Reviewed by Alexandra Semyonova
The Policy Press, U. of Bristol (c/o U. of Chicago Press, 427 East 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637), 2012. 286 pages, hardcover. $100.60; Kindle $23.72.
Part I of a three-part series also including: How the League Against Cruel Sports is defending dogfighting and Unleashed: The Phenomena of Status Dogs and Weapon Dogs, by Simon Harding
I first saw an American Staffordshire, better known as a pit bull, during a 1989 visit to Baltimore. Three youths had stolen a cocker spaniel and were encouraging their three unleashed pit bulls to tear the spaniel apart alive. The spaniel tried desperately to escape, but was held on a short leash. By the time I reached the scene, the spaniel had collapsed, possibly dead. The youths kept kicking the remains, and the AmStaffs kept attacking. By the time the cops caught up with them, they had disposed of the evidence. They laughed in the cops’ faces: “Man, you’ll never find that dead dog, and anyway we’re juvies––you can’t touch us.”
“It’s what they do.”
The attacking dogs’ behavior was so utterly abnormal, so utterly unlike how I’d ever seen any dog behave, that I told various friends about it. “Oh,” they all said, “those were pit bulls. It’s what they do. They are not like other dogs.’
The recorded history of the pit bull began in the Middle Ages. Hundreds of years of selective breeding eventually produced dogs aggressive enough for use in baiting bears and bulls. This mayhem had its heyday during the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I. After public opinion turned against both the torture of humans and the torture of animals as entertaining, Britain in 1835 abolished bull-and bear-baiting. Breeders and gamblers then turned to pitting “bull” dogs against each other. No longer did they need to obtain bulls or bears, or maintain fighting pits big enough to hold a terrified bear.
Soldiers & sailors
Fighting dogs were soon introduced around the world by the soldiers and sailors of the British Empire.
Simon Harding, author of Unleashed: The Phenomena of Status Dogs & Weapon Dogs, worked in youth justice for 25 years. He recently received a doctorate from the University of Bedfordshire. He now presents himself as an expert on dog behavior.
Even in 1989, when I discovered the existence of pit bulls, I found a wealth of information about their history and behavior in one afternoon at my local public library. Vastly more has been published since. Yet Harding opens by alleging that the problem of “weapon and status dogs” is newly emergent, little documented by academic literature and primary data.
Ignores wealth of data
There is no lack of relevant academic literature and primary data; Harding just consistently ignores most of it. For example, Harding somehow never found the unmatched statistical feat accomplished by ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton, tracking fatal and disfiguring dog attacks by breed for more than thirty years. (The fatality data has been retrospectively confirmed, case by case, by both DogsBite.org founder Colleen Lynn and, working separately, volunteers for the victim advocacy organization Daxton’s Friends.)
Harding does not consult the many pediatric medicine and surgical journals that discuss the relative seriousness of the wounds that pit bulls inflict. He skips the data showing that pit bull bans not only dramatically decrease catastrophic dog attacks and shelter admissions, but also coincide with reductions in gang crime of as much as 40%. Since Harding ignores the work of Charles Darwin on natural and artificial selection, it is no surprise that the work of geneticists and veterinary neurologists does not interest him either.
Relies on pit bull advocates
Instead, Harding leans for his history of the bull breeds almost exclusively on the work of longtime pit bull advocates Karen Delise, a vet tech, and Diane Jessup, a pit bull breeder.
Even there Harding is selective, missing the publications in which Jessup acknowledges––or rather boasts––that the fighting and gripping behaviors of pit bulls are genetically determined, and that it is a flaw in a pit bull if these traits are missing. Harding instead simply states––with only Delise’s word for it––that pit bulls are like any other dog; that they were never fighting dogs, and rather were always and are still working farm dogs; that they were peaceful family pets until some time in the 20th century when back yard breeders took over; that only bad owners and poor breeding make them a problem now; that there has never been trouble with any purebred pit bull; that German shepherds bite the most; that pit bulls merely suffer from a media-created image problem. On page 110 Harding repeats the “nanny dog” myth, which has recently been rejected even by the pit bull advocacy group BADRAP.
Ignorant of history
Harding seems equally ignorant of the history of his own country, claiming that breeding dogs for fighting purposes is new.
I find myself wondering whether he has ever heard of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, or Shakespeare, whose Globe theater in London competed for audience share with the nearby Paris Gardens bear-baiting pits favored by Elizabeth.
Harding even ignores his own data. Of 138 dangerous dog owners he approached, 76% of the interviews were not completed. 43% subjects refused to be interviewed; 8% asked for money. Harding departed early from 5% of his attempted interviews, fearing for his personal safety. 20% of the interviews were disrupted when the dangerous dog misbehaved. Only 33 interviews were successfully completed.
Harding’s interview subjects consistently acknowledged keeping pit bulls as weapons. They agreed that crossing a pit bull with something else, usually a mastiff, produces a bigger but equally aggressive dog. They use the dogs to show their masculinity as they define it––as a resource of violence, intimidation and aggression, and as backup for controlling and oppressive behaviors in their dealings with women, authority and their own peer group.
Harding admits that ordinary people are using public space differently because of the presence of dangerous dogs. He cites statistics showing a year-upon-year doubling of British hospital admissions due to dog attacks since 2004, paralleling the rise in “weapon dogs” seized by police.
Admits goal is to repeal breed bans
Without questioning why most unemployed ethnic youth do not become involved in gang activity and with “weapon dogs,” Harding tags those who keep these dogs as innocent social victims. Worse, he paints them, despite their predatory behavior toward working class people, as representatives of the working class. He argues that what the public really fears is a new set of social values developing, which we should learn to accept as a part of normal social change, rather than rejecting these poor gang youths by rejecting their dogs.
Towards the end of Unleashed, Harding reveals that his goal from the start was to support the repeal of breed bans. Bully breeds are weapons, Harding admits, but rather than banning them we should allow everyone to have one. We should educate criminal youths about how to be kind to animals, and improve the image of pit bulls so we won’t be afraid any more, and so that sociopathic youths won’t mistakenly think these dogs are dangerous.
“No ordinary man could be such a fool”
Meanwhile, Harding agrees there should be restrictions on ownership of bully breeds, but only until we have educated these criminal youths. After that, everyone will be safe with pit bulls at all times, as long as they are of pure breeding.
As George Orwell wrote: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
[Alexandra Semyonova, a dog behaviorist and former Dutch SPCA inspector, is author of The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs (Hastings Press, 2009.)]