Pit Bulls and Bigotry

Writer Charles Leerhsen has experienced a conversion. After witnessing his best friend being viciously attacked and nearly killed on a city street without provocation, he has embraced bigotry with both hands. Now he writes screeds condemning not the attacker, but all individuals of the attacker’s race. In a passionate and angry essay for The Daily Beast, he denigrates not only those individuals but also anyone who defends them, such as “certain PC urban professionals who long to tell the world that they are super-sensitive and understanding souls.”

It’s an ugly essay, emotional, doctrinaire, and illogical, employing the well-worn racist technique of generalizing from the individual to the group and back again. Why would any respectable media outlet print such bile?

Perhaps it is because Leerhsen’s best friend was Frankie, a Wheaton terrier, and Frankie’s attacker was a pit bull. Yet the reasoning employed by Leerhsen to advocate the extermination of pit bulls is indistinguishable from that of the Klan, the nativists or anti-Semites. Is it more respectable, because it is focused on a breed of dogs rather than a race, ethnic groups, or a culture? Absolutely not. His argument is  sincere and unfair, understandable but irresponsible. The white man whose daughter was raped and killed by a black may distrust and hate blacks; the black mother whose teenage son is beaten to death by white thugs may reflexively hate whites. Hate, however, is an explanation, not a justification.

Like his ideological twins, the racists, Leerhsen has no interest in facts, only generalities. He cites the frequency of  pit bull attacks, and attributes them to the breed itself, rather than the treatment and disposition of the individual dogs. Never mind that dog breeders and the American Kennel Club, who know the breeds best, maintain that the dogs Leerhsen describes as “natural born killers” are loyal, intelligent, and gentle dogs well-suited to families. There is no indication that Leerhsen even knows what breed attacked Frankie: there are at least five distinct dog breeds that people are prone to call pit bulls—the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the  Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Bulldog and the Bull Terrier. Though Leerhsen would clearly bristle if his Wheaton Terrier was blamed for the misbehavior of an Airedale or Kerry Blue Terrier, he doesn’t think the bull breeds (all originally created by hybrid bulldog mixes) deserve the same courtesy. Bull Terrier (the Current Target mascot, and Gen. Patton’s dog of choice) or American Staffordshire Terrier (like “Petey,” the big, friendly dog in the “Our Gang” comedies) they all look alike to him. Just kill ‘em all.

The problem is that “they all look alike” to reporters, too, who will describe any incident involving any of the breeds as a “pit bull attack” and thus make Leerhsen’s claim that “the breed” accounts for “by far” the most attacks on humans and animals inherently dubious. Even if all the attacks he refers to were attributable to one breed rather than five, however, his argument makes neither ethical nor logical sense.

The pit bull breeds have become the dog of choice for illegal dog-fighting and urban intimidation, meaning that there are a disproportional number of abused, disturbed, mistreated, and negligently trained animals among them. Anyone who acquires a bull breed should be wary, more because of this cultural phenomenon rather than because of any proclivities of the breeds themselves (though some of the bull breeds are trickier to train than others, and no one should acquire a powerful animal without making certain that it is under control at all times), just as parents adopting a child need to know about any conditions that would affect his or her development. The main problem is still the owners of the dogs, not the dogs themselves.

If Leerhsen got his way and America “got rid” of all pit bull breeds, does he really think the type of owners who breed their dogs to fight, intimidate and attack, who beat them and train them to be fearful of other dogs and humans, would happily go off and buy Yorkies and  Pugs? No; in a very short time we would be seeing and hearing calls to “ban” Rottweilers, Bull Mastiffs, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, or some other perfectly safe, intelligent, powerful breed of dog that was now being misused and abused like the extinct pit bulls.

Leerhsen doesn’t bother to explain how these five old, established breeds suddenly became so dangerous, when through most of the last century they were regarded as excellent family dogs (hence Petey), and other breeds, like the Doberman, were the objects of fear. For that matter, he didn’t bother to inquire about the dog that attacked Frankie. Was it a rescued dog that had been previously abused? Was it trained as a guard dog? If the dog’s handler had been obeying the law, the dog would have been on a leash, and no attack would have occurred. Never mind. Lerrhsen’s mind is made up. “I have heard stories about leashed Pit Bulls killing other dogs,” he writes. Well, that settles it, I guess. A pit bull attacked his friend, and he hates them all. Case closed.

Leerhsen embodies a strain of toxic thought in America, shared by bigots of all kinds as well anti-gun fanatics, those who would censor video games and legal pornography, and the rapidly spreading ranks of fear-mongerers on both ends of the political spectrum. Their signature approach to issues is that any risk is too much, and it is better to stripmine the world of every diversion, pleasure, device and tool that may be turned to destructive ends by the mean, the stupid, the greedy or the unscrupulous. All their way accomplishes is to change the means used to do wrong, because you can’t ban people.

You shouldn’t ban dogs, either. My son’s dog, as loved and gentle as Frankie, was nearly killed by a Belgian Shepherd. Good friends of mine adopted a beautiful young boxer, loving but damaged, who began attacking neighbors. Every member of my family was attacked by our Bassett Hound, renowned as one of the most gentle dog breeds. Leerhsen’s logic of fear, generalization and hate could be used to justify eliminating all dogs, except, I suppose, Wheaton Terriers. How much joy would that suck out of human existence? I don’t know, but too much.

Leerhsen’s brief against pit bulls is incompetent as policy advocacy, but useful for those who would understand the human tendency toward prejudice. All we need is the right combination of ignorance, anger, fear, hate, and a perceived threat to something we care about, and there it is.

Get well quick, Frankie.

[NOTE: You can read the follow-up to this post, as Leerhsen continued his vendetta, here.]

16 thoughts on “Pit Bulls and Bigotry

  1. Excellent article, very well written, factual and fair. Bravo and thank you. I have had to change my NYC dog licenses three times b/c they were mislabeled as “pit bulls” in rescue and the shelter. One is a vizsla mix, the other a bull terrier mix. And if they were full pits, I would be just as proud to walk my AKC Canine Good Citizens through our crowded city streets.

    If this subject interests you, please keep up on the NYCHA breed ban passed last May, Council member Peter Vallone’s 10+ year call for banning/euth’ing all pit bull type dogs, the budget cuts to the ACC which is run ineffectively by the DOH which could care less about dogs, especially pit bulls…NY bully breed owners are under seige, and most of them don’t even realize…BSL is illegal in New York State.

  2. There’s a huge difference between categorizing people, as racism does, and categorizing purebred dogs. Purebred dogs are meant to be categorized–that’s the beauty of them. If you want a herder, you buy an aussie. A hunter, go for a lab. In AKC you have working dogs; herding dogs, and so on, depending on the reason the dog was originally bred. Purebreds are all bred for specific characteristics. Pits were bred to kill other dogs (and are not recognized by AKC, though their distant cousin, the staffie, is.) Your argument that categorizing a dog is racist is, in itself, racist. It says that the reason people classify people into races is because people (usually darker skinned people) were “bred” a certain way and for a certain purpose. Your argument says that who these people mated with was controlled by a breeder who sought certain characteristics. That’s racist. Leerhsen’s article is not. Race is a cultural construct. Shame on you for paralleling Leerhsen’s stance on a breed of dog that was bred for fighting with a cultural construct as serious as racism.

    • Nonsense. Breed and race are synonyms. Anyone who knows anything about dogs (or indeed, any animal) knows that there is as much variation among individuals within a breed as there is variation within individuals within a human race or ethnic category. Racism is applying group stereotypes to individuals, and using individuals as typical of a group. I said nothing about the breeding of humans, because it is irrelevant to this discussion, and irrelevant to the issue of race: human races did not result from designer breeding.

      Dogs breeds were created for all sorts of purposes originally, but that does not have much to do with their temperment or variation today. Mastiffs were bred as fighting dogs, and you can’t find more reliably gentle companions. Ridgebacks were bred to hunt lions. Bull terriers were bred to bite bulls in the face–so what? You really think the AKC divisions are that accurate and specific as they apply to individual dogs? Bulldogs were bred to fight too, but they aren’t in the terrier group. The German Shepherd was a herding dog—why is it in the working group? Ridiculous.

      If you want to willfully misunderstand a clear argument, be my guest. Bias and prejudice work the same, whether they are applied to women, gays, whites, blacks, Canadians, Methodists, plumbers, actors, priests, Siamese cats or pit bulls. The logical fallacy is exactly the same, the unfairness the same. I didn’t say discriminating against a man was no more repugnant than discriminating against a dog, any more than killing a man is on the same moral scale as killing animals without just cause. But all discrimination is unjust, just as all wanton killing is wrong.

      Weak argument, Red.

      • Tell your argument to a person of color. Tell any culturally competent person that “breed and race are synonymous” and you have just lost all arguments following your statement.

        About dogs: yes, breed matters. Trainers train dogs in this way: First, they know that they are dealing with a dog–the broadest category. Then they go to breed; then they go to a dog’s individual name. In other words, to train, you must first learn the language of “dog.” Then you must realize that when you are training a herding dog, you go about it differently than when you are training a hunter. They have different tendencies. Aussies, my first love, tend to nip at the heels of people as they run. Some people see this as “aggression.” It’s not. It’s herding–what they are bred to do. Aussies have a lower prey drive than a hunting dog. When you deal with a hunting dog, the dog won’t nip your heels as you run. They’ll chase a rabbit, and that’s the main thing you have to know as you start to train one. Sight hound–a whole different approach, and so on. As you start to train a pit bull, you must first realize that it is a “bully breed.” (Check out the magazine title for lovers of these breeds. They’re called “bully breeds” for a reason, and to say otherwise is to make yourself look stupid over and over again.) As a trainer, you must realize this and move forward. Note that I, in my argument to you, said nothing against pit bulls. I only stated your argument was racist–which it is, without a doubt. Now I’ll add that in your knee jerk response, you have confirmed that you are an irresponsible pit owner. If you don’t recognize that the pit has some inbred tendencies, you have no business owning one. You are part of the problem, and part of why Frankie, the sweet dog, is in recovery from a serious attack.

        • Double nonsense. I’ll gladly discuss the meanings of race and breed with anyone, including those afflicted with excessive political correctness, and they can take up their objections with Mr. Webster. The words mean the same thing. Look it up. I know habitual race-baiters like to manipulate the language; I don’t.

          “Bully breeds” does NOT refer to “bullies” but rather bull dogs, which are in the mix of all of them. An American bull dog is a “bully breed” and a more friendly, easy-going breed you cannot find. Are you kidding? You really thought “bully” meant that the dogs were bullies? The two words don’t even have the same etymology: “bully” comes from the Dutch word for “lover.” How I enjoy it when someone quotes bad facts to prove someone else is “ignorant.” That, my friend, is the ultimate tell.

          Of course every breed requires different training. That does not support the position that the pit bull breeds are “natural born killers.” All terriers were bred to kill something, long ago, and so what? My Jack Russell Terrier won’t even chase a squirrel. Each dog is different. That doesn’t mean it isn’t irresponsible to train a pit bull like it was a spaniel, but to presume that all members of a breed are deadly, requiring their extinction, is illogical, and, yes, indistinguishable from racism.

          I really have to thank you—I’m serious—for crystallizing the important distinction between moral aversion to racism and ethical objections to racism. You just know that “racism is bad,” because that’s what “good people” think, and you only apply the principle in the case of human beings. But ethically, racism is just another form of bias and bigotry, and what is unethical about all three—racism, bigotry, and bias—is that they are illogical, unfair to groups or categories (of anything), disrespectful to individuals and individuality, and thus destructive and bad for society generally. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad people like you have been taught racism:bad, because it is, but it would be better if you gave more thought to why it is wrong, which involves the interaction of the factors I discussed in the post to denigrate human beings rather than dogs.

          Your insistance that making the obvious and completely valid observation that the process whereby someone comes to distrust and condemn all members of a dog breed and the process whereby someone does the same with a human race
          are essentially identical is itself “racist” just shows that you become confused about the topic once you leave your overly narrow definition.

          And I am not a pit bull owner, though it is typical that you would assume so. Those whose opinions are formed by biases always assume that everyone else forms their opinions the same way. As the saying appropriately goes, “I have no dog in this hunt.”

          • Again, let me point out that in none of my writings do I condemn the pit bull. I am an animal lover, dog lover, and dog trainer. I love all breeds and they are not races and your insistence on that turns you even more ignorant than your ability to read what I’ve written and respond to it thoughtfully. But your ignorance persists. As a member of the dominant culture, this is your privilege. Being aware of your privilege and using it intelligently and compassionately would could make a real difference for everyone–even for pit bulls. But knee jerking seems to be your preferred dance. It’s a sad thing for the dogs and the people in your life. Have fun with that.

            • Well, now we get to the crux of the matter: you’re a bigot yourself. That puts everything into perspective. You don’t bother to actually explain why you don’t believe Breed is to Dog like Race is to Human (because you can’t); you don’t try to substantively address any of the points I raised in the post, which would be constructive…you just want to attribute any disagreement with your narrow world view to what you call “racism.” Be my guest. It’s not smart, fair, persuasive or helpful, but it sure is popular.

  3. Addendum to Comment to Red: The more I think about your comment, the more irritating it is. You don’t deal with the facts or attempt to rebut anything I wrote: how do you account for the fact that the various bull breeds were perfectly safe for centuries, if their original breeding, centuries ago, is so ingrained? Do you explain why it’s fair to use five diverse breeds to assess frequency of attacks and lump them as if they are one? Do you deny that if the bull breeds were eliminated, dog-fighters and drug-dealers would just abuse other breeds? Do you explain why it is fair for the author of the screed to project the attack by one dog, illegally off a leash, possibly abused, onto an entire population? No…you resort to political correctness sanctimony: “Forget about the discussion, comparing treatment of humans to treatment of animals is racist!” So lazy. You have no argument; your logic is threadbare. There are valid arguments to be made against my position, but you didn’t find a single one of them.

    By the way—if you are going to criticize, even lamely, have the integrity and courage to use your name. I’ll let you get away with “Red Howl” this time, but it’s the same as Anonymous to me, and I don’t allow Anonymous. Unless of course “Red Howl” IS your name, in which case I apologize.

  4. For the record, Red Howl, pits and their kin were NOT originally bred to kill other dogs. They were originally more like the Olde English Bulldogge, bred to hold bulls still while butchers slaughtered them. People eventually turned that legitimate use into bull-baiting. It was only after bull-baiting was made illegal (1835 in the UK, I believe) that terriers were introduced into the mix to create fighting dogs.

    Also worth noting is that nowadays dogs are bred for conformity. It is more important that a dog LOOKS like its breed than ACTS like it. You can indeed end up with a herder who doesn’t herd, a retriever who dislikes water, or a terrier with no interest in small rodents. Just as these traits are bred into animals they can be bred out.

    There are a lot of ‘pit bulls’ out there that are still dog aggressive. They can be managed be a strong, responsible owner. There are just as many that wouldn’t hurt a fly. There are a few that are human aggressive and that should not be tolerated. Many behave the way they do only because of the actions (or lack of them) by their owners.

  5. Good afternoon, I often read your blog.I love it, you talk about anything from sport, news, entertainment, adult topics or just general topics. Keep up the good work. Have you ever thought about blogging for money? there is a website http://www.kidsolo.com that pays you to write articles, you would be good at it.

  6. Excellent article.

    Red Howl, “pit bulls” were not *bred* to fight dogs. They were farm dogs. They have been used to fight other dogs, as have many other breeds, because of the greed of humans. As always, humans are the root of the problem.

  7. Shayna Shield makes excellent points.

    I personally believe that breedism is redirected racism, another example of the human need to hate and destroy.

  8. Very well written article, but the comments are even better!

    This racism argument from “Red” is laughable. Some people just love the sound of their own voice (or keyboards…).

    I am the proud owner of a pit bull/shar pei mix, a jack russell

  9. (oops hit enter before I was done!)

    As I was saying…

    Jack Russell/chihuahua mix, a cat and..,wait for it!…2 rats!

    The pit gets along great with all of them, even the rats! Yes, the rats his breed is supposed to viscously kill!

    The jack chi is over protective and might nip, but the pit would never. My friend’s 10 year old daughter likes to pick him up (55lbs of dog) under his front legs and make him “dance”. My pit once ran, terrified, from a spaniel named Princess!

    He’s the most intelligent, loyal and loving dog I’ve ever met. Furthermore, as a volunteer at LA animal shelters which are full of pits, I have to say he is the rule and NOT the exception.

    Like my jack thinks he’s a big tough dog, my pit thinks he’s a tiny lap dog.

    Stereotyping doesn’t just apply to people. Get over it “Red”.

  10. Pingback: More Unethical Anti-Dog Slander by The Daily Beast « Ethics Alarms

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