Where pit bull prejudice began


The caption for the cover just says “On the Cover: Don Mattingly, Baseball, New York Yankees; Photographed by: Jerry Wachter”

I mentioned a 20+ year-old Sports Illustrated article in an earlier post that was instrumental in drumming up negative and unfair prejudices against pit bulls. I vaguely remember the article when it came out in 1987 (I mistakenly said 1988 before), and I bought into it for a long time. It is rife with misstatements and all-around bad reporting, to the point that Sports Illustrated writer Jim Gorant, while covering the Michael Vick case in 2008, took responsibility for the magazine’s role in fomenting hysteria about the dogs.

The 1987 article, written by E.M. Swift, gets it both right and wrong, in that it blames pit bull attacks on the human owners, but also blames the breed for being “aggressive:”

America has a four-legged problem called the American pit bull terrier. And the pit bull, its “ridiculously amiable disposition” notwithstanding, has a two-legged problem called Man, to whom Stratton’s second quote could also be applied. These two species are not new to each other. They have intermingled for some 200 years, and some say their common history goes back as far as the Romans. But something has happened to the pit bull in the last decade that says as much about the nature of American society as it does about the nature of this aggressive animal. Far from being an aberration, the American pit bull terrier has become a reflection of ourselves that no one cares very much to see.

“They’re athletes. They’re wrestlers. They’re dead game,” says Captain Arthur Haggerty, a dog breeder and trainer in New York City who owns five pit bull terriers and has trained hundreds of others. “They will literally fight till they’re dead. If you found that quality in a boxer or a football player, you’d say it was admirable. Will to win. That’s what a pit bull has.”

Others call it a “will to kill.”

The article goes on to cite discredited theories about “multiple bites” and “locked jaw.” It goes on quite at length. Pit bulls developed a reputation as dangerous dogs, so people who wanted a dangerous dog tended to select pit bulls.

si.cover.dec29.2008Fast forward to 2008, when Jim Gorant reported on the fate of the Michael Vick dogs, who had been part of a dog fighting ring. While many people thought the dogs were beyond hope, some brave people stepped up. The article still has problems, including some over-generalizations about the dogs and some unfair racial generalizations, but it still makes progress on the issue:

“A pit bull is like a Porsche. It’s a finely tuned, highly muscled athlete,” says [certified applied animal behaviorist and ASPCA executive vice president Stephen] Zawistowski. “And just like you wouldn’t give a Porsche to a 16-year-old, you don’t want just anyone to own a pit bull. It should be someone who has experience with dogs and is willing to spend the time, because with training and proper socialization you will get the most out of them as pets.”

The pit bull’s p.r. mess can be likened to a lot of teens driving Porsches — accidents waiting to happen. Too many dogs were irresponsibly bred, encouraged to be aggressive or put in situations in which they could not restrain themselves, and pit-bull maulings became the equivalent of land-based shark attacks, guaranteeing a flush of screaming headlines and urban mythology. Some contend that this hysteria reached its apex with a 1987 Sports Illustrated cover that featured a snarling pit bull below the headline beware of this dog. Despite the more balanced article inside, which was occasioned by a series of attacks by pit bulls, the cover cemented the dogs’ badass cred, and as rappers affected the gangster ethos, pit bulls became cool. Suddenly, any thug or wannabe thug knew what kind of dog to own. Many of these people didn’t know how to train or socialize or control the dogs, and the cycle fed itself.

I would not say that puffery about pit bulls is limited to the “gangster ethos,” whatever that means exactly. People still see reports of “pit bull maulings” on the news and conclude that the dogs must really be dangerous. This ignores two important biases:

1. People who want a “badass” dog are much more likely to get a pit bull or other “bully” breed, and they are going to either neglect that dog, abuse it, or teach it to be aggressive. They are also not likely to have the dog spayed or neutered, which can affect the dog’s temperament and make it more likely that a local animal shelter will be receiving some unwanted puppies.

2. The media will report on almost any incident involving a pit bull, and they will sometimes attribute incidents to pit bulls even if it was a different breed of dog. Any dog of a similar weight and build could become a “pit bull” in the media retelling. The media may not report as much, or at all, on incidents involving other breeds of dogs.

All we can say for certain about the sheer number of alleged pit bull attacks in the news is that the news reports on pit bull attacks a lot.

Photo credits: ‘Pit Bull Terrier – Beware of This Dog,’ July 27, 1987, X 35118, credit:  Phil Huber – assign [Fair use], via sportsillustrated.cnn.com; ‘SI cover: December 29, 2008 issue,’ Simon Bruty/SI [Fair use], via sportsillustrated.cnn.com.


3 thoughts on “Where pit bull prejudice began

  1. Pingback: Rats and Cats and Pitbulls, Oh My! The Demonization of America’s Animals | Propaganda

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