What Pit Bulls Taught Me about People

July 12, 2011  

An anthropology lesson from the dogs at a city shelter

By Molly Tamulevich

(Photo by Melissa Lipani)

(In the spring of 2006, I spent a semester abroad in Merida, Mexico. I was supposed to be studying cultural anthropology, but the most interesting lessons I learned were about the relationships between humans and other types of animals, how we use animals to create our personal identities, and what our perceptions of other animals says about our perceptions of other humans.)   

I returned home to the United States full of enthusiasm and ideas. Five months in Mexico had profoundly changed the way I saw the world. I’d gone from rare steak eater to vegetarian, I’d ripped grape-sized ticks off the ears of street dogs, and I’d begun to see how animals are an often neglected indicator of social attitudes.

With the bull-headedness and drive of a toddler learning to walk, I spread my message of animal rights with a hammer around campus. My classmates and coworkers were subjected relentlessly to my new priorities. I’ve come to understand that this ardor is common among activists: the singularity of purpose, the thrill of constantly fighting for your ideals, the knowledge that you are spending your days in an effort to combat injustice. This is the unsustainable high that fuels revolution. It wasn’t revolution, however, that I encountered when I started working with animals again; it was humility, reality and the knowledge that issues of animal welfare are far from black and white.

Meeting the dogs at the Philadelphia animal shelter

In the spring semester of my senior year, I designed a class that allowed me to learn about animal shelters in the United States by becoming a volunteer at Philadelphia Animal Control.

Unlike the shelter where I had volunteered in Mexico, the animals were all housed indoors. Even though the shelter was located in a rough neighborhood, the facilities were much more advanced. There was on-site euthanasia, a clinic often filled with vet students, and a windowless room that housed any small animal who was not a dog or cat. These included birds, rats, hamsters, snakes, and on one occasion, a baby tiger who had been found riding in the sidecar of someone’s motorcycle.

On our orientation tour, we were sternly warned about the dangers of many of the animals. Volunteers were only allowed into certain parts of the shelter. There was an area for safe dogs and another for dangerous dogs. But to me, the dogs on either side of the fence looked similar. In fact, most of the dogs at the shelter had the same build: short hair, large heads and broad shoulders. Dangerous or not, it appeared that Philadelphia had an abundance of pit bulls.

On some days, every large dog at the shelter was a pit bull or pit bull mix.

I had heard the term ‘pit bull’ from TV, movies and occasional references in the news, but I had never, to my knowledge, seen one before. I quickly became familiar with them. There were amber-eyed pits and brindle pits, squat shouldered Staffordshire terriers and scarred veterans of the fight scene. Blue, red-nosed, white, deaf, occasionally tattooed – I had no idea there could be so much variation in one type of dog. There was also the occasional mastiff or Doberman, a Lab mix or German shepherd, but my overwhelming impression was that this was where pit bulls came to die.

On some days, every large dog at the shelter was a pit bull or pit bull mix.

Making new friends

When I learned that shelter dogs often lack sleep due to excessive noise, I began taking the dogs into a quiet room with me, letting them calm down and eventually nap on my lap. I had never felt more connected to animals than at these moments.

The dogs were often 70 to 80 pounds, their ears cropped, tails docked. They lay next to me on a dirty couch, huge skulls resting on my legs like bruised fruit.

I realized one day as I watched potential adopters pass by the cages, that pit bulls were the Malix Pek – or street dogs – of the United States.

The pattern was the same as what I’d seen in Mexico: people from different ethnic backgrounds, income levels and genders had different dogs. In Philadelphia, the people with pit bulls were generally young men of color from the surrounding neighborhood. I was usually the only white person left on the bus when I arrived at the shelter. By the time I returned to the train station near my school in the suburbs, I was firmly replanted in the white majority, and the dogs that promenaded through the neighborhood were golden retrievers, Shi-Tzus and floppy eared mutts. I rarely saw black men, Latino men or pit bulls walking the streets of Bryn Mawr.

The language of discrimination

As pit bulls became a bigger part of my life, I noticed that people used similar language when discussing pit bulls and their people. We call pit bulls aggressive, dangerous, unpredictable and intimidating – the same words that the media often dance around when describing young men of color. Our cultural imagination places pit bulls in the fighting ring, chained in an ‘urban’ yard, and threatening the safety of the neighborhoods where they live.

Contrast this to the ‘loyal, friendly, obedient adorable and dependable’ yellow Labs that so often appear as family dogs in advertising and children’s movies. Language is a powerful force: 100 years ago, the bloodhound was thought to be an inherently violent killer. Fifty years ago, the adjectives we use to describe the golden retriever were used to describe pit bulls.

The stigma that comes with this new image has taken hold in public imagination. Political correctness does not allow overtly racist depictions of humans. However, the language used to describe pit bulls and other supposedly aggressive animals is, historically, how white-dominated media has tended to describe minorities. In a subtle shift of focus, words that are no longer acceptable to refer to human minorities are used to describe animals associated with them. As soon as I began to set all those words and associations aside, I found that the dogs I met were not what the stereotypes would have me believe. Quite the opposite, they were individuals – capricious, interesting and intelligent.

Last on the list

Sadly, most of the dogs I met in Philadelphia were routinely destroyed; there was simply no demand for them. Pit bulls were last on the list for new homes.

The language used to describe pit bulls and other supposedly aggressive animals is, historically, how white-dominated media has tended to describe minorities.

I realized that the decision to adopt often has little to do with the dog herself but the cultural position of the adopter. Our communities have certain expectations of what animals belong where. Breed bans are one of the indicators of how communities dictate what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ pet. The language we use belies our prejudice. Pit bulls are “dangerous,” pit bulls are a “threat,” pit bulls “should be banned.”

We do not target those dogs whom we write about as heroes, or the dogs walking freshly groomed around suburban cul-de-sacs. We target the dogs who are associated with poverty, immigration and other-ness. Our society has written a story and cast it with human and animal characters. Pit bulls are currently playing the villain through an act of cultural impressment, bound up in the fears, ignorance and associations that humans have against one another.

We have lost sight of the animals themselves and allowed ourselves to react to a caricature created through a mix of history, politics and media sensationalism.

It’s a pattern that breeds discrimination against human and non-human animals alike, and one that needs to be broken through education, understanding and interaction.

See also:
White Dogs, Brown Dogs and Human Prejudice
In San Diego Attack, Dogs Were Victims, Too

« « A Giant Cage Filled with Snacks | Long Island Town Repeals Dog Ban » »


31 Responses to “What Pit Bulls Taught Me about People”
  1. tdotcopeland says:

    What a thoughtful piece–wonderful observations (I was an anthropology major, too). I have written a lot about this exact topic in private conversations/comments on blogs (including this one), and will start blogging about it soon.

  2. tdotcopeland says:

    What a thoughtful piece (I was an anthropology major, too, and wish participant observation was a mandatory part of the undergraduate curriculum–people in the healing professions would benefit tremendously ). I have written a lot about this exact topic in private discussions and leaving comments on blogs (including this one), and will start blogging about it on my own very soon.

  3. tdotcopeland says:

    What a thoughtful piece (I was an anthropology major, too, and wish participant observation was a mandatory part of the undergraduate curriculum–people in the healing professions would benefit tremendously ). I have written a lot about this exact topic in private discussions and leaving comments on blogs (including this one), and will start blogging about it on my own very soon.

  4. RonFox says:

    I never thought of it this way (from the anthropological standpoint) but very insightful! Maybe if we eliminated all the PC garbage and really cut to the core of peoples’ views without dancing around the wording a lot more would change, both for the people AND the dogs [I worry more for the dogs personally! 🙂 ]

  5. DeeEndBslRose says:

    This makes so much sense to me…even as a non anthropology student! Have long believed that there is a connection between maligned “breeds” (human & non-human). There always has to be a scapegoat / a “baddie” to pass all negativity onto. The good or positive are quickly and efficiently swept under the carpet so true focus can be turned on the (rare) bad “specimens” … No matter how many “Hero’s” or Good Samaritans there may be, those are ignored and the Lynch mob are whipped into frenzied “non-logical”, “non-sensible” action!

  6. CreoleInDC says:

    Wow. This was great and so accurate.

    We adopted a Boxer/Pitt Bull mix and, compared to our Boxer…she was extremely aggressive when we first got her but being in our home and not having to always be in a self-protection mode has changed her personality to one of the loveliest doggies I’ve ever known. When we have visitors to our home, she’s the one that makes them feel the most loved and welcomed. Now…I have no doubt that should we ever need protection in our home she will handle it appropriately but that’s not why she’s here. She’s here because we love her and that love and subsequent nurturing shows.

    Just like with people.

    Again…this was such a great article. Thank you for this and for what you’re doing to raise awareness.

  7. StubbyDog says:

    @tdotcopeland Thanks, we would love to have you write a piece for StubbyDog, if you’re interested, please email it to laurap@stubbydog.org.

  8. StubbyDog says:

    @RonFox Thank for your comments, that’s a great point.

  9. StubbyDog says:

    @DeeEndBslRose Thanks for commenting. We hope to change that here at StubbyDog.

  10. StubbyDog says:

    @CreoleInDC Thanks for sharing. If you would like to write a story about your experience with your dog, we would love to hear it and post it on the site. If you’re interested, please email laurap@stubbydog.org.

  11. ChelseaMolitor says:

    I love this post! Sadly in the little no-kill shelter I work in Pits and their mixes are always the ones who are here for the longest. The sad part is they are normally the better behaved over the Labs that come and go much more frequently.

  12. MollyTamulevich says:

    @RonFox Thank you for your comment. I think that speaking plainly about these issues is the best way to address them.

  13. MollyTamulevich says:

    @DeeEndBslRose I definitely agree with you. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  14. StubbyDog says:

    @ChelseaMolitor Thanks for your comments Chelsea, hopefully that will change and people will adopt more pit mixes in shelters and see them for the wonderful dogs they are.

  15. ColleenVanVoorhis says:

    Bravo! Well said. I knew a dog enthusiast who said the same about breeds considered “dangerous.” He told me, it “wasn’t about the dogs, it’s about the people who own them.” To see another speak of it, only clarifies the reason of why.

  16. StubbyDog says:

    @ColleenVanVoorhis Thanks Colleen, we’re glad you enjoyed the article.

  17. MollyTamulevich says:

    @ColleenVanVoorhis Thank you, Colleen. I’m glad people recognize that owners have a big effect on how dogs behave.

  18. MollyTamulevich says:

    @ChelseaMolitor We used to label pit/lab mixes as “designer dogs” at our shelter. We called them labrabulls. I don’t know how effective it was, but people seemed to like the name. Thank you for commenting!

  19. MollyTamulevich says:

    @tdotcopeland I agree with you. Cultural patterns are so interesting! Thanks for your comment!

  20. StubbyDog says:

    @MollyTamulevich @ChelseaMolitor Love that name … Labrabulls!!!!!

  21. Joezl says:

    What a wonderful essay. Well done!

  22. StubbyDog says:

    @Joezl Thanks Joe!

  23. NorcottPemberton says:

    I loved this article. It reminds me of the Need to Know program on PBS about the dogs that were trained to fight and kill by Mike tyson and how most of them were completely rehabilitated and are gentle family dogs now. It was the people, not the dogs, who were violent.

  24. StubbyDog says:

    @NorcottPemberton Thanks for your comments.

  25. tdotcopeland says:

    @NorcottPemberton Don’t mean to be pedantic, but are you referring to another athlete? Mike Tyson had a great show on Animal Planet recently about his homing pigeons.

  26. NorcottPemberton says:

    @tdotcopeland I was talking about the famous boxer who went to prison for animal cruelty. He had to pay for the rehabilitation of the dogs and what is wonderful is that most of the dogs were saved and became gentle pets. Now that Tyson is out of prison he is atoning by speaking against animal cruelty. So he could be working with homing pigeons.

  27. MollyTamulevich says:

    @Joezl Thank you very much!

  28. IngridBock says:

    I’ve just read two of your articles, and I’m blown away. May you live long and write lots, and may what you write reach a large audience.

  29. StubbyDog says:

    @IngridBock Thanks Ingrid! Welcome to StubbyDog!

  30. MeganMc says:

    You have a gift in your writing and an amazing perspective! Keep writing. I am a 50-year-old white female accountant, and I have a pet bully. I am probably not the “typical” Pit Bull owner. When I take my dog for a walk, people pull their children close to them when we walk by and pull their dogs away from mine. My dog loves to play with other dogs and is wonderful with children. I even suspect she is a failure in the watchdog category. It frustrates me when people see only her appearance, and make a snap judgement based on that and not her demeanor and behavior.

    When my husband and I adopted her, she was sick, not socialized, and didn’t even want to come into the house. She would sit in the backyard by herself and snap at me when I tried to pull her into the house. After a few months of being a pet, she discovered the joy of being spoiled and making a living just by being cute. About four weeks after we brought her home, I woke up one morning, and she was asleep at the foot of the bed. I knew then that she was starting to feel like a family member. Her favorite snack is rice cakes with peanut butter. She loves to play in the sprinklers and sleeps on her back on the lounge chairs in the backyard with her feet sticking up in the air. She is too big to be a lap dog, but that doesn’t stop her from draping herself across anyone who sits on the couch.

    If my dog had been evaluated at a shelter, she would have been deemed unsuitable for adoption and euthanized. I think about all the dogs just like her that are a discarded by their owners for an endless list of pathetic reasons that will never make out the front door of a shelter, and it breaks my heart. Pit Bulls receive the worst of what humans have to offer and suffer because of our ignorance and selfishness. Despite this, they have hearts of gold, will devote themselves to their owners, and make wonderful family members. They just need to be given the chance.

  31. StubbyDog says:

    @MeganMc thanks for sharing your experience Megan, you sound like a fantastic guardian for your dog and we are grateful you gave her the life she has now. We would love for you to share your complete story with us, complete with photos, especially one of her lounging on chair with her feet up! If you’re interested, please email laurap@stubbydog.org. Your experience is exactly the kind of stories we love to share with everyone!