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.


  1. very interesting and thought provoking. i think i may agree to disagree with you, but it will take me awhile to come up with why, and a thoughtful post deserves a thoughtful reply! in the meantime, i love that you're posting this stuff!

  2. There's a certain "shelter" here in my neck of the woods that ships hundreds of animals up from the South and holds adopt-a-thons that draw thousands of people at a time along with TV and newspaper crews.

    In the meantime, hundreds of animals in our own state are being put to death because the Southern dogs and cats are stealing away homes that could have been theirs. (Don't get me wrong - I want homes for all neglected animals!)

    Does this shelter do anything in the South in terms of spay/neuter education to reduce the problem at its root? Not that I'm aware of. I truly believe this is fast becoming the replacement for puppy mills.

    Yes, we have a huge number of Pit Bulls and bully breeds, and - surprise - the majority of them are wonderful, happy, well-behaved, human- and animal-loving dogs that don't deserve to take the horrible walk that you describe above.

    The no-kill shelter where I volunteer/work is hell-bent on saving animals in our own back yard, and we're proud of it. And we'll go out of our way to save the Pit Bull with health issues just as we would the Yorkie's. In our eyes, his life is just as valuable as any.

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking entry! (Sorry to have gone on, and on, and on!)

  3. thanks for your feedback, y'all. i love the thoughtful consideration that comes from provocation.

    and just fyi--i don't want to come across as not caring about that hypothetical yorkie or any other animal; that's not the case at all. i use these examples as ways to illuminate the sanctioned murder of my particular breed of dog, as well as the ways in which this breed is tangled up in all sorts of discourses, ideologies, and prejudices that involve and affect them directly and indirectly.

  4. Beautifully argued point. I could not agree with you more. These dogs are not kennel trash. They are wonderful animals and should be treated as such. The villification of this umbrella species is nothing more than racism for animals.

  5. I would love to feature your blog and more about Pit bull rescue/education on my blog. Thank you so much for being out there and educating the public.

  6. kittykill, that's thrilling - thanks so much! just let us know when you're ready and we can give you more info :)