Fear, loathing, and the mythology of the pit bull: Bronwen Dickey on America’s most divisive dog

In advance of her Carter Center appearance this week, the journalist discusses her book, Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon

Bronwen Dickey Pit BullIf you think you know pit bulls, think again. In Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, Bronwen Dickey explores humankind’s relationship with the dog that’s been, at various times, abused, coveted, maligned, celebrated, and, in almost a thousand communities throughout the United States, banned. For one thing, just the phrase “pit bull” is a misleading catch-all term, referring, most narrowly, to one specific breed (the American pit bull terrier), but which in common usage has grown to encompass many different breeds. Even dogs with “pit bull characteristics,” such as blocky heads or brindle coats, can be declared pits by association. As Dickey explores in her book, the phrase “pit bull” is freighted with political baggage, a “slapdash shorthand for a general shape of a dog.”

Dickey and her husband are pit-owners, but as a journalist by profession, she approached her reporting, which took place over seven years, seeking simply to explore the dog’s conflicted history with its keepers. (The descriptions of dog-fighting pits in 19th-century New York City are especially appalling.) For instance, approximately 35 Americans are killed by dogs each year—dogs of all breeds. How many more are injured is unknown. Dickey tells the story of a New York City woman named Tara FitzGerald who leaned down to scratch her dog’s stomach. In a flash, he pounced on her, tearing through her face and removing parts of her cheek and lip. The dog was a basset hound. FitzGerald, Dickey writes, “never blamed Biko’s actions on his breed, nor did she indict all other basset hounds. Rather, she accepted that after five years of love and companionship something incomprehensible had gone very wrong with her dog. Her story did not make the news.”

Dickey will be at the Carter Center at 7 p.m. this Thursday, May 19, to read from and autograph her book. The event is free.

In advance of her appearance, we spoke with Dickey by phone. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Bronwen Dickey
Bronwen Dickey

Photograph by Rebecca Necessary

You have a personal connection to this subject, having adopted a pit bull, Nola, yourself. At what point did you see a book in all this?
It crept up on me slowly. I’d started researching the subject in 2008 before we even adopted Nola. I found so much that couldn’t be encapsulated in just a magazine story. There was the scientific thread, the historical thread, the social thread. The book allowed me to talk about all these different things.

I wanted this to be a comprehensive history of how we got to this point. And wanted it to be a plea to look at dogs in the human context, and think about how we create these narratives. I kind of think it’s like what Voltaire said about God; if the pit bull did not exist, it probably would have been necessary to create it.

The phrase “pit bull” means different things to different people. What are the consequences of that confusion?
It distorts any of the statistics that we have. As I say in the book, you can’t say one type of dogs is more responsible for bites than another type of dog. That could be a good thing, because it might force us to look at dogs as a species, not as individual breeds, and how we interact with them.

Most cities in America have extraordinarily low licensing requirements. Even purebred dogs aren’t required to be licensed. So what we consider a pit bull is so subjective, meaning the statistics are not reliable. When people say, “Pit bulls bite disproportionately,” you can’t say that when you don’t know the dog’s true proportions to begin with.

Any book about dogs is going to be just as much about people as it is the animals themselves. What does our love/hate relationship about pit bulls say about us?
I began the book really believing I was going to be writing about dogs. But really I was writing about people. It’s much more about the way people perceive dogs and project on them and turn them into symbols.

You mention the story of Tara FitzGerald, who had part of her face torn away by her basset hound. This wasn’t in the news. To what degree is the media complicit in establishing the reputation of pit bulls as potentially homicidal?
In the beginning it was the humane part of the media trying to do something good by targeting the people abusing animals, then it snowballed into allowing people to expound on the dogs that weren’t qualified to. But sensationalism sells. A reporter in Colorado said, “We print the stories that people bring to us. And it’s just more likely that people will bring us the story of a pit bull.”

You write about spending some time with a woman named Lori Hensley, who directs a nonprofit called Coalition to Unchain Dogs, in which they help make homes that are at-risk for abusing or neglecting a dog more hospitable for the dogs, whether it’s fencing in a play area or helping with veterinarian bills. It’s tempting—as a dog owner myself who takes her to the vet once a year and spends way too much on her dog food—to pass judgment on dog owners who are poor and who chain their dogs or in other ways neglect them. As in, if they can’t afford it, they have no business owning a dog.
What I learned when I started going around with Lori and going into people’s homes and having conversations with them, is that honestly they were doing the best they could. It was a lack of money, not a lack of morals. Like any social issue, there are so many layers to it. Pointing finger sand judging people doesn’t help. A lot of times when I went to various homes, the dog outside was living in a very sad and deprived way, but sometimes the dog was doing better than the person was inside the house.

When it comes to dogs, everyone is an expert. Maybe it’s because millions of us own dogs and so we think because we know our dogs we know all dogs.
That’s true. But I’ve been on an awful lot of airplanes but I could never build one and I could never fly one.