Barbara Kay: Why do smart people cry crocodile tears for vicious pit bulls?


National Post - Tuesday July 22nd, 2014

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More than 3-million pit bulls live with ordinary North American families, many of them having no idea what sort of aggressive mental hard-wiring has been systematically bred into these dogs’ brains.

Until a few decades ago, North America’s pit bull population was minuscule — mere hundreds of thousands, owned mostly by security-minded junkyard-dealer types who knew exactly what sort of ferocious jaws-with-legs they had on chain.

But in the years since, pit bulls gradually have been recast as gentle, lovable pets. When cities have (sensibly) banned pit bulls, usually in response to especially awful maulings, politicians have been met with an advocacy movement that idealizes pit bulls as misunderstood victims of fearmongering “breed bigots.” According to one measure, pit bulls now run second to Labrador retrievers in popularity among dog owners.

Today, more than 3-million pit bulls live with ordinary North American families, many of them having no idea what sort of aggressive mental hard-wiring has been systematically bred into these dogs’ brains — until they or a family member are mugged by genetic reality. Smart pit-bull owners recognize the warning signs early, and head straight to the vet to get them euthanized. But new, gullible dog-owning greenhorns continually fill the vacuum.

It would take a Jonathan Swift to do justice to the emotional polarization of the pro- and anti-pit bull camps. Swift’s Lilliputian Big-Endians and Little-Endians in Gulliver’s Travels are lovebirds by comparison. As John Homans writes in his 2012 book What’s a Dog For? The surprising history, science, philosophy and politics of man’s best friend, “The dog world is aflame with conflict … The fierceness and impacted rage in some of these disputes suggested to me they were about something else, and they are: the politics of dogs are a reflection, distilled and distorted, of the politics of people. They’re surrogates for our own conflicts.”

I get why thugs love the pit bull. They like the way their canine weaponry intimidates people. I get why pet-rescue sentimentalists love them. They’re suckers for stories of animal abuse (the 2007 Michael Vick dog-fighting and torture scandal sent pit-bull rescue figures through the roof). What I don’t get is the irrationality of otherwise-brainy intellectuals and academics who confuse animals with people, and who have embraced the pit bull as an avatar of human identity politics.

Gladwell argues that profiling dogs indirectly sanctions racial profiling. How can such a normally fertile brain spew forth such nonsense?

Take Malcolm Gladwell, who defended pit bulls in a 2010 New Yorker article, later incorporated into his book What the Dog Saw. He argues that profiling dogs indirectly sanctions racial profiling. How can such a normally fertile brain spew forth such nonsense? It is intellectually untenable and downright insulting to African-Americans to conflate line-bred dogs — the epitome of the eugenically constructed stereotype — with naturally evolved humans who differ in superficial aspects such as skin colour.

Pit bulls also are hot in academia, especially gender studies. Here’s California graduate student of “animal-human studies” Harlan Weaver, whose new project, boasted of online, “comes out of 10 years of pit bull advocacy (and love). In it, Harlan explores the ways that species, breed, race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and nation are mutually shaped by relationships between humans and so-called dangerous dogs, ‘pit bull-type’ dogs in particular.”

Then there’s journalist Tom Junod’s syrupy new paean to pit bulls, The state of the American dog, in Esquire Online. The average reader will find its lyricism enchanting (it’s gone viral). But I found it disingenuous and misleading in, for example, its implication that the severe damage his pit bulls inflicted on other dogs could have happened with any breed.

Even though it’s alive, a dog is a consumer product. You buy it. You sell it

He solicits one veterinarian’s opinion on whether pit bulls are inherently dangerous, and that particular vet waves away trait heritability. (He’s “just a dog” is the common refrain.) Judon implies this is the profession’s consensus by failing to mention that many other vets are on record with statements such as “[pit bulls] are time bombs” and “they are a perversion of everything normal dogs would do.”

Finally, here’s Judon playing that race card again: “The opposition to pit bulls might not be racist. It does, however, employ racial thinking..”

Tom. Tom! Even though it’s alive, a dog is a consumer product. You buy it. You sell it. You can euthanize it tomorrow if the mood strikes you. Discrimination amongst products is reasonable as a strategy to get the product that suits your needs — including, say, a product that won’t kill your child. Is it racist for the CNIB to prefer Labrador Retrievers over bloodhounds as service animals for the blind?

Judon concedes that statistics are worrisome, but “[pit bulls] are more sinned against than sinning.” There’s that species relativism again. Pit bulls have been responsible for most of the 4,000-plus fatal or maiming dog attacks in North America since 1982, and most of the killings of other pets. That’s a lot of “sins.” What’s more important: encouraging the proliferation of high-risk pit bulls or ensuring safe neighbourhoods for human beings and their low-risk pets?

Too many smart people, feeling instead of thinking, are giving the wrong answer.