Some of our favorite excerpts from Bronwen Dickey's "Pit Bull: Battle Over an American Icon"
"In the 1970's everything went terribly wrong. The crime of dog fighting exploded in the headlines, and the well-intentioned, well publicized crusade to stamp out a barbaric form of animal torture unwittingly made it more popular. Once the reporters and misinformed activists cast the dogs as willing participants in their own abuse, pit bulls were exiled to the most turbulent margins of society, where a cycle of poverty, violence, fear and desperation had already created a booming market for aggressive dogs."
"Dogs have evolved to understand us better over the millennia, but in modern pet culture we appear doomed to understand them less."
"In late August 1974, Duncan Wright, executive director of the American Dog Owners Association (and a very vocal animal activist, former physicist and Great Pyrenees breeder) told The New York Times reporter, Wayne King, that the main fighting hubs were Chicago, Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Oklahoma... ten days later, he said the 'six major dog-fighting centers' were the New York City area, lower New England, Southern California, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania. When a local reporter checked with police, however, he couldn't find any evidence to substantiate that claim. By October, Wright claimed that Connecticut was a major concern, but the local humane society said that it had never received any complaints."
"In addition to speaking with Duncan Wright, Wayne King attended a dogfight in Chicago. His two primary contacts were the longtime fighters Pat Bodzianowski and Sonny Sykes, who told King that they tied up kittens in burlap sacks and allowed their dogs to attack them and that they punished losing dogs with ice picks to the chest. According to Jack Kelly, who knew both men, "Mr. King asked them so many foolish questions about the dogs that Pat and Sonny decided to have some fun with him. They regaled him with blood curdling stories about the dogs, stories that both Pat and Sonny knew were too ridiculous to be believed.""
"If Bodzianowski and Sykes intended to shock King with their callous bravado, they did an excellent job of it. In turn, they shocked millions of American newspaper readers, who didn't need much convincing that fighters were sadists who had to be stopped. Animal activists then repeated their worst fears as though they were facts. Building on a theme of frenzy, Wright told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune that a fighting pit bull "kills one hundred dogs and cats during training." Frank McMahon, then director of field services and investigations for HSUS, said that each dog was trained on "kittens or smaller dogs, and it's not uncommon for the animals to be splashed with blood to excite their instincts to attack and kill." Roger Caras, also from HSUS, repeated this terrifying detail on the Today show. Nowhere in the underground fighting literature, in which training regimes are painstakingly detailed, are these practices ever mentioned."
"Despite its shaky foundations in reality, the story about "live bait" morphed into one of the most notorious urban legends about pit bulls, the legend of the "bait dog". Chris Schindler, the current head of animal-fighting investigations for HSUS - who oversees eighty-plus investigations a year - explained to me that this idea is mostly a myth. If 'bait dogs' exist today, he said, it is only because media outlets have repeatedly published incorrect and outlandish stories, which then inspired the actions of disturbed individuals – who were not involved in professional dog fighting."
""Fighters want a dog to build confidence, and they want him to get his butt kicked a little bit so that he's going to have to fight through that," Schindler told me. "They don't want to let him hurt some dog that couldn't really properly fight back. That doesn't teach the dog anything." The dogs train up, the same way human boxers spar with experienced trainers, not the other way around. Terry Mills, director of the ASPCA's Blood Sports Field Investigations and Response Team, who attended more than eighty dogfights when he posed as a professional dog fighter for eighteen months of undercover work that resulted in the arrests of 103 people in eight states, also denied that 'bait dogs' were ever used."
"Schindler and his colleague Janettte Reever said that if there was one term that they wished both activists and the media would stop using, it's 'bait dog'. It divides the world of pit bulls into aggressors and victims, which is both inaccurate and untrue. Most are neither. Assumptions made about an animal's history can also determine how it is housed and handled and whether or not it is given a chance at adoption. Certain shelters will not allow dogs with scars to be adopted, for example, based on the mistaken assumption that all scars come from fighting. Some dogs assumed to be 'bait dogs' may also be suffering from other types of severe injuries that require much different treatment. (In Chicago, I encountered a suspected 'bait dog' that had in fact been hit by a car. Had a medical team not recognized this and attended to his internal bleeding, he likely would have died.) The focus on 'bait dogs' originally functioned as a well-intended means of generating sympathy for victims of cruelty, but it now perpetuates the stereotype that all pit bulls come from fighting backgrounds, when in reality only a tiny fraction of them do."
"Despite being able to find out more about the world than at any other point in human history, the American media have unfortunately let down their guard when it comes to scientific skepticism."
"Once misinformation takes hold, actual facts can do very little to dislodge a false belief."
"This is the social and psychological vortex that pit bulls were sucked into. The definition of 'pit bull' continually expanded to include more dogs, and the nonsensical claims in the media were never borne out by science, but no amount of evidence could dislodge the emotionally gripping idea that underneath there was just something unnatural about these dogs, that somehow the otherwise virtuous American dog population had been tainted by impure pit bull blood. The dogs were then linked to a much-feared social group, which would sweep them into a human drama of proxy and projection. The eradication of these animals then became, for some, a moral imperative."
"While activists took sides and launched verbal missiles at each other in the press, while shelters and animal controls fretted over the so-called pit bull problem, while breeders debated what counted as a pit bull and whether or not pit bulls have "breed traits," all the people in this line (referring to 100s of Philadelphia residents waiting upwards of five hours in the cold to get their dogs rabies shots or sign up for spay/neuter) had been peacefully living their lives with their companions (of all breeds, including pit bulls), oblivious to the madness going on around them. It could not have been more clear to me that what I had gleaned hints of all along was in fact true: The dogs moved out of the darkness a hundred years ago. We are the ones who are stuck there.
If I felt any tightness in my chest that day, it arose when I looked at all the children. They were as yet completely unaware of the battles raging over pit bulls in boardrooms, courtrooms, and city halls. They took such luminous pride in their pets, and clung to them as though hanging on for dear life. Would they eventually be told by people who did not know them that there was something ugly and flawed and the dogs they grew up with – dogs they loved, the dogs that made them feel safe? Would they be scrutinized as possible criminals and treated with suspicion? I did not want that for them. I did not want that for anybody."