A few years ago, when I was teaching a weekend class at Portland State, I would ask my students, “When is the last time you read something that made you question what you believe?”
Not something that made you change your mind necessarily, but something that at least made you reconsider. The point was to draw a link between persuasive writing — as in an editorial or a blog post — and people’s beliefs, which too often go unchallenged.
That classroom question came to mind recently when I read Tom Junod’s essay on pit bulls. Titled the “State of the American Dog,” it’s a first-person account of owning the most feared canine breed in America.
We know about pit bulls, don’t we? Bred to fight, bred to maim or kill. Favored by drug dealers and meathead wannabes, who act as if the intimidating, intact male at the end of the leash is an extension of their big, bad selves. In short, a dog not to be trusted.
I had to check myself, though, when my son and daughter-in-law decided to adopt a rescue pit bull puppy from the veterinarian’s office where she works. Patiently, they nursed him to health after a broken leg and introduced him slowly to the other four-legged members of the household – a chocolate Lab and two full-grown cats.
I admit to being leery when they brought him down to visit while he was still on the mend — and I confess to lingering nervousness when we stayed with Jordan and Jamie a couple months ago. Now that he was fully healed, how would he behave around our Jack Russell terrier?
I needn’t have worried. Jax is as playful and obedient as any dog I’ve seen – probably even more so. I realize he’s still very young, though, and I haven’t seen him in a situation where he might behave aggressively. So I want to believe Jamie and Jordan know what they are doing and that Jax won’t ever be a problem.
With all this as a backdrop, I was curious to read Junod’s take in the August issue of Esquire. The article makes a provocative argument that we as a society are guilty of applying the principles of racial profiling to pit bulls. In the same way that all members of a group are held accountable for the misdeeds of some members of that group, so too are all pit bulls viewed with disdain because of the actions of some.
The reality, says Junod, is that pit bulls have been sinned against far more often than they sin. I don’t doubt that’s true. There’s a reason nearly all pit bulls adopted from shelters are rescues. They have been abused and increasingly discarded, as if they were expendable. They deserve to be seen and judged as individual dogs, Junod argues, not cast aside on the basis of guilt by association with their breed.
Here is the most cogent passage in Junod’s piece. Does it make you reconsider what you believe? It gave me pause.
America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal. We have become schizophrenic in that way, and pit bulls hold up the same mirror as the 2.2 million souls in our prisons and jails and the more than 350,000 people we deport every year.
Every year, American shelters have to kill about 1.2 million dogs. But both pro- and anti-pit-bull organizations estimate that of these, anywhere from 800,000 to nearly 1 million are pit bulls. We kill anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pit bulls a day. They are rising simultaneously in popularity and disposability, becoming something truly American, a popular dog forever poised on the brink of extermination. There is endless argument over the reliability of bite statistics and breed identification and over the question of whether aggression in dogs is associated with specific genes or environmental triggers common to all dogs: that is, whether pit bulls who bite do so because they are pit bulls or because they are more likely to be intact male dogs at the end of a chain.
But even if you concede the worst of the statistics—even if you concede the authority of a fourteen-year-old CDC report that implicated pit bulls and rottweilers in a majority of fatal dog attacks—one thing is certain about pit bulls in America: They are more sinned against than sinning.
Lead photograph: Michael Friberg
Secondary photo: George Rede