Pit Bull Patriarchy

Friday, November 5, 2010

purebreeds, pit bulls, pets, and accessories

animal shelters are fascinating sociological microcosms. working in one for over two years has broken my heart innumerable times, made me dependent on water-proof mascara, and given me insight i'd never had before. it has also exacerbated what little patience i have for total and complete idiocy.

today an affluent gentleman who adopted two pets from the shelter before came in with one of his friends. he has a beautiful home (decorated predominantly in whites, creams, and pastels) and delighted in showing me picture after picture on his fancy iphone. when he initially came in months earlier, he expressed interest in adopting a purebreed dog. at the time, we had a newfoundland. even though he expressed displeasure and disdain over what the prospect of a large, hairy, drooling black dog meant for his pristine home, he chose the newfie because it was the only purebred dog available at that time. several months later, we wound up with a gorgeous afghan hound. although he expressed concern over what another large, hairy black dog might mean for his home, he wound up adopting her as well. while he finds his dogs' long, black hair difficult to manage, he still adopted them, even though there was a shelter full of pit bulls of varying shades whose coats do not shed nearly as much as the two he ultimately adopted.

his friend came to me saying she wanted to adopt a purebred dog as well. based on her friend's dogs, she was excited that she might get a recognizable purebred. when i told her "we have a shelter full of wonderful, purebred american pit bull terriers." she shuddered and said "oh, no, any breed but that." i balked internally, but walked her through the kennel.

during our conversational walk, the only purebred dogs that caught her eye were an older adult german shepherd (who was in the process of being adopted) a younger adult boston terrier (whom she decided she didn't want when she saw he only had one eye), and a brown puppy that she thought could was a chocolate lab. when kennel staff were unable to definitively say the puppy was a chocolate lab, she was no longer interested.

this is utterly fascinating to me. here are 3 very different dogs with 3 very different personalities and, based on their breed, very different functions or "jobs." moreover, all 3 dogs were different ages! all these factors should be considered when adding a new canine member to your family or household. yet she was only interested in her dog being a purebred--she insisted on it--regardless of size, temperment, age, or whether or not that breed might be a good fit for her lifestyle. she didn't want an animal companion, she wanted an animal accessory.

i detest people who adopt animals as accessories. she wanted a purebred that would be the perfect affluent accessory to her affluent lifestyle. she didn't seem at all interested in forging a bond with an animal or sharing a life with one--she wanted one that would "match" her home.

needless to say, this was/is beyond bizarre to me. i have pit bulls for companion animals--not because they "match" the lifestyle to which i am accustomed as the working class daughter of working class parents, but because they match me. i am an active, strong-willed, fun-loving affectionate, and loyal person whose dogs are compatible with these qualities. i also work in an environment where i see countless pit bulls wind up in the landfill--in large part because of people like this woman, whose inexplicable insistence on a "purebreed" works to hold open the trashbag and hold it steady so that the lifeless, once wagging, wiggling body of an exuberant pit bull can be carelessly tossed inside before being dumped at the landfill.

i don't mean or want to oversimplify the situation--those are the micro, personal implications of such choices. i want to be clear, however, that these work in tandem with macro, institutional practices and policies (e.g., breed specific legislation, rental properties who don't allow "vicious" breeds but who don't/won't temp test an animal, insurance policies, etc) whose function keeps pit bulls in, rather than on top of, the ground.

i also want to be clear that i want all dogs--purebred or mutt, pit bull or otherwise--to find suitable, loving homes, especially those that find themselves in shelters. the shelter environment is more cruel, cold, and isolating than can fully be expressed with mere words. the sad fact of the matter is that no matter how horrible, inhumane, or lonely a shelter is, the effects of this are amplified for pits and pit mixes. this is, hands down, the breed of dog that suffers the most. i hope to find ways to alleviate their suffering and show their true, loving natures, not only for the 2 that lay by me snoring right now but for the countless ones, in my shelter and elsewhere, who simply want someone to love them.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Dog Bite Embroidery

According to the laws where I'm from, an animal bite is defined as anything that breaks the skin, including a scratch. And when a dog bite is reported, it's pretty much a death sentence for the dog. When a dog is impounded into a shelter following a bite, chances are it isn't leaving alive. If rabies shots haven't been given or documented, the dog's head has to be tested for rabies. That means that some poor shelter worker has to cut off the dog's head, pack it in ice, and ship it to the State lab. This really happens, all the time. Even to the very nice lab who inadvertently scratches an elderly person with paper-thin skin. Even to the old pekingese who snaps at the child who crawls into his food bowl. And of course, to the chained pit bull who tries to defend herself from a beating.

I know this is a hard topic for some people who have been the victims of dog attacks. I also realize that public safety is important. I'm not suggesting you don't call the law, of course, but I do want people to understand that the minute the law is involved, the dog is dead. Public Safety Officials do not screw around when it comes to bites and rabies control.

Even *if* a "bite dog" is owned and gets through quarantine, most owners won't claim him or her because of stigma, fear, and the boarding fees for the quarantine period. The shelters won't adopt them out for "liability reasons." They are the first to be euth'd to free up shelter space.

I've been bitten by dogs, and it hurts like hell. It scares the shit out of me and it's easy to react from a place of anger. But the circumstances around a dog biting a human are usually complex. Many people have no clue about dog behavior. It's almost never clear whether the dog was provoked, and whether the dog is in fact "vicious" (especially since the definitions under most laws are murky at best). And what if they bite another animal rather than a human? Lots of breeds have been created for that, and now we kill them for it.

A bite is a most basic form of communication. I mean, dogs don't have hands, or English. What are they trying to say? I've seen dogs bite out of love. Extreme love, and the desire to be close, and to play. My dog bite embroidery is a series of linens that have been "altered" by Kaya, the artist, and then embroidered with phrases that I think she might be feeling while she's shredding my linens. The words are a reminder that dogs want family, a lifelong commitment; they are not bodies to be dumped when mistakes have been made, fear sets in and anger shows its teeth.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

on being over it.

i want to talk about some of things that i am OVER.

i am OVER people coming into the shelter, adopting beautiful, amazing dogs, and then returning them days or weeks later because they "look too much like a pit bull." this is followed up, like it was yesterday, by innane, unsupported nonsense based on bigotry and prejudice disguised as "education" or "information."

yesterday, for instance, a woman who had brought her child down to meet an adorable 7 week old puppy returned him because, in her words, "she could not, in good conscience, have a pit bull around her 3 year old child." it's a scientific fact that pit bulls comprise 100% of all bites and attacks, so that's a completely valid argument. gotcha.

or the older, clearly affluent woman who recoiled when i told her the sweet brindle boy wagging, frolicking, and kissing her grandchildren was a pit bull. it was almost cartoonishly comical how fast she snatched them up and away from the dog who was loving them.

or the man who came into my office, saw all the pictures of my babies and ones i've helped place or rescue, and commented that "the problem with adopting an older pit bull is that you never know what you're gonna get...you know, you hear all these stories about them biting people...."
i did my best to look at him evenly, and with a blank facial expression i hoped belied my disgust, before i explained to him that that was the case with any and every stray dog--regardless of the breed. he didn't seem to make the connection that any dog has a history, any dog could have been abused and every single dog on the planet earth can bite.

i am also over shelters.

the shelter environment is viciously unforgiving. dogs are bored, lonely, needy, confused, sad, upset, and so on and so forth. they are caged together, packed into runs like sardines, and then they have their most basic needs denied. they need human attention. they need affection. they need physical and mental stimulation. this lack is even more apparent and glaring for pit bulls. many kennel staff people refer to them as kennel trash. these dogs, in particular, actively pine for human affection, yet many people don't want to adopt them because of what they have seen or heard about the breed in the media.

kennel staff often resist getting close because they know the heartbreak that will come when they are murdered. conversely, kennel staff often resent the work that some dog-aggressive pits require (e.g., a run to themselves, coordinated dog breaks where dog contact is minimized or eliminated to avoid run-ins with other dogs, etc). this is something i want to address in future blogs--the social and economic conditions that facilitate this apathy and hatred, and which function to minimize the kinds of real care or concern that could conceivably be used to make real change in shelters. but that is a future topic.

for now, i simply wanted to complain about some of things which irritate me and discuss the real implications and consequences for the vast amount of skewed, inaccurate information people received about the breed. i want to do this because it feels good to get it out, and because it is much easier to acknowledge and sit with one's irritation or anger than it is to deal with one's infinite sadness. in a shelter, particularly a large urban one where dogs--many, if not most, of whom are pits and pit mixes--are seen as expendable, there is limitless heartbreak.

i can understand people's reservations about adopting older dogs. i can even understand the concern over older adopting older pitbulls. i adopted my boy when he was estimated to be 10-12 months old, and i had concerns when i got him. and while i believe had he been younger that i could have helped socialize him more effectively to make him more dog social, i i thank my lucky stars for him daily. i am fortunate enough to love and be loved by that beefy rednose goofball who wants to be so close to me, he practically tries to sleep in my anal cavity every night. he is very much like his mother--oftentimes misunderstood, perceived as completely tough, yet so tender and sensitive on the inside. he is my best friend, my mirror, and my love. and in this world and this life, i will take all those things any way i can get them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Chaos Reigns

Hi there pit bull patriarchs,

I've been sorry to hear that some people are upset about my pit bull stitching because they say it glorifies dogfighting. Although it is hard for me to take that critique seriously, I certainly do not want it to be read it that way. For me, embroidering pit bulls does the work of mourning. It's a lot of stitching and I think about each dog and how they may have lived and died. It takes much longer to embroider a dog than it does to euthanize one. And as we know, they are being euth'd by the truckload in the US daily.

You don't have to like it, but see it for what it is. Thread on cloth. Old lace, love, and lots of time. There may be blood or tears, but definitely no beer.

As you might have noticed, even though I had such high hopes for this blog, I ran out of steam. I'm so tired of all the maddening controversy around pit bulls. I hope that red velvet femme will continue her awesome writing when she has time, and I may step up the rants again in the future. I always appreciate our supportive readers and the really insightful comments that are left here.

I'm leaving you with my most favorite freaky film clip, from a recent and highly controversial work of art, Lars Von Trier's Antichrist. I'm going to embroider the fox very soon.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

on pit bulls and pedophiles

i met an incredible dog yesterday. he stood out to me instantly because he was beefy, red and white and looked similar to my boy. he had a huge joker's smile and was your typical, effusive pit bull. his owners were surrendering him to the animal control facility where i work.

as i was petting him and getting a thorough facial of slobbery pit bull kisses, i asked his owners why they were surrendering him. they told me they lived next door to a day care center, and that the dog, jack, liked to dig under the fence and escape. 9 times out of 10 he wound up at the day care, no doubt looking for the small people he wanted to befriend. the day care center regularly freaked out, calling animal control to report the loose dog which i'd be willing to bet they referred to as "a vicious pit bull." (and having worked in a large urban animal control for two years, i can assure you virtually every stray dog that is reported is a pit bull, and they are overwhelmingly labeled vicious).

jack's parents didn't have the money to adequately fix their fence so that it could keep him contained, and they were unable to keep him inside. the complaints and threats they received from animal control officers and day care officials were mounting, and had reached the point where they felt like their only option was to surrender him. they tearfully recounted all his good points to me in the hopes that i could find him another home. i promised them i would try and i went back to my office, feeling heavy-hearted.

about 20 minutes later, a co-worker told me jack had already been euthanized. i hadn't even had time to start calling possible rescuers. owners surrendering pets are informed that their dogs could possibly be immediately euthanized, but i doubt many truly understand that once they hand the leash over to the kennel staff, their dogs are often walked directly to the euthanasia room to meet their death.

while i was processing my thoughts and feelings, i started to think about the day care and about people's perceptions of the breed. the parents and the day care officials believed that if jack were away from the children, they would be safe. i can completely understand people's concerns over safety--child and otherwise. but i am also skeptical about widely-touted "solutions" of any kind; they tend to be quick fixes which address the ailment, but not the cause. they wind up functioning as bandaids rather than real treatments or preventative measures.

the concern for these kids' safety is propelled by the hysteria surrounding pit bulls. if jack had been a weimaraner, an australian shepherd, a lab, or a pomeranian, i would be willing to bet all the money i wish i had that the reaction would have been different--even though the aforementioned breeds have all been responsible for fatal dog attacks. any dog can bite, and any dog could be involved in a fatal bite or attack--but the media would have you believe otherwise. the media has helped perpetrate the myth that pit bulls = vicious. this is not only inaccurate and has detrimental effects on the breed and those of us who love them, but also on the public discourse around animal and human's--particularly children--safety.

in this regard, i can't help seeing parallels to public discourse on pedophilia and child safety. arguably one of the widely-touted so-called solutions to the problem of child sexual abuse and rape is the sex offender registry. depending on the locality, the sex offender registry alerts police and/or the general public to convicted sex offenders' presence, or at least makes the information available.

what i find profoundly problematic about this registry is that it gives people a false sense of security. it enables people--particularly parents--to feel that they can, based on this information, keep their children from being raped and abused. (this, of course, assumes that the parent is not the perpetrator(s)). the registry's existence, prevalence and popularity is predicated on a number of inaccurate and dangerous assumptions--namely, that rape and sexual abuse are things which exist outside of the family, as opposed to inside of it.

the registry lets the public and parents know who these sex offenders are and where they reside. (i am not even going to address some of the problems inherent with some of the definitions for "sex offender" which can include those who had consensual sex with minors who are thisclose to being adults). using the registry as a tool to keep kids safe is problematic because it a) takes the focus off of the most probable actual or prospective perpetrators, which are family members and friends and b) it does not address the broader, systemic ideas and structures which enable sexual abuse and rape to occur in the first place.

the public hysteria over pit bulls and child safety is similar. this hysteria helps the public to believe that by getting rid of or restricting this breed their children are safe from dog attacks. similarly, the sex offender registry allows well-meaning parents to believe that by knowing who and where convicted sex offenders are, they can protect their kids from rape and sexual abuse.

however, the cumulative effects of the sex offender registry and the notion that pit bulls are more likely to attack than other breeds is a simple and false solution to the complex problem of child safety. the facts are: any dog can bite a child and any adult can sexually violate a child. believing otherwise is dangerously false.

i write this as a pit bull parent whose only dog bite came from a black lab, and as a woman whose rapist--my brother--will never be listed on any sex offender registry. i write in the hopes of provoking readers into new ways of thinking. none of this is to say that pit bulls never bite, or that convicted sex offenders are never recidivists. it is to say, however, that i firmly believe this information should be used to supplement safety measures, rather than serve as the basis for them.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reader's Baby: Stella!!!

What a grand girl! Thanks so much for sharing these, Elizabeth!!

(I couldn't resist adding this.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

on the (de)merits of breed-specific legislation

i came across this piece of brilliant "journalism" the other day and was so blown away, i had to share it.

according to the la times, lancaster, california's city officials feel that breed-specific legislation has been helpful in reducing so-called gang-related crime in the city. lancaster's mayor, r. rex parris, claims that a year after imposing legislation that targets owners of pit bulls and rottweilers (all gang-banging criminals, mind you, because we all know that nice families don't adopt those dogs) crime is down and "lancaster is now a great deal safer because of it."

the ordinance enables hearing officers to assess and deem a dog potentially dangerous, if, for example, it "becomes aggressive when unprovoked." as a result, the dog can be impounded and the owner is then required to have it properly licensed, microchipped, and vaccinated at his own cost before the animal's release. furthermore, owners of these so-called vicious and dangerous dogs must properly leash and muzzle their dogs, complete a dog obedience course, spay/neuter the animal(s) and pay a fine of up to $500 for each offense. if and/or once their dogs are deemed "vicious," the owners can be fined up to $1000 per offense and be prevented from having other dogs for up to three years.

alright, alright. you already knew i was gonna call bullshit on this, but really? can't you even make it just a little bit hard for me to refute your nonsense, la times? this is like taking candy from a baby. or, in this case, taking dogs from people who are likely unfairly targeted and are least likely to have access to the resources to educate and protect themselves, their rights, and their dogs. these are often also the same people who are most likely to be hated socially (so-called and alleged criminal involvement aside) and who made the bad choice to have dogs who, by association with their owners, are also despised.

are we really to believe that by impounding and--when not reclaimed, most likely-- murdering these companion animals that lancaster's streets are safer? city officials claim that violent gang crime is down 45% since this the ordinance passed. "violent gang crime," is never defined, but includes homicides, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. to me, this begs the question: what role do the dogs play in these crimes? how do the dogs enable or engender these crimes? this is never once explained, it is just stated ipso facto. this article and its premise are driven by prevailing prejudices against the breed and the people most often presumed to be their owners or aficionados--so much so that these sorts of claims are able to be made and still seem credible even without substantiation or explanation.

furthermore, i want to know: how much of the overall crime rate does violent gang crime comprise? surely gang members aren't the only ones responsible for or involved in homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults--as if those were the only crimes that occur or concern people. by arguing that breed specific legislation helps keep a city safe, the notion that crime ostensibly involves the poor and/or people of color is insidiously perpetuated. the systemic targeting and removal of this breed of dog is a sort of canine prison industrial complex.

i'm also curious if the animal control officers are qualified to assess whether or not an animal is vicious. how is "vicious" defined? what criteria do they follow? what constitutes "unprovoked"? please don't misunderstand me--while working in animal control, i have met dogs that i am confident would have attacked me. however, in two years, i can count on one hand the number of times that has happened to me--and only one of them was a pit bull. my point is that terror and hype around these dogs and their presumed constituency is enough to "justify" there being far too little, if any, demand for any semblance of an explanation for their treatment or for, to borrow one of my daddy's phrases, this piss-poor example of journalism.

and just to be clear--i've never claimed to be objective, because i don't think true objectivity exists. i staunchly and adamantly believe that bullies are the best dogs under the sun. i aspire to be objective and yet still acknowledge my own subjectivity. through this, i hope to make apparent the public's and media's wild lack of neutrality where these dogs are concerned.

Monday, December 7, 2009

written on the (pit bull) body

i am sitting here listening to Antony & The Johnson's "Cripple & The Starfish" over and over and over.

it's true i always wanted love to be
it might be that my emotional response to this song has a little to do with my husband's sweet adult daughter coming to live with us this past week. she has left an abusive relationship, one where she was isolated and beaten over the course of years. of course, we didn't realize. she and Mr Muscle hid it well. i'm feeling very protective of her.

but i've also been reading and re-reading the awesome Eva Hayward's essay on this song - which is actually how i learned of it - Lessons from a Starfish in the anthology Queering the Non/Human. it's the most fascinating essay and so difficult, i've almost taken to reading it upside-down. it's as artful as the song - thankfully someone as brilliant as she is covered this song.

i really can't summarize the essay here, and i hope you'll read it. but we are familiar here, i think, with the fact that gender and sex and species all exist within discourse. they are all based on relationality and are mutable. inspired by the song, the examples taken up are the starfish and the transsexual/transgender person. eva is considering how the act of cutting can be potentially regenerative, a beginning of healing, an opening of the way to trans-gender or even trans-species re-formations.

so alongside this trajectory, i'm also thinking about cutting in trans-species relationships. specifically, spay/neuter and the deafening mainstream mandate to alter one's pets. i'm less interested in debating the need to sterilize pets, but in the way our society has chosen to accomplish it: through invasive cutting and removal of all reproductive organs. these surgeries are not necessary to prevent reproduction.

when humans decide not to reproduce, they might have a vasectomy or tubal ligation, and those procedures are equally possible in animals, and they accomplish the same goal. a vasectomy is especially easy, an outpatient procedure with local anasthetic. the doc makes small incisions, cutting vas deferens tubes which carry the sperm. the castration of a human male is typically performed only in cases of cancer (or SRS).

of course, the reason is that the goal of spay/neuter is not just to control reproduction, it's to control reproductive behavior. to stop male dogs from chasing females, and stop females from attracting males (and bleeding all over your carpet). and vets will try to sell you on the whole cancer-prevention angle, which i just reject outright. but there are lots of other factors, including surgery risks and well-known but unpublicized health problems that come with spay/neuter.

IMO the seeming "need" for cutting out all these organs has more to do with vets making money, coupled with the typical pet owner's desire to infantilize pets, and along with that, an anxiety around sexuality that is triggered by our pets' all-too-visible genitalia.

i have friends who giggle nervously about their dachshund's "dog-gina" every time she rolls over for a belly rub. and there are the doggie butt-covers available on etsy. but those examples are nothing compared to the ugly stares you get if you walk an uncastrated male pit bull around town. apparently dog balls (and especially pit bull balls) engender a lot of horror, not to mention lectures from spay/neuter advocates. i just want to say, "what's the matter, you've never seen nuts before?!" they might toss out a few neuticles to appease the manly dog owner, but basically it's a war on testes. you might scoff, but i know a vet who makes her christmas garland out of all the nuts she's snipped.

for those of us who are trying to honor the agency and subjectivity of animals, the removal of all reproductive organs might resemble other debates around the politics of sexuality. dare i liken it to other historical examples of the forced sterilization of disabled women and third-world women, or female circumcision? maybe, maybe not. but this is clearly another case where "scientific" or "medical" discourses around spay/neuter are undergirding certain ideologies that have nothing to do with science or (veterinary) medicine.

scary when most people who drop their pets off for these supposedly routine and much-needed procedures really have no clue what's involved, and that includes the legislators. btw, i really did review a draft of a proposed mandatory spay/neuter law, and it required that all pets be neutered or "spaded" by 6 mos.

i wish spading had something to do with starfish, but i don't think it does.

Monday, November 16, 2009

pit bulls, umbrella species, and the matrix of oppression

working in a large urban animal control facility, it goes without saying that i've seen--and continue to see--literally countless pit bulls and pit mixes. i have made friends with many of them--on breaks or while walking through the kennel i have talked, kissed, hugged and rendezvoused with them. i talk to them when i walk by and note their recognition--their smiles, jumps, and tail wags say: "hey! you! you're my friend!" the worst is when you return back to work after your days off to find their run empty or find another dog(s) in their place.

i've heard people visiting shelters comment on the large number of pits and pit mixes, too. the reasons for that are vast and varied, and quite possibly a blog topic unto their own--but what it's got me thinking about is the pit bull as an umbrella species of sorts.

several years ago when i had cable television, i saw a documentary on animal planet called "growing up grizzly." i loved it because i have always loved bears. all the bear love aside, what stood out to me was the way the bear advocate/enthusiast/trainer, doug seus, referred to the grizzly as an umbrella species. basically, his idea was that grizzlies and their impact is so huge that if we could insure it were taken care of, the smaller animals and plants in that ecosystem would be taken care of as well. his was an argument based on both animal rights and environmentalism.

to the extent that virtually any urban animal control acts as an ecosystem, it seems a similar argument could be made about pit bulls.

by sheer numbers alone, pit bulls and pit mixes comprise the bulk of the dogs in urban animal shelters today. they also represent the ones most likely to be euthanized and those least likely to be taken in by rescue groups or adopted out. if we could ensure that these dogs (the so-called kennel trash) were taken care of, then wouldn't it stand to figure that the so-called adoptable dogs who wind up there in smaller numbers (i.e., the small dogs, the "pure-breeds" who aren't apbt, etc), would be taken care of as well?

many animal control facilities refuse to adopt pits or pit mixes out to the public; those that do frequently apply rules to those adoptions that don't apply to other dogs (e.g., home checks--also a blog unto itself--increased interrogation from staff, dissuading customers from adopting, etc). clearly all these things together represent the institutionalization of bigotry. this institutionalized bigotry in conjunction with negative public perception of the breed work to create a web (sociologically referred to as the "matrix of oppression") in which only the luckiest select few pits and pit mixes make it out of shelters alive.

incidentally, this is analogous to what goes on socially with people. as a society, we value the affluent, the white, the heterosexual, the cisgendered, and/or the able-bodied in direct opposition to those whose bodies and lives differ from the aforementioned normative, "normal," and valued characteristics. as a result, these individuals and groups are ascribed less value and experience, broadly speaking, a resultant lack of resources and opportunities. at the micro-level, people's opinions and perceptions of devalued groups affects them negatively inter-personally and through interactions. at the macro-level, discriminatory practices become codified through practice, legislation, and the like. together, for both pit bulls and people, they function as hindrances and barriers to social equality and help maintain the status quo.

i don't buy the argument that fuels the rhetoric behind this treatment of pits in shelters and of devalued peoples socially (and also of capitalism). that argument says inequality exists because there are a limited number of resources and an almost unlimited number of people (or dogs) vying for them. if it's truly based on efficiency and how much of something there is (e.g., money, medication, homes, etc) then how do you make sense of the ways in which resources are allocated inefficiently? shelters, for instance, will go out of their way to save the yorkie with multiple ailments while their healthy pit bull neighbors are euthanized. for all the time, medication, and resources that that one dog required, several could have conceivably been saved in its place.

many shelters, unfortunately, operate solely or primarily as a business whose job is to sell product and turn a profit, rather than save lives. many shelters know people want the cachet of the yorkie and know that, when asked, they will tell people where they acquired their dog. and on and on the business wheel turns, all the while bullies are being taken from their kennels and runs, undoubtedly delighted to be escaping their prisons and receiving human contact, not realizing that particular walk will take them to the euthanasia room and end their lives.

perhaps by conceiving of pit bulls as an umbrella species, the arguments over the interminability of resources would be revealed to be illogical and irrelevant. if we shifted or expanded the value we assign to these animals, the effects--both micro and macro--made by that shift would likely continue. it would become more apparent that while there are not infinite resources, there are different ways to allocate the available ones so that more animals can be saved and not destined to die, thereby enabling the entire shelter/ecosystem to thrive.

i think that the saying is true--save the pit bull, save the world.

Friday, October 30, 2009

pit bulls, coyotes, and the rhetorical games "experts" play

today i was reading the news online, as i do daily, when i came across an article on a young woman who was fatally attacked and killed by coyotes. the headline of the article,"fatal coyote attack: how dangerous are coyotes?," was followed immediately by an attention grabbing rhetorical statement: "but attacks are rare and, statistically speaking, coyotes are far less of a threat than pit bulls."

talk about a wtf moment. needless to say, i was flummoxed.

here we have an article ostensibly about both the rise of coyote attacks and the tragic death of the young hiker. the article gives lip service to divergent viewpoints--mainly those who argue public worry is overblown as these are wild animals that tend to avoid people and others who claim both the animal population and our human trespassing into their environs are exploding, making attacks such as these inevitable.

then, i guess to assuage any hysteria or worry this piece may have caused about the likelihood of being mauled by coyotes, one "expert" asserts "the number of cases involving coyotes biting people is small – far less than the number of humans killed or badly injured by pet pit bull dogs."

um, chalk it up to me being an out and proud pit bull baby mama sociologist, but where's your evidence, player? where are your statistics? and also, how is this relevant? and again, just generally: wtf??

this quote is directly followed by this soothingly explanative statement: " 'Those coyotes in Canada must have been very habituated to humans, very likely the result of them either having been fed by people or having close associations with hikers,' Crabtree says."

ok, so let me see if i'm clear on this. "pet pit bull dogs," attack and subsequently "kill[ed] or badly injure[d]" way more people than coyotes do. (there's no sort of measurement in the article or statement that i can find--we don't know if this is annually, hourly, or what).

but back to cases. people's pet dogs--in this case, pit bulls--their domesticated companion animals, attack people more often and more fatally than coyotes, who are wild animals. coyotes are so wild and undomesticated, according to the article, that "there is a general avoidance that goes on between them and humans." but it makes sense to say that pit bulls, domesticated pets widely known to crave human attention and bond closely with people, attack people more than animals who are wild and whose very relationship with people is one that doesn't exist insofar as it's based on avoidance.

this argument, as part of a broader social context in which pit bulls are stigmatized, has multiple implications. it functions to make the pit bull into a wild creature, rather than a domesticated pet and one which is, (hearkening back to what my daddy said), "just a dog."

but if the public sees them as wild animals and not pets, campaigns to legislate them away can flourish. animal shelters can continue to deem them "unadoptable" kennel trash whose unwanted bodies rot in landfills. rescue groups can continue to deny taking them in because even the most prominent animal rights' groups know that "nice families rarely come to a shelter seeking pit bulls." and if you're a pet and peta and the h$u$ don't stick up for you, you are fucked. people's rights as pet owners will continue to be infringed upon. and the lives of countless sweet, wiggle bottom big grinning goofball babies will be over before they ever got a chance to start.

this argument is also nonsensical. why is there even a need to mention pit bulls in this article? as i see it, there's no logical cause or real relationship between the two. this is an article about wild animal attacks and facilitative causes with some unsubstantiated anti-pit bull rhetoric thrown in for good measure to increase the shock value of this horrible event and shamelessly exploit it in doing so. the pit bull thrown in is a total rhetorical red herring. and i call bull shit.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Queer (and not in a good way) Bedfellows: Michael Vick and the Humane Society

--the following is a guest blog i recently wrote for chloe jo berman, founder of girlie girl army--a blog and newsletter full of everything fun, fascinating, and sexy relative to animal rights, being green, veganism and then some. if you're not signed up for her newsletter, go and get it! it's fabulous.

i plan on expanding this further in the future, but this is it for now:

The subject of pit bulls is immensely important to me. I'm lucky enough to be the mother to the greatest rescued pit bulls on the planet. I also work at a large urban animal control facility which intakes animals daily and also kills animals regularly--and a hefty percentage of them are pit bulls and pit mixes. At work, the neglect, abuse, and inattention I've seen is heartbreaking. Personally, I've experienced the--no pun intended--pit falls of breed specific legislation; I've been denied housing because I have "aggressive" dogs; and I've watched moms with strollers cross the street when my dogs and I walk by. Most of all, I know from my encounters with hundreds of pit bulls that these so-called "vicious" dogs are so loyal, loving, and deeply sensitive that they are practically codependent. So I'm invested, both personally and professionally, in doing what I can to advocate for this most incredible--and incredibly maligned--breed.

There's practically no way to have a discussion of pit bulls currently without someone at least mentioning Michael Vick. He's like 9/11 in that regard. Just like contemporary mainstream talk of terrorism doesn't really exist without references to the collapse of the twin towers or Osama bin Laden, we cannot escape Michael Vick and pit bulls being in the rhetorical bed together.

Their tawdry relationship has been revived since Vick was signed by the Eagles. What I find supremely fascinating about much of the public reaction to their decision to sign Michael Vick is that many people want to blame the Eagles for giving Vick his lucrative career back. To some degree, this blame is expected, but it's basically like blaming your gynecologist for a cavity. The same way your dentist has nothing to do with your va jay jay, neither teams nor the NFL have animal welfare in their agenda, so they can't reasonably be expected to act as such.

It's another case entirely for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Oh, I'm sorry--it's more aptly acronymed as: H$U$.

Why's that, you ask? Why else would the Humane Society of the United States choose to endorse our nation's most notorious animal abuser, torturer, and killer? Puffy may have said it first, but it's true in this case as well--because it's all about the benjamins, baby.

While I definitely oppose the NFL's decision to reinstate Vick, the support of the H$U$, arguably the most well-known and respected animal rights organization in America, influenced--if not facilitated--this decision. The NFL and the Eagles will likely contend with lots less criticism from the public over this decision as they can now say "but the H$U$ supports him." (The implicit concluding query behind this statement is, of course, "So why shouldn't you?"). If signing Michael Vick brings money and buzz, then--especially with a prominent and respected animal rights organization's blessing--there's nothing to stop the NFL from reinstating him.

Of course, this isn't the first time the H$U$ has acted shady. There's their historical support of euthanizing bust dogs--even puppies!--without evaluation. There's the incongruous way they allocate their funds. And now this.

Vick not only had others do his murderous bidding against the pit bulls that wouldn't fight, he tortured and murdered many of these dogs himself. It would be another case entirely for the H$U$ to back him had he taken any modicum of responsibility for his actions. When publically addressing his brutal abuse, Vick has boldly stated it wasn't his fault! Despite this blatant lack of remorse and accountability, the H$U$ has still chosen to have him as a spokesperson. I find this action beyond reproach and can't help but think of all the people in America who will see Vick as a spokesperson for this reputable organization and assume that he is, in fact, reformed. These people will likely therefore will have few, if any, qualms about his future in the NFL or about the H$U$' decision to support him.

The H$U$ is the go-to organization for those regular folks who consider themselves animal lovers and who can afford to donate money to charitable causes; thus, their endorsement of Vick carries significant social weight. And if the H$U$ can proffer a redeemed Vick, they succeed as well and will likely see an increase in the charitable donations they receive as a result. Average animal loving Janes and Joes will think "the Humane Society saves pretty little adoptable fuzzy family pets and they helped Michael Vick see the error of his ways. I wanna support their good work. I think I'll send them a check." Everybody wins; no harm, no foul--except for those dogs.

All of this is to emphasize that we must hold accountable and make demands of those whose purpose is animal welfare--or any cause/movement we support. By placing criticism and blame where it is due and requiring amendments or change where necessary, we strengthen our movements and help ensure their principles and goals are concurrent.

To this end, I encourage everyone to contact the Eagles' sponsors and inform them that as a result of their decision to sign Vick, their products will be boycotted. A list of their corporate sponsors can be found here. I also encourage everyone to contact the H$U$ and voice your disappointment and disgust. Continue to educate yourself. And when it comes to exciting voices in animal welfare, please see Nathan Winograd, as well as the No Kill Nation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

RT: From shelter to penthouse!! Good luck pup

Just saw this tweet which celebrated a shelter success: a good home check for a pit bull puppy. I really, really have better things to do right now than snipe on this blog, like work on my freaking dissertation or knit or scrub the toilet, but this is one itch that is demanding some attention. What exactly are shelter workers looking for when they do home checks prior to placing pit bulls? "Home check" is nothing but code for "class check." The last home check form I saw asked whether or not there was trash in the yard, cause, y'know, that's really key in determining whether a person will be a good caregiver.

One icky subtext to shelter adoptions is that they are basically taking animals from poor people and either killing them or giving them to middle-class people (or in the case of the penthouse pup, possibly the upper-middle-class or upper-class, or maybe even status-conscious assholes who live on credit cards and pills, who knows). I am so sick of hearing how it's the low-income people who are the problem in pet overpopulation because they refuse to spay/neuter or contain their pets. And it seems to be true that most of the loose dogs picked up by animal control come from lower-income areas. But let's explore some other reasons for that...it's easy to blame poor people for everything, we do that all the time. But if we are in fact trying to end shelter killing (apparently not the goal for every animal welfare group), we need to clearly understand how all these animals end up at shelters in the first place (and how they leave).

Here's just a few facts and thoughts:

*Most animal controls can and will seize an animal that is loose on private property. This includes a dog that is sleeping on the porch of its own home, minding its own business. Now some few ACOs will knock on the door, or put a dog back inside a fence if there is one, but most will go ahead and impound an animal even if they know where it lives, simply because there has been a complaint and that will complete out their call. In most places, the performance of ACOs is judged by efficiency and numbers, not humane results. Once the dog ends up at the shelter, it's pretty much over. The logistics associated with finding the dog and the fees associated with reclaiming him or her are just prohibitive for many people, especially those who are challenged by health and transportation issues.

*Gentrification causes *many* of these calls to animal control, as do well-meaning animal lovers and anti-tether activists who have nothing better to do than troll poor neighborhoods clutching their tissues along with their spay/neuter pamphlets and boutique dog treats, ready to call AC the minute they see a dog, any dog. In one urban area, a PETA activist moved into a loft overlooking a junkyard and she alone keeps the ACOs busy with calls. Now, this all seems well and good - why shouldn't AC check on these poor dogs belonging to poor people? Because there is a (very) small percentage of cases in which an animal needs help and AC can provide it, such as when an animal is in distress. But in a much larger percentage of cases, the animals are really quite fine, but are now put in danger of seizure by virtue of the call. Because when people bitch enough, it's easier for everyone (including the owner) just to get rid of the poor dog than to deal with the repeated calls and harassment. (It's also not unheard of for activists to go ahead and steal these dogs, especially when they don't get "satisfaction" from AC - as in, the dog is still there.)

Just as an aside, folks in middle-class neighborhoods are not as susceptible to this kind of harassment because they are not targeted in the same way. They also seem more likely to crate their dogs while they are not at home, out of sight and earshot of neighbors. The space requirements of most dog laws (something like 100 square feet or so for dogs, depending on the jurisdiction) do not apply to crates - mainly because they are inside and so the requirements are unenforceable - and also because crates are the domain of the middle and upper class. What else, exactly, makes a crate better than a chain?

It's understandable that animal lovers get upset when they see a dog living in a junkyard, on a short chain, sleeping in a car, losing its hair, and so on. But usually, the dog's owner is similarly situated: without good housing or healthcare. We can't continue to look at animal issues in a vacuum; we can't help animals without trying to help caregivers. Child and family services learned this lesson a long time ago. A friend said something really brilliant to me recently: that social services for children quickly gave up on any model of ideal parenting, and the same logic should apply to animals.

People really need to remember and keep it in the forefront of their minds that when dogs and cats are impounded, there is a very good chance they will be killed. There are few places more fascist than an animal shelter. Do I sound bitter? Fuck yeah I am. Because shelters are not about helping needy animals, despite what they tell themselves and the public; they are all about cleaning up - picking up and disposing of the animals on the side of the road, digging in people's trash, and living in the woods - and keeping the public happy, or at least quiet. Any critter who deviates from the ideal of a healthy, happy, friendly, hegemonic youngster is quickly killed. Disabled? Mange? Old? Feral? Pissed off? With few exceptions, you know the end result, that penthouse in the sky.

And another aside: most shelters do not make it easy to adopt. There is no reason for most people to go to a shelter to look for a pet when they can purchase almost any breed for less money. Even if they would like to save a life, most people leave once they witness the crappy conditions. The ones who get beyond that are likely to leave once they are insulted and subjected to racism and classism when applying to adopt a pet, or once they learn that they will pay more and wait for an animal that is likely already sick to be hacked up on a spay/neuter assembly line. Sorry, but that's still the reality of most shelters. Oh, and these stalwart adopters also have to be willing to open their private homes for someone to judge how they live if they happened to fall for a shelter "pit bull" as opposed to a lab. Bless the people who get through it. But until shelters become more people-and-animal-friendly, many people are more likely to get a pet somewhere, anywhere else.

I know there are other reasons for the disproportionate number of animals impounded from low-income neighborhoods - but the institutional and legal structures around animal care and control are creating or at least adding to the "pet overpopulation problem." And, if our society and our government did not view these animals' lives as expendable, the structures would necessarily shift.

I loved Robin Hood when I was a child, still do. At least in the Disney cartoon version, he was a dog, which of course made me a fast fan. It also made perfect sense to me, in my child-sized universe, why he would steal from the rich and give to the poor. When did the collective fairy tale become to steal pets from the poor and give them to the rich? I still remember when Robin says to Maid Marian: "Marian, my darling, I love you more than life itself." Our modern-day Robin Hoods are loving the life out of a lot of dogs.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

No more pit bull smiles?

Well, red velvet femme is still having internet issues, and I've been traveling, so I'm not sure when blogging will resume in earnest. But I've been thinking a lot about some discussions that are happening on the human-animal studies listserv. There are some animal welfare advocates who fervently believe that all animal breeding and pet-keeping involves exploitation, and that the end of domesticated animal populations is a worthy goal. It's easy to dismiss this as some kind of ivory tower insanity or fringe freakery, but I've watched this debate unfold for years and the argument continues to gain steam and the people who believe it gain power.

This iteration of the debate has been more heated discussion than what usually takes place on this (mostly academic) board, with a fair amount of snark involved. Some sensible folks have rightly pointed out that all kinds of relationships involve some aspects of utility, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

What has been most striking to me lately is the very serious ways in which people are describing domestication of animals in terms of slavery and also imperialism. In animal studies circles, this idea that domestication of animals should be abolished is known as the "abolitionist" approach. The comparison of domesticated animals to human slaves is hardly new, and comparisons abound, but when this is brought up it's usually done cautiously and with qualifiers out the arse. It may not be that every animal welfare advocate who identifies as an abolitionist believes that domestication is tantamount to slavery (or that it simply *is* slavery), but the reference is surely there.

I'd like to articulate some kind of response to all this that goes beyond mute horror. It's definitely fair to remind ourselves, over and over again, of the power imbalance and inherent inequities involved in animal-keeping. I'm not sure though that it's fair to insert cattle into the same position as African slaves or colonized people in a new vegan freedom narrative. It's just not the same. It's just not. But why?

It's not just because I can't imagine life without my animal companions. That would be true, and I also pity all the poor saps that will live in future generations without rabbits doing binkies in their living rooms if these new abolitionists win out. I don't want to imagine life without family farms (there are few enough of those left anyway), with sheep for wool and cows for milk, chickens for eggs and goats for laughs. Did slave owners feel the same way? Maybe the tradeoff would be worth it if it would in fact be a world without cruelty, or at least without the same institutions and cultures of cruelty.

It bothers me to think that the eventual goal of these abolitionists is that domestic animal populations and breeds would die out. Only animals that could survive in the wild would continue. And I don't know what would become of self-domesticating animals like dogs under this scenario. To think of dogs being cast out of human society is approaching the realm of the bad sci-fi novel. But stranger things have happened, are happening. Not that history is ever a justification, but we've evolved together for a long, long time. Who would we be without each other?

Part of the abolitionist argument seems to be that breeding animals to fulfill human needs is especially problematic, more so than companion animals. And it's true that there is something vaguely fascist about the fetishization of purebreds - at least when those that aren't purebred are devalued (or worse). Still, I feel like we haven't really figured out what it means to compare (animal) breeds with (human) race. And besides, is there no room for all the diversity of domestic animal breeds or hope for compassionate stewardship, if not human-animal partnerships? Does animal welfare really dictate a complete reboot?

I guess I find it especially ironic that while so much prejudice against pit bulls only barely disguises anti-black racism, with the result being the extermination of pit bulls, now we're holding up the emancipation of slaves as a model for freeing domesticated animals, with the same result - but for all breeds. Race is alternately effaced and trotted out, whatever suits the argument for animal welfare, in this bizarro world where freedom equals death and white privilege equals moral superiority.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Here's another story of interest - pit bull puppies seized in Elkhart Indiana. From what is reported, it sounds reasonable that the pups were seized, especially since the person was given a prior warning. But what bothers me is this quote:
"I mean you wouldn't keep your children in a situation like this, and animals deserve the same quality of life that we as humans [do], and they are looking to us for that quality of life,” said Anne Reel of the Humane Society.
I don't entirely disagree, but I try to be critical when people use the parenting analogy for human-animal relationships. I think it's useful in some respects, since (hopefully) we don't take children from their homes without a serious assessment, or euthanize them. But are human standards always appropriate for animals? And should it be the new legal standard of care?! Anne Reel isn't even limiting this to just dogs or companion animals, but animals, period. So I guess my donkeys will each be needing their own bedroom soon.

Let's talk about the Alabama bust

I can't resist playing devil's advocate with the media from time to time. I hesitate because it sucks when people I take up for end up being guilty, which has happened before. But the level of ignorance displayed in many dogfighting bust stories does not fill me with confidence in the judgment of law enforcement. Most of the time, even with the best of training from HSUS, they don't know what they looking at when it comes to pit bulls, dog yards, and equipment.

Let's take this recent bust in Alabama as an example. This situation has many of the hallmarks of a dogfighting operation. But - I have to say But - there's a lot of misinformation and possibly a healthy dose of pit bull prejudice here as well.

The key to thinking this person is a dogfighter seems to be the fact that police uncovered a treadmill. I could repeat myself with almost every supposed dogfighting bust story - but treadmills, springpoles, and so forth are also used by breeders and pit bull enthusiasts who want to exercise their dogs. They do not equal dogfighting.

Ok, so I'm looking at the condition of the dogs which is mostly good and normal. We can see that the one dog has a skinned nose. That happens, and it's not a big deal. Dogs can scrape their noses on chain link, on their houses or digging. Needs a little peroxide and neosporin. I wonder if they've taken care of that at the shelter? I kind of doubt it since shelters, if they even use vets at all, are busy taking care of *serious* injuries and illnesses.

The dog that is missing hair on the back legs looks bad. That can happen from fleas, demodectic mange, chain rubs, and just living in the dirt. It needs to be treated, yes, and it seems likely that the owner was neglecting this dog. But these minor, non-life-threatening marks on the dogs do not equal dogfighting. As an aside, I knew some folks who had a dog that ended up losing hair on his back legs like that after they started feeding Canidae. The hair didn't grow back until they went back to TimberWolf. This may be a very unlikely scenario, but the point is, we just don't know. Anyone who raises or houses a number of animals will have some animals with minor injuries. Critters get in scrapes just like kids get banged up; it can be from abuse, but it isn't necessarily. If there are other wounds or scars on these dogs that somehow add up to dogfighting (in addition to neglect or cruelty), the camera doesn't show them, which makes me think that maybe they aren't there.

The story says that the dogs are malnourished, and although it doesn't look like it from the short video, it's hard to tell. But malnourishment would not be typical of fighting dogs. What that is typical of is neglect - AND - animal rescuers who do not know the difference between an athletic dog and a malnourished dog.

There's also the perpetuation of the idea that chained dogs must be fighting dogs, or bred for fighting. The dog warden is saying that the dogs were all on heavy chains and they can't play with each other. I hear something like this and I just want to stab myself. Chaining dogs separately is one way - maybe not the preferred way - but it's one way of keeping dogs safe and secure. Then there's the shelter worker saying that the dogs want to "eat other dogs up" (which does not bode well for those dogs). But dog-aggression doesn't mean the dogs were bred for fighting. Really, it doesn't. Chaining dogs along with some amount of dog aggression is just not unusual among people who have gamedogs, but very, very common -- much more common than dogfighting.

Certainly, this dude might be guilty as fuck, and if what is being said is true, he is a huge asshole for sure. But there are enough chinks in the story that it really makes me wonder. The misinformation in regard to pit bulls, chains, slight injuries, body condition, and exercise equipment - it's ridiculously rampant among supposed "animal professionals" when the truth is out there on any number of websites, message boards and books. These officers and prosecutors know enough to be dangerous - enough to take people's dogs and inflame the public. Most of them don't want to hear the other side that I'm presenting because it's all about wanting to seize the dogs and get that conviction. Dogfighting is the go-to red herring when (1) the animals in question look to be pit bulls, and (2) the people in question look to be working-class and/or people of color. Throw in some chains or a treadmill, and the people and the dogs both are fucked.

The perspective I'm sharing is usually dismissed as an attempt to provide a cover or smokescreen for dogfighters - but at least in my case it's actually about protecting the dogs and also some semblance of civil rights. The question that everyone should be focused on is whether dogs in cases like these are better off being seized. It's not the only option. The owner could be required to seek veterinary care for the dogs, or the dogs could be carefully monitored and evaluated by behaviorists and veterinarians on-site, as the evidence of dogfighting or other crimes is evaluated. There is some risk of evidence tampering or flight in doing this, but if the priority is in fact the safety of the dogs instead of convictions, it's worth considering. I can tell you with almost complete certainty that the dogs are not better off languishing in the shelter for possibly a year or more as the case drags on.

I think that most people feel that regardless of whether the owner is a dogfighter or not, the dogs are better off either in middle-class homes or dead (and most people would prefer dead). And that's really the crux of the issue and a huge problem for anyone concerned with animal welfare and social justice.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

On animal sex

Red velvet femme and I met in grad school, in Women's Studies. There we talked a lot about how gender - even our physical bodies - are produced and shaped according to the norms of our culture. Every so often we would look at how biological sex plays a role in gender, but mostly we focused on all the ways gender is taken for granted and used to perpetuate social hierarchies. Before that program, I had always straddled the nature/nurture debate, and even bought into the "Men are from Mars" view that men and women tended to have certain "natural" tendencies, at least on the whole. But the program was eye-opening and mind-blowing - it helped me see how insidious and overwhelming are these cultural messages, and how we are hailed to do gender in very specific ways.

So with this background, I'm always inclined to downplay biological sex. But in the last few years, I've spent a lot of time learning about farming. Anyone who has farmed knows that male animals require different care and handling than females of the same species. "You can only have one cock of the walk," a friend told me when my first hen hatched a bunch of little yellow puffballs. I didn't listen, unable to part with (or even sex) any of the tiny fluffy angels. But within a year, the brothers and the father were scrapping. As soon as I heard the dogs barking, I'd know the roosters were going at it, and I'd have to rush outside to break up those bad boys. When one rooster was injured more than a little, I admitted to myself that I had to do something with all the dadgum roosters. I advertised in the farmer's market bulletin, but no-one wanted roosters. I think everyone else knew what I was just then learning and having themselves a pot of coq au vin. I couldn't house each rooster separately, so I took all but one to the feed store where I was paid a whopping $5 per rooster. The nice man took pity on me and assured me that people wouldn't eat these roosters, they were too handsome. I just had to steel myself and not worry about what might happen to them. Biology had won out; those roosters knew nothing of social construction. I was broken-hearted but my hens were much happier.

That's just one small example. It's rare to keep an uncastrated male animal as part of a herd, and with good reason. People don't usually ride stallions, or use donkey jacks to pull carts. No-one wants a stinky billy goat ramming its head into their house until there's a huge hole in the siding. Even male bunnies can't live together without bloody battles. I don't want to be reductive or essentialist, but there is this biological thrust to farm life that can't be ignored.

Dogs (and humans) are different from most farm animals in that they are not prey animals, but predators. Because dogs have prey drive, aggression has played a greater role in the evolution of dogs than in herd animals like sheep. And yet many people seem to expect dogs - even adult, uncastrated, untrained, unsocialized, male dogs - to have social inhibitions and skills. Before we even start to discuss all the complications of pack structures or dog aggression, I think it's important to situate dogs within a context of domestic animal populations. It seems as though the more urbanized and anthropomorphized pet ownership becomes, the farther we get from treating dogs as complex creatures.

This is not to play into the hugely overblown fear of dogs like pit bulls, but to say that it's just the flip side of treating them like all those little singing stuffed animals that line every shelf at Wal-mart. I'm also not a sterilization nazi - although spay/neuter is definitely the best choice for most pet owners. I know this is all very obvious to many of you, but I am often shocked how little dog owners seem to know about dogs. Sharing one's life with any animal, much less a dog, much less an uncastrated male dog, much less a dominant and powerful dog, it requires a good deal of knowledge and care. So many safety issues can be reconciled by actually learning about these dogs that we claim to love so much.

And another caveat: none of this is meant to support the fucked-up notion that that humans are better than animals or have dominion over nature. When people talk about dogs needing to be treated as dogs, it usually prefaces a lecture about animals being placed here for man's use (never woman's use), and how the rightful place of humans is at the head of the natural order. No and no. Somehow though, even while working to undo tired humanist notions that have undergirded centuries of animal abuse, we have to act as guardians of our non-human companions. We can't elide our differences or abandon our responsibilities in our quest for justice for animals. Categories of race, class and gender - uniquely applicable to humans - I'm not sure they provide good models for thinking about human-animal relationships. Or maybe there another view that emphasizes mutuality and commonality along with stewardship. I'd love to hear what y'all think.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Same old recycled bullshit goes to New Zealand

Ya know, it would be a fulltime job for somebody, actually a whole team of somebodies, to call bullshit on all the crap that flies over the internets about pit bulls. My google alerts just exhaust me. Thank goodness for the amazing watchdog known as YesBiscuit! For my part, I'ma share some thoughts on this little media gem that couldn't help but get my attention in its pure randomness.

Dog fighting in New Zealand. Really, New Zealand? This interests me because New Zealand - even with its colonial history and struggle of the Maori people - it's pretty damn peaceful on the world stage. Until the last few decades it was even known as the "classless society." I would think that pit bulls would fare pretty well in such a place, but apparently not. It's probably my own prejudices coming out, since my familiarity with the country is pretty much limited to the most awesome Flight of the Conchords, but I tend to think that this story on dogfighting in New Zealand is based more in fear-mongering to justify BSL and a desire for lurid media than anything else.

But, ok, fine, so assuming there is dogfighting in New Zealand, it's always strange to see how Western dogfighting cultures and discourses translate to another part of the world. In this case, most of it is lifted almost verbatim from HSUS literature. So this reporter is interviewing Jim Boyd, an inspector with the Royal New Zealand SPCA and supposedly a dogfighting expert who singlehandedly wiped out dogfighting in New Zealand. What a dude! His "evidence" that dogfighting may be returning is the case of elderly Lincoln, a Rhodesian Ridgeback who was reportedly stolen and found or returned with injuries. Really, just this one dog. No details are given about Lincoln, his taking or his return. No mention of why anyone would assume he was used as bait.

It's very common these days for people to assume and proclaim that a nice dog found with injuries was used as bait. But in reality, there are very few ways of knowing. Unfortunately, the surviving dog can't tell us what happened. Short of someone witnessing a poor dog being tossed to the proverbial wolves, we just don't and can't know. Even veterinary forensics can only tell us that injuries were the result of animal bites, but not the context in which that happened. Bait, by definition, involves human intervention and intention; one person literally feeding one animal to another. But the circumstances around animals injuring one another are many and may involve some other type of human involvement or none at all. Sometimes investigators are able to make well-educated guesses as to whether an animal was used as bait based on the circumstances around where an animal was found and talking to neighbors and such - but much less often than the media would lead us to believe.

Now, I don't doubt that there are people who have and continue to use dogs and other animals as bait for some freaky shit. I question whether this is a usual part of dogfighting practice in the U.S. since it is rarely (like, never) referenced in historical materials which were produced by dogfighters and gamedoggers. At the very least, it is fair to say that the bait dog concept has been circulated and popularized by certain animal welfare groups and the mainstream media.

And so, back to Lincoln, this poor victim of baiting in New Zealand. His age and his sweet grey muzzle are being used to spark outrage on the part of the reader at these imported Western fighting dogs, these "vicious killers." Despite the more informative quotes from Karen Batchelor, we're left with Mr. Boyd's fucked up statement that I don't even want to quote since it is so ignorant and incendiary. He's saying that fighting dogs were bred to be vicious and therefore they should die. He really seems to want these colonial critters out of New Zealand, just like all the pesky rabbits that those Brits brought in, but his desire for fame and publicity by whatever means is about as Western as it gets. Just like New Zealand fashion, he's way behind the times in his views on pit bulls. Here, in the belly of the beast, at least we are making progress in that most of us no longer blame dogfighting on the dogs.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

pit I said pit I will Pit

It seems important while we're still pretty new here to go through some definitional exercises. In popular culture, "pit bulls" are generally lumped together. They might be portrayed as monsters or as angels (usually depending on the race of their owners), but beyond this typical Madonna/whore dichotomy, they're seen as the same basic type of dog. (In breed-specific laws, this is an even more broad and incredibly vague designation since they include multiple breeds and "all pit bull-type dogs.")

It's much more complicated that that in pit bull world(s). There's all kinds of Othering going on with racial and class-based subtexts. If you're not immersed in one or more of these cultures, you probably have no idea that the boundaries of "pit bull" are highly contested - everything from its origin, history, appearance, purpose, characteristics, breed classification, and on and on. Here's my attempt to map the contours of the pit bull landscape in broad strokes. (Please forgive the necessary shorthand I've employed in many of these descriptions - each of them can be debated ad nauseum. I'm also trying to be as objective as possible, but we all have our biases, cause you know, my dog is the best.)
Bulldog: Old-school pit bull fanciers (read: old white country dudes) still call them bulldogs. This is very confusing for mainstream pit bull lovers today, since the term "bulldog" has come to mean the English Bulldog in common parlance. But throughout the 20th century, this was the term of choice among pit bull people and definitely used in a positive light, as in "Now that's a bulldog, Son!" Loosely synonymous with "gamedog," below.

Gamedog: This is such a contentious term! "Game" is one of the most heavily debated and mythologized concepts in and out of pit bull circles. In most basic terms, game is that purple heart, never give up quality, a crazy determination, an invincible will and spirit. The rules of dogfighting that have been typically used throughout the 20th century in the US are based on concepts of scratch and turn which are supposed to reward gameness, so that "gametesting" can mean dogfighting (or something similar to dogfighting) for people in that culture. "Gamedog" is the opposite of "cur," so suffice it to say that Game is God for old-school pit bull people. But it is CRUCIAL to understand that "gamedog" or "game-bred dog" does not necessarily mean that a dog is game, or that a dog will fight, or even that a dog was bred for fighting. There are plenty of breed enthusiasts who simply appreciate the qualities and the breeding of gamedogs, and see it as the "original," or best and most stable representation of the breed. Most people believe that gameness can come into play in other sporting activities, such as hog hunting (another traditional form of "work,") weight pull, agility, and even in companionship. These dogs tend to be on the small side (40 lbs or so), lean, and very active - but this is a huge generalization since there is massive variation among bloodlines.

American Pit Bull Terrier/APBT: The standard for the bulldog was codified, so to speak, into two different breeds loosely around the turn of the 20th century. One was the American Pit Bull Terrier, or APBT, which was registered by the UKC and then the ADBA (American Dog Breeder's Association). Although gamedogs were registered in both registries, the standards of these two registries have diverged somewhat over the years. The ADBA still tries to keep with the working standard for pit bulls, whereas the UKC has come to emphasize a standard of conformation based solely on physical appearance. As a result, ADBA dogs often look just like the gamedogs of fifty years ago, whereas the UKC "style" of pit bull (if you will) is typically larger, with a more pronounced brick-like head and wide chest, and often has cropped ears and more "flashy" coloring. All the usual animosity and stone throwing between show and working dog breeders come into play here.

American Staffordshire Terrier: This was the AKC's version of the pit bull, literally modeled on one of John P. Colby's gamedogs. Petey from L'il Rascals was actually dual-registered with the AKC and UKC. As with the UKC APBT, the emphasis on conformation over working ability has resulted in a dog with more exaggerated physical features than the typical gamedog. There is the lingering notion that AmStaff lovers are phony anglophiles trying to leave their old pit bull relatives behind, but failing miserably with a watered-down bulldog. In reality, even though AmStaffs have been bred for show and their bloodlines have diverged from working bloodlines, many of these dogs look and act no different than a gamedog.

Bully/American Bully: This is the low-slung, wide and huge pit bull popularized by gang bangers in the 1980s who developed them for guard work and badass image. Although there have always been large pit bulls, and pit bull/mastiff crosses (called "Bandogs"), the larger pit bull became fashionable in the last few decades and associated with urban street culture and a particular sort of expression of African-American identity. Atomic Dogg Magazine provides a good representation of this "style" of dog, typified by Razor's Edge and Gotti bloodlines. Even though this culture often seems to give a nod to gamedogs, there is bitter resentment among gamedoggers toward bullies and their owners. These dogs are seen as mutants, embarrassments to the true APBT, and are accused of being obese, overdone, piglike, and all manner of other evils. The racism that is directed at bullies is often very thinly veiled and centers on the concept of the "blue dog" on many pit bull message boards. (This is because blue is a popular color among bullies and show dogs, but is far less common in gamedogs which are not bred for color or physical appearance but for working ability/performance.) Because bullies tend to be larger, gamedoggers often say that their little dogs could kick a bully's big blue ass, but there is also some indication that the greater size of the bully lends itself to quick-and-dirty urban streetfights where physical power is more important than endurance or gameness. A huge caveat here is that tons of white people raise bullies, and many of these dogs are registered with the UKC. Just a few years back, a group of bully enthusiasts created a separate breed, the American Bully (not yet recognized by AKC or UKC) to differentiate and legitimize this type of dog.

Rednose, bluenose: These terms came into vogue in recent years to designate types of pit bulls based on color. While red noses and blue noses are common results of recessive genes that manifest through inbreeding and linebreeding, using these terms to describe dogs, as in "I have a rednose," is thought by many breed fanciers to be inappropriate since it places emphasis on color rather than bloodline or some more meaningful descriptor. People confuse rednose with OFRN (Old Family Red Nose), which refers to a constellation of historic pit bull bloodlines, but OFRN dogs may or may not have red noses.

Pit, pit, pit: The use of the term "pit" by itself is relatively recent and was originally used in urban areas to refer to bully-type dogs. The term has caught on and is now widely used in popular culture to refer to any and all pit bull type dogs (and even some non-pit bull-type dogs). The terms gets a great deal of hate from APBT fanciers and gamedoggers who are concerned about preserving the APBT and act as gatekeepers, policing the boundaries of what is and is not a true pit bull.

Petbull: The term used by working and even show dog people to refer to the typically spayed or neutered pit bull that serves only as a pet and companion. Petbull is often used online as a derogatory term, as a petbull is considered by some gamedoggers to be either waste of a good bulldog, a bored couch potato, or a cur.

Pibble, pittie: the more positive and feminized identifiers of a petbull used by pet lovers and rescues. These cute terms seem to be aimed at rehabilitating the image of the pit bull.

Fighting dog: I'm still trying to figure this one out. Throughout history and all over the world, various breeds and non-breeds have been used for fighting. And many dogs will fight, you know, just like people. My Chihuahua is the closest thing I've seen to a dead game dog. Point being, this is a complete red herring, used by HSUS et al to create fear and manipulate the public, and a totally vague and inappropriate basis for legislation.
All this being said, I would dare the most knowledgeable pit bull fancier to categorize the average "pit bull" that shows up in a shelter. It's impossible: dogs are individuals, there is wide variation even within litters, and the pit bull with no history or context could conceivably fit within any of the above categories. I've avoided adding photographs since these "types" are so fluid. But they do exist, at least as archetypes or imaginaries, and they carry great psychological import and potentially disastrous consequences for the dogs.

It's important to realize that although there are surely biological components, dog breeds, like race, class, and gender, are socially constructed. Literally created by humans within culture for various purposes. Despite best efforts to retain purity of a breed or a bloodline, they are always changing, just like the English language. To understand social constructions means getting past the simple dichotomies of good and bad, black and white, traditional or newfangled, and considering the deeper reasons behind our choices - in dog breeds or anything else. What do these choices serve, what kinds of identities do they create or challenge? These types of categories provide frameworks in and through which we live.

In order to analyze dog breeds and their representations, we need to understand the range of signifiers we're dealing with, and all their offensive and stereotypical implications. We need to historicize and complicate the term "pit bull" to begin to unpack its relationship to race, gender, and class, both within the multiple cultures that embrace pit bulls and vis-a-vis society at large. Hopefully we are ready to begin.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

the savage pit bull

Cultural representations are primarily viewed as mere reflections of lives. While it is true that cultural representations reflect lives, they also help create and shape us; our relationship to culture is not one-way, it is symbiotic and multi-directional. Representations both create and reflect us.

I see this frequently on television. Wal-Mart--no, really--does a superb job of creating the (ideal) family in their commercials. Their commercials always show hetero-normative nuclear families, shopping (often together), and then together using the items bought at Wal-Mart, while the mother expresses appreciative delight over the time and money she saves at Wal-Mart; time and money, she adds, that enable her to spend more time with her family, which is, of course, her number one priority.

Similar families are seen in myriad advertisements; to me, they seem particularly apparent in automobile commericals. Regardless of whether there's a luxury sedan parked in the driveway of a home with a white picket fence or a rugged vehicle navigating the great outdoors, a family dog is frequently included in advertisements as well. I think this is because it helps establish a more whole idea(l) of acquisition and affluence. The family dog represents the proverbial cherry on top of this family's sundae of middle class life.

The dogs I frequently see in cultural representations of the family or affluence are overwhelmingly labradors and golden retrievers. By registered ownership, these two are among the most popular worldwide. And what kinds of people have the time, money, or interest in registering their dogs? I'll give you a clue: not the poor kind.

When I think of the ways in which dogs have been used to help craft an image, President Clinton comes to mind. If you'll recall, Clinton got himself a nice chocolate lab, Buddy. He came into office with the family cat, Socks. (This was very scandalous in my small Southern rural, working class, Southern Baptist family. The feeling among the burly hunting men in my family was that real men didn't have cats, they had dogs. They felt that his adoption was disingenuous and that he only got the dog to boost his image and ratings. Of course, they are rabid ultra-Christians who despise President Clinton to this day). I remember hearing that shortly after Clinton's presidency ended, the media reported he gave Buddy to his secretary, Betty Currie, and that it had been hit by a car and killed. That totally bummed me out that he abandoned his dog that way. But I digress.

The point being, arguably the most affluent and powerful family in the country chose a chocolate lab. Can you imagine the Clinton family's image had they chosen a pit bull? Seriously, use your best tools to imagine this. Bill Clinton's poor Southern heritage and vices (e.g., junk food, infidelity, drugs) would have been used to deride him for having low class, white trash tendencies--which sometimes happened anyway. Clinton may have been embraced more in the media than other presidents (and this has nothing to do with the so-called fucking liberal media;it has to do with the fact that the other--yes, irrelevantly conservative--presidents were wack) but there were still snide comments here and there, in television and print, about his country ass. (As a country ass bitch myself, I am ultra aware of the ways in which Southern accents and other markers of this type of difference are used to demean and de-legitimize us). It was a shrewd decision; the labrador functioned as a way to class him right up.

Labs are so popular, in fact, they're being used to create all kinds of new and trendy dogs, such as Labradoodles (lab and poodle) and Labradanes (lab and Great Dane). When you add "lab" or any other number of "respectable dogs" to a create a designer dog worth high prices and social acceptance. When you add "pit" to a dog you create a pit mix, a preternaturally vicious creature that is, way more often than not, automatically and without consideration or evaluation, considered un-adoptable and then euthanized.

My ideas about this are not only based on my observations of media and culture; they're based on the experiences I've had in over 4 years of employment in the doggie daycare industry; my beliefs are also informed by my experiences in the animal welfare industry. The clients for these businesses were almost entirely upper class and had dogs to reflect their status: lots and lots of goldens, labs, vizslas, weimaraners, and toy breeds of all kinds. My ideas are also informed by the reactions I've received from strangers, or those who don't know me well, when they ask me about my dogs. When I proudly and enthusiastically tell people I have two rescued pit bulls, the reactions have primarily been surprise, shock, disbelief, and suspicion. What would a nice girl like me want with (it's especially effective if you whisper it) those dogs? You see, those dogs belong to those people, a group of people from which I am considered separate because I am white, female, queer, and femme.

The sea change in our country's pereption is glaringly apparent when considering the pit bull's cultural significance and representation. During World Wars One and Two, they were mascots of America and symbols of our most esteemed characteristics: tenacious, courageous, brave, loyal.

Think of representations of them today. Local and national news regularly report stories of savage pit bull maulings, and images of pit bulls are popular in hip hop music videos and the like. Cellular telephone giant Verizon even recently featured a commercial where those coveting their "LG Dare" telephones came face to face with two snarling, chained junk yard pit bulls in order to touch the phone.

Because the broader society associates pit bulls with the poor and/peoples of color, and these people are seen as Other/savage, so too are pit bulls, a member of America's most beloved domesticated animals, turned into savages and others. This, I firmly believe, is part of why we as a society don't want them. As expected, spotted dog farm brilliantly touched on this in the initial post when referencing BSL (breed specifical legislation). If we can successfully legislate against those dogs, we may be on our way to finding successful ways to rid our good nation of those people. Pit bulls are largely seen and characterized as being unstable, vicious, dangerous, aggressive. Interestingly enough, these traits are also frequently attributed to the poor and peoples of color. Those people are considered menaces to society, and so are those dogs.

What else could be the source of such WILLFUL ignorance? White middle class America touts education and learning as being essential components of self and success. So what else explains the seemingly deliberate ways broader society ignores their own advice when it comes to these dogs? Their respected history is there if you look for it. The dogs themselves are there, the vast majority of which are waiting to kiss you into seeing the truth of their nature. In the words of my daddy, "They're just dogs." (Actually, they're the best, most exceptional dogs, but we'll address that in future posts). His point being, of course, is that pit bulls are simply dogs and not killing machines. While they are simply dogs, as you can see, the ways in which pit bulls are entangled in public, political, and cultural discourses are anything but simple.