The State of the American Dog

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When a cocker spaniel bites, it does so as a member of its species; it is never anything but a dog. When a pit bull bites, it does so as a member of its breed. A pit bull is never anything but a pit bull.

Powerful, moving, and at times hard-to-read article by Tom Junod in Esquire about pit bulls, and how they parallel the state of America.

Pit bulls are a mainstream American dog. You see a lot of them, the bullet-shaped face where you used to see long, German-shepherd-like noses. Despite their popularity, they’re the dog most likely to be hated, feared, and banned by law from many American communities. Many people believe pit bulls are vicious and violent by nature; others believe they’re gentle, loving dogs, maligned by prejudice and ignorance.

What pit bulls are, says Junod, is dogs, each one an individual, but part of a species capable of both gentle love and aggression. Never forget your dog is a predator, or else you’re setting yourself up for tragedy.

Ironically, all this emotion is heaped on a breed of dog that has no scientific existence. A pit bull is not a breed the way a German shepherd or a collie is a breed. A pit bull is simply a kind of dog that has a number of characteristics: Shape of skull, body type, coat, and so forth. And even that is imprecise — a pit bull is basically what you point to when you’re talking about pit bulls.

Pit bulls are more likely to be owned by poor people, and ethnic minorities. Affluent whites will often cross the street to avoid them.

You learn a lot about America when you own a pit bull. You learn not just who likes your dog; you learn what kind of person likes your dog—and what kind of person fears him. You generalize. You profile. You see a well-heeled white woman walking a golden retriever and expect her to cross the street and give you a dirty look; you see the guy who’s cutting down her trees or pressure-washing her driveway and you expect him to say: “That’s a beautiful dog.” Or: “How much you want for that dog?” Or: “You fight that dog?” You learn that the argument about pit bulls takes place along the lines of class and, to a lesser extent, race. The opposition to pit bulls might not be racist; it does, however, employ racial thinking. If a pit-bull-Labrador mix bites, then the pit bull is always what has done the biting, its portion of the blood—its taint—ineradicable and finally decisive.

Pit bulls are killed by the thousands every day in America. Literally thousands every day. They’re very likely to be brought to shelters, and difficult to adopt out because of their reputation. (And that reputation should not be dismissed out of hand as mere prejudice. Discussions about pit bulls and viciousness are a confusing mix of slander, truth, and self-fulfilling prophecy.)

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.

The State of the American Dog

This is such a terrific article that I’d like to study it to figure our how it’s researched and structured. I’ve done woefully little long-form multi-sourced journalism in the last decade.

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17 thoughts on “The State of the American Dog

  1. Deborah Ross: Most pit bulls are sweet, loving dogs. But like all dogs, they need to be well-socialized and their breed characteristics understood. Unfortunately, many are owned by folks who think they are “tough,” don’t keep them safe and happy, and expose them to overwhelming, distressing situations. via plus.google.com

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