Pit bulls – the making of the myth

by austinpetsalive • Posted in: Awareness/ PR

I apologize for taking such a long break on this series. To get caught up, please read:

Up until the 70’s, pit bulls enjoyed a great reputation in the US.  Petey, the dog from “The Little Rascals” was a pit bull and pit bulls were war heroes in World War I.  People called them “Nanny Dogs“.

According to Love-A-Bull’s (a local pit bull advocacy group) website, the pit bull was the first mascot for the University of Texas Longhorns!    (Check out their website more more info.)

This next section is taken directly from Chapter 10 of  Delise’s book, The Pitbull Placebo. I’m sorry for its length here, but this chapter is so interesting it gave me chills.  I did edit it down a bit, but it’s still pretty long.  I hope you find it as fascinating as I did:

“In a 10-year span, from 1966–1975, there is only one documented case of a fatal dog attack  in the United States by a dog which could even remotely be identified as a “Pit bull” (i.e.  American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Bull  Terrier, American Bulldog, English Bulldog or any dog resembling a “Pit bull” or Bulldog”).

So, how did the “Pit bull” find itself fully entrenched as the new super-predator by the early 1980s?

By the middle of the 1970s there became an emerging public awareness of the cruel practice  of dog fighting in the United States. Dog fighting began to get the attention of law  enforcement and, hence, the media during this time and was being exposed as an insidious  and growing problem throughout the country.

About the same time, in the summer of 1976, a California boy was killed by a dog.  Newspapers from Louisiana and New Jersey to California reported this event, with each  newspaper using a different breed description. The dog involved in this incident was alternately  described as a Bulldog, Bull Terrier, or Pit bull. More than a few newspapers reported that the dog “locked its jaws on the child’s neck.” One newspaper could not make up its mind as to which breed caused the fatality so they simply mixed and matched the anatomy and alleged behavior of an American Pit Bull Terrier with that of the (English) Bulldog. The headline starts off claiming, “Five-year old killed by Bulldog” and in the next line identifies the dog as a “Pit bull.” After now identifying the dog as a Pit bull, the article offers the following (incorrect) theory about English Bulldog anatomy that allegedly explains the “locking jaw” reported in this attack: “Because a Bulldog’s lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw, it is physically impossible for the dog to let go while there is any tension on whatever it is holding in its mouth.”

The media’s intention in first reporting dog fighting, police raids, and Pit bull seizures appears to have been legitimate and well-intentioned coverage of animal cruelty which rightfully should be exposed as criminal behavior. However, the media’s first reports of two Pit bull-related fatalities in the late 1970s were filled with erroneous Pit bull anatomical references and sensationalized claims of Pit bull abilities. These glaring errors, along with the continuous exposure of Pit bulls used by dog fighters and drug dealers, would produce an immediate and predictable increase in the popularity of this breed with substandard and criminal owners. By the early 1980s the Pit bull was on the fast track to becoming the new super-predator.

Like the producers of the Tom Shows in the 1880s, when the 1980s media recognized that Pit bull attack stories elicited an emotional reaction from their audience, the media went into overdrive. The early 1980s find the media continuously churning out emotionally charged articles about Pit bull anatomy and behaviors that were based on rumors, myths and unproven claims by both experts and laymen.

In 1986 there were over 350 newspaper, magazine and journal articles printed about the Pit bull in the United States. The media image of the Pit bull was becoming so intense and magnified that it sometimes took precedence even over a person’s actual experience with the breed. Owners with loving, affectionate Pit bulls were having them euthanized in fear they would “turn.” One man who was “attacked” by a Pit bull in 1986 did not assess the temperament of the Pit bull by the dog which allegedly attacked him, but rather by the image of the Pit bull as portrayed in the media. The “attack” occurred when his neighbor’s loose Pit bull came near the man’s daughter, when he kicked the dog away, apparently the dog snapped at him. He easily warded off the dog with his foot and no injuries occurred. But it was reported in the media that the man “escaped serious injury.” He is quoted as saying, “The Pit bull has the same instincts as a panther and should be treated as such. Some say if you train it enough, maybe it can become a pet. Well, so can a rattlesnake. But in the meantime, they’re killing people, ripping their throats out.” This comment came from a man who fended off an “attacking” Pit bull with only his foot.

On July 27, 1987, Sports Illustrated dedicated its entire front cover of this issue was a photograph of a Pit bull, mouth open, teeth bared, over which in bold print was the headline, “Beware of this Dog.” The lengthy article inside the magazine gave lip service to the abusive “sport” of dog fighting, while alternately portraying the Pit bull as vicious and unpredictable.  Here we also see the beginnings of outrageous examples of Pit bulls involved in attacks being described as “family dogs.” One of the “family” Pit bulls described in this Sports Illustrated article was actually one of four dogs chained behind a trailer in Oklahoma. All the dogs (three chained Pit bulls, and one chained Chow) had scars consistent with dog fighting. The owners/parents were charged with criminal neglect for allowing their 2-yearold daughter to wander out to these “family” dogs.

But no article could compete with the blatant fear mongering and horrendous portrayal of the Pit bull that Time magazine ran this same month. In an apparent attempt to top all others in shocking the public into reading their Pit bull article, they ran the headline “Time Bomb on Legs.”

Horror author Stephen King could not have created a more frightening monster than this portrayal of the Pit bull. The second sentence of this article reads, “Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than the dark form and savage face” (of the Pit bull). The rest of the article
descends even further, vilifying the Pit bull as a creature that revels in a “frenzy of bloodletting,” and described as “lethal weapons” with “steel trap jaws” and as “killer dogs,” and the new “hound of the Baskervilles.” An unproven, unreferenced claim of Pit bulls biting with 1800 psi is included. The article then goes on to describe the formula used to torture, abuse and create a dangerous dog.

Even when other breeds of dogs were involved in attacks, the media would “spice” up the story with a reference to Pit bulls. In 1989, an Akita attacked and severely mauled a 5-year-old girl in Massachusetts. The article describes the attack and claims the Akita is “a breed that resembles the Japanese Pit bull.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report Dog Bite-Related Fatalities From 1979–1988, released in September 1989, would seal the fate of the Pit bulls with pseudostatistics.  The CDC breed “statistics” were actually numbers derived largely from newspaper stories and from the media’s identification of dogs involved in attacks. The report then discussed canine aggression almost exclusively from a focus of breed. Factors such as the function of the dog (guarding/fighting/breeding), reproductive status, sex of dog, victim behavior, and owner behavior were not addressed.”

(As mentioned in an earlier post, the CDC stopped reporting on this in 1999 when they realized how useless these numbers are.)

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