BOOK REVIEW – PIT BULL: THE BATTLE OVER AN AMERICAN ICON, BY BRONWEN DICKEY (2016)

Imagine a future where pets are outlawed. Maybe it’s because of some improbable new pandemic. Or maybe it’s because of an upgrade to their personhood–suddenly cats and dogs count as “people” and keeping them as property is seen as a violation of their civil rights. These scenarios and others like them are explored in Unpawful, an episode of one of my favourite podcasts of all time, Rose Eveleth’s Flash Forward. Flash Forward looks at likely and not-so-likely futures–what they’d be like, and what would lead to them. The Unpawful episode aired almost exactly a year ago but it’s stayed with me, because I am foolishly devoted to my cat Ella and I often imagine what I would do if the British government asked me to give her up. Because, I don’t know, she’s too fluffy or something. I would probably just leave the country, and take Ella with me. Or would I stay, hide her, and join some kind of weird cat-lovers’ underground resistance network?

These are mostly just the silly musings of a sci-fi aficionado, but, over the last few days, I have learned that, throughout history, authorities have often forced people to give up their pets. In twelfth-century England, King Henry II ordered that commoners give up their mastiffs to be killed or maimed, both to deter poaching in the royal forests (mastiffs were used to catch large game) and as a form of psychological intimidation. In 1859, the South Carolina legislature banned slaves from keeping dogs. And, between the 1980s and early 2000s, a number of European countries, the Canadian province of Ontario, and more than 850 US communities, including the cities of Denver and Miami, made it extremely difficult to keep pit bulls, some even banning them outright, because of their perceived predisposition to violence. In Denver, animal control forcibly seized thousands of pit bulls following the 1989 ban, and some pit bull owners were made to give up their dogs at gunpoint.

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 15.30.16These decades of canine dystopia are explored in fascinating and sometimes heartbreaking detail in Bronwen Dickey’s Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. Like all good non-fiction, this book is comprehensive, clearly written, rigorously researched, and rich in the sorts of stories that make you want to stop reading for a second so you can pass them on to whoever’s around you, be they your knitting spouse or strangers on a train. Dickey traces the history of dog fighting, and of dog breeding, and the many waves of dog-phobia (each one focussing on a different breed) that swept through America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She shows how pit bulls went from the quintessential friendly, scrappy American dog (a pit bull named Pal was one of the most popular Hollywood stars in the 1920s, appearing in more than 220 films) to tabloid devils. She delves into genetics, and the theory behind moral panics. With meticulous precision, she takes apart all the bad science and bad journalism that contributed to demonising pit bulls. And she interviews trainers, breeders, scientists, charity workers, activists on both sides of the controversy, and a lot of people who simply love their dogs.

The thing I liked most about this book is the fact that Dickey clearly cares about people as much as she cares about dogs. This is evident in her discomfort with certain strands of pro-pit bull rhetoric that blame human victims on tragic incidents, even when they are children, instead of encouraging people to think and do something about the broader factors that lead to these incidents–such as lack of education on how to treat and care for pets, and how to get children and dogs habituated to one another. It’s evident in the respect she expresses for a certain prominent anti-pit bull activist, despite many of his pronouncements, which, as a reader, I found questionable if not repellent. And it’s evident in the book’s most interesting theme: the link–sometimes indirect, often direct–between how certain dog breeds are demonised and discriminated against, and how their owners are demonised and discriminated against, usually on the basis of race and/or class. I’ve already mentioned King Henry II’s anti-mastiff law, and plantation owners targeting slaves’ dogs in antebellum America. With pit bulls, you’d have to read the book to learn about the whole messy tangle of canine and human prejudice, from the stereotype that pit bulls are the dogs of drug dealers and pimps to well-meaning but misguided T-shirts reading “Pit Bulls are for Hugs, not Thugs”. But, as an example, Dickey devotes a few pages towards the end of the book to the argument that dog breed and weight restrictions lie within the arsenal of tricks and techniques that landlords and insurance companies have used to deny housing to poor people and people of colour over the last several decades.

This is a great book. I recommend it to pet lovers–yes, Dickey recounts a number of tragic or violent incidents, but, needless to say, she never dwells on grisly details, and there’s a point to every story she uses–plus, the story has a happy ending of sorts, as public opinion has softened considerably towards pit bulls in the last ten years. But, really, I recommend Pit Bull to anyone who wants to learn a lot about a contentious and surprisingly rich subject.

In the US, the paperback edition came out on the 17th of March this year. In the UK, you’ll have to wait until the 4th of April, though, in the meantime, you could either pre-order it, or check to see if your local library stocks it, or if you can get it via interlibrary loan.

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