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.

Friday, April 17, 2009

"Tremble, Hetero Swine!"

Where do we even begin? I can't possibly outline in this initial blog post all the links between pit bull dogs and broader structures of oppression. First that would mean defining "pit bull" - always a hot topic online - is it a breed, or not a breed? And would ya even know one when you saw one? We'll deal with all that soon. But there are also myriad discourses swirling around pit bulls, both in popular culture and in the political landscape. These are where the real problems lie: in rampant ignorance and prejudice that manifest in neighborhoods, in shelters, in ill-conceived legislation, and that directly result in mountains, literally landfills full of bodies of dead "pit bulls."

But I'm getting ahead of myself. In order to recognize these as problems, one has to be aware that these structures of oppression even exist. If you don't believe in sexism, racism, classism - if you think we've taken care of all that and need to stop squawking - then you're not gonna get it. If you're invested in maintaining the status quo of white male privilege, then you might even want to silence us or worse: hurt our dogs. There are going to have to be some rules of engagement here on this blog to deal with you. We want to speak honestly here, and won't apologize for our truths. This country is not a democracy and neither is this blog; we are open to all sorts of productive dialogue, but if you are threatening or hostile, we will delete your scum-sucking ass. It's our blog, and Mama Knows Best.

Let me try to explain the big picture, as I see it. (I don't pretend to speak for red velvet femme, and I'm sure she will chime in with her usual hard-hitting eloquence.) Pit bulls are not vicious; they are much like any other breed of dog. IMHNSO, they are the bestest dogs ever. They are, however, the victims of a vicious culture war, a war that is most assuredly based in racism, but it may be even more about class than race (we'll have to explore that later, too). Breed-specific legislation is the most obvious example: getting rid of "those" dogs is a transparent attempt to get rid of "those" people. You know the ones. The trunkin' ghetto thugs and white trash byb's too. Really, let's just have mandatory spay/neuter for those folks as well. The poor pit bulls have become a hugely contested signifier of racial and class-based fear and hatred.

Pit bull enthusiasts have employed a couple of different strategies. As pit bulls continue to be (over)bred in urban areas, they line the death rows of shelters across the U.S. Despite all best efforts to exterminate them (some shelters even call them "kennel trash"), they continue to come in droves. The tide is so high that I've caught myself desperately wondering whether they didn't signal an apocalypse. This endless flow constitutes a viral form of resistance from the urban underclass. Even though the dogs are perfectly lovable and adoptable, they have come to represent the violent excess that will always escape societal controls. And so the cycle continues and escalates: this flood of dogs running loose (and maybe after your children) heightens the hysteria, akin to moral panic, among mainstream media, citizens and lawmakers.

Then there are a number of advocacy groups that have done their best to package pit bulls for the middle class. They photograph them lounging in designer gear, licking on pet kittens, and mugging for cameras. It's all good. It seems to be helping. But the "Ban the Deed, Not the Breed" strategy displaces all that hatred back onto the people, those bad pet owners in their do-rags and pickup trucks. It doesn't get to the root of the problems of marginalization and oppression in all its forms. We're still living under patriarchy. Because "those" people love their dogs too. Pit bulls can be appropriated and re-appropriated by different groups for disparate ends, and still the dogs will suffer.

Here's a necessary disclaimer: we aren't saying that racism is equal to breed discrimination. Or that one struggle for human liberation is the same as another. Social movements each have their own histories and specificities and we don't want to conveniently collapse them for the sake of our argument. But there are relationships and all kinds of slippages between forms of bigotry. The animal liberation movement has been informed by the civil rights movement and other liberation struggles. And in the case of pit bulls suffering due to racial and class prejudices, we're not talking about merely analogous oppressions, but about prejudices actually creating and fostering one another.

We're also not claiming we're the first to have thought of this stuff, or the only ones to be having this discussion. There are some amazing blogging voices out there. It's complicated enough that we are joining in and devoting a whole blog to talking about it. Of course, we can't blog without basic guerrilla tactics: over-the-top irony, cute doggie pics, vegan recipes, Foucault and foul language. Hope you'll come back soon.

(Hat tip to Michael Swift and Cindy Patton for my (yes, ironic) title.)