It happens both in the country and city. There is professional dog fighting, which has traditionally been white and rural. Then you have urban dog fighting, which is more a one-off, “I want to see if my dog can beat your dog.” Both are forms of torture and need to be eradicated.
It takes place mostly in Louisiana and Texas, though there was a major bust in Missouri a while back. It’s getting a lot smaller because technology is allowing cruelty investigators to be very savvy about catching these guys. That’s a good thing because the more it’s pushed out the better.
You visited a place called Animal Farm Foundation. Tell us about this rescue operation and a dog called Pinto.
Animal Farm Foundation was founded by a now retired literary agent named Jane Barkley, who lives on a horse farm in upstate New York and wanted to restore the reputation of the American pit bull terrier as a mascot. She wanted to give shelter dogs a chance that they were not receiving in most shelters in America. When she started, most shelters in the U.S. denied pit bulls without giving them the chance at adoption.
One of the things they do when you stay at the farm is to have a shelter dog be your roommate, so the dogs can get used to a family environment and they can get more information about how the dog behaves in that environment. Pinto had been in an animal control facility, fairly isolated for the first six months of his life. Yet he was a perfectly normal, fun, happy little dog. This stressed to me how resilient animals are, in general. Not just pit bulls but dogs as a species.
What do you love about pit bulls, Bronwen? And what advice would you give to our readers if they are thinking of owning one?
What I love about pit bulls are the same things I love about dogs. I know that sounds odd because I spent all this time writing a book specifically about pit bulls, but I really did come to appreciate that all dogs are the same species. They all share more than 99.8 percent of their DNA.
The story of the pit bull is fascinating because it is such an American story. Whether you love or hate them, they’ve been a huge part of who we are from the Battle of Gettysburg onward. There have been many highs and lows, they have come through so much, and they are still with us. They will always be a powerful symbol.
For people who are thinking of getting a pit bull, I would say, focus on the individual dog in front of you. I wouldn’t say get a dog just because it’s a pit bull, just as I wouldn’t reject a dog out of hand just because it’s a pit bull. Find the dog that is right for you and works for your lifestyle. Be aware, you may face some issues with housing and insurance. Those problems are real, and they’ll take a while to solve. But, by focusing on the dog in front of you, you will make the best choice.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.