by Merritt Clifton
My wife Beth, a former police officer and animal control officer, was shocked, horrified, and upset for days shortly after our marriage in August 2014 when she discovered more than 300 pit bull advocates recommending my gruesome demise by various methods, including by pit bull attack, in response to a single online mention of my name.
I just shrugged it off, as I have shrugged off similar (if usually shorter) threads of threats since the dawn of online media.
Afraid of their own reflections
Back in 2012 some of the pro-pit folks decided to try to intimidate me in person, on one of the hottest days in July. They paraded their pit bulls past my mailbox for a while, which is identified by letters two inches high, but the pits were so dehydrated they couldn’t urinate on it, so I walked out and put down a big stainless steel bowl of water.
After all, it was not the pit bulls’ fault that idiots bred them and now were out walking them up and down a hill in the hot sun when all they really wanted to do was flop in the shade.
Like vampires, though, the pit-paraders seemed to be afraid of their own reflections in water: they quickly packed up and left.
Harry Truman was right
Logging fatal and disfiguring dog attacks in the U.S. and Canada since 1982, I have been encountering such aggressive obnoxiousness for well over 30 years. Before online media existed, it came mostly through brief, anonymous calls in the wee hours of the morning.
I have encountered similar, albeit in much lesser volume, from many other subjects of my frequently critical investigations throughout my 48 years in journalism.
As former U.S. president Harry Truman put it, while standing up to enemies from Josef Stalin to the Ku Klux Klan, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!”
More hurtful attacks from pit bull advocates are directed daily, and perhaps hourly, against victims of pit bull attacks who dare to speak out, and the bereaved family members whose children, wives, husbands, and parents who have been ripped apart bodily by so-called “nanny dogs,” whose owners almost always assert that they never behaved badly before, except that they might have “licked you to death.”
Wisconsin disk jockey Jeff Borchardt’s 14-month-old son Daxton was fatally mauled on March 6, 2013 by two trusted pit bulls whom his babysitter had raised with loving care since puppyhood. Since then Borchardt has amassed a collection of hate missives much resembling the collections sent by Ku Klux Klan members and sympathizers to such African-American heroes and heroines of the U.S. civil rights movement as Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Marian Anderson.
Why? Because Borchardt founded Daxton’s Friends, an actually rather mild-mannered but determined and fast-growing nonprofit organization that helps other victims and survivors of pit bull attacks to find their public voices.
Ku Klux Klan lineage
The resemblance of pit bull advocacy rhetoric to that of the Ku Klux Klan is no mere historical accident. The lineage of pit bulls in North America is inextricable from the most virulent excesses of racism.
The first ancestors of the modern pit bull to arrive from Europe were the “war dogs” of the Spanish conquistadors, who fed the dogs on the flesh of captured Native Americans, killed to order, a practice ended only after Bishop Bartolme de Las Casas objected about it to Pope Charles V.
Similar dogs were deployed to dismember Native Americans, as at Fort Nashborough, Tennessee in 1781; to dismember fugitive slaves, a practice inspiring the most dramatic scenes of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; to guard prisoners of war, as “Cuban bloodhounds” at the infamous Andersonville Prison during the U.S. Civil War; and as the instruments for lynchings, as described, for example, by Cayton’s Weekly for August 2, 1919, easily accessible online.
More recently pit bulls were the dogs of choice for Ku Klux Klan use of the “white dog” tactic, used to discourage racial integration of neighborhoods. Pit bulls trained to attack dark-skinned people on sight would be released from a van near any black people seen in a white neighborhood, would wreak mayhem for a few minutes, and would then either be whistled back to the van or be abandoned as the van occupants fled.
This tactic was used in classic KKK format in Calgary, Alberta, Canada as recently as 2009. Two little girls and two older men were severely mauled.
In light of that history, it is at first glance a step through the looking glass into an oddly distorted reversed reality to observe longtime pit bull advocate Bronwen Dickey, author of Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, sniveling to anyone who might listen about the alleged “bullying and backlash” she claims to have faced.
Dickey asserts that she has been victimized by an actual criminal offense, called “uttering,” but no suspect has been identified in connection with it, let alone charged, and the only encounter of any sort that she appears to have had with advocates for pit bull victims while promoting her book was one brief verbal confrontation with a man who tried to ask questions at a book store appearance on more-or-less her own home turf in North Carolina.
Despite the paucity of evidence that Dickey has experienced anything more than perhaps a small taste of the sort of online trolling that victim advocates deal with almost incessantly, along with having to cope with real physical injuries and losses, her complaints have won sympathy from various quarters, including from one Marjorie Ingall, who claimed in an essay for the pay-to-comment online periodical Tablet that pit bulls are “The Jews of the Canine World.”
Previous to this, even the most rabid anti-Semites of Nazi Germany, the militant Islamist sectors of the Middle East, and yes, the Ku Klux Klan, fell short of alleging even in warped metaphor that Jews have been bred for the past 500 years or more to dismember other living beings alive.
But such hyperbole is perhaps to be expected. Trying to stir controversy over a failing book to drum up sales is among the oldest of book-selling tactics.
Long & ignoble tradition
Likewise, that those whose behavior oppresses others seek to portray themselves as underdogs has a long and ignoble tradition, exemplified by more than a hundred years of literary reinvention of the Old South, the Confederacy, and even the Ku Klux Klan as victims of “damn Yankee carpetbaggers,” before the rise of the civil rights movement finally and belatedly began to stop the nonsense.
Not surprisingly, Dickey’s attempted book-selling ploy was promptly echoed by one Amy Barnes, of Robeson County, North Carolina, who howled to Tonya Brown of WPDE on June 24, 2016 that since she started a petition in opposition to a new breed-specific dangerous dog ordinance in the city of Lumberton, “those anti-pit bull activists have called,” causing her “A lot of safety concerns. I have threats,” Barnes said. “I’ve had ill will wished upon me as well as my family, my 11-year old. My dog’s safety is a huge concern.”
At risk in Lumberton
Indeed, children and others, including dogs, are at risk in Lumberton, but not from Barnes’ side of the pit bull issue.
Noted Brown, “An increase in pit bull attacks led the city council to revise the city’s vicious breed dog ordinance. Three people have been attacked this year, including a seven-year-old Lumberton boy,” Talen West, age 7, “who was attacked and killed by a pit bull.”
West’s eight-year-old brother Jaylan was injured in trying to rescue Talen. Two other children were endangered, having done nothing more provocative to invite the attack than playing in the West family’s own back yard.
But an outspoken pit bull advocate was killed on October 2, 2012 in Robeson County, of which Lumberton is the county seat. Mary Jo Hunt, 54, of nearby Pembroke, North Carolina, was fatally mauled while trying to break up a fight among several rescued dogs in the yard of a home she shared with her sister Deborah Jacobs. Hunt and Jacobs both fostered dogs for Robeson County Claws & Paws Rescue. Seven pit bulls and two German shepherds were reportedly impounded from the scene.
Who is victimizing whom?
A close look at who is really victimizing whom must begin with the pit bull victims. Of the 6,634 dogs involved in killing and disfiguring humans in the U.S. and Canada since 1982, 4,616 (70%) have been pits. Of the 643 people who have been killed, 355 were killed by pit bulls, and many of the dogs of other breeds participated in attacks led by pit bulls. Of the 4,141 people who have been disfigured, 3,065 (62%) were disfigured by pit bulls, who over the 34-year duration of the record keeping have made up well under 5% of the total U.S. and Canadian dog population.
Also to be remembered are the estimated 30,000 other dogs and 13,000 cats killed in the U.S. by pit bulls in 2015 alone.
But even if we limit the discussion to humans terrorizing humans, the record is as lopsided.
Terrorized the neighborhood
For example, on the same day that Amy Barnes amplified her complaint, which appears to have been unsupported by any tangible evidence, “A woman who police said terrorized an Upper Darby neighborhood for nearly two years with a dangerous dog pleaded guilty to recklessly endangering another person and a dangerous dog offense,” reported Alex Rose of the Delaware County Daily Times.
A pit bull belonging to Gretchen Fonseca, 33, of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, bit or scratched at least four people and occasioned ten complaints to animal control in less than two years.
“Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood said at the time of her arrest that Fonseca used the dog ‘as a weapon,’” Rose wrote, “and police believed she intentionally let it run loose in spite of a history of dangerous behavior.”
Murdered for fearing pit bull
Fonseca’s neighbors, despite their injuries, were much more fortunate than Melissa Smith, of Lafayette County, Mississippi. Smith had complained several times about dangerous behavior by a pit bull belonging to a neighbor named Jose Benitez. Her husband Michael was building a fence to keep the pit bull away, but had not yet finished it.
On June 18, 2016, shortly after midnight, “Family members said Benitez banged on the Smiths’ door while they slept,” WMC Action News reported. “Melissa opened the door and Benitez pushed through. Then family said Smith grabbed a knife, which was then used against her. She was stabbed multiple times. Police said her husband heard the disturbance, grabbed his high powered rifle, and shot Benitez,” killing him. “He then called 911,” WMC said.
Also murdered for fearing pit bull
The Melissa Smith murder paralleled the circumstances leading to the September 18, 2014 fatal stabbing of Mary Lara, 56, in Fresno, California.
Wrote freelance journalist Elizabeth Warmerdam, “Lara and 27-year-old Laquandra Ligons got into an argument over their pets in Lara’s driveway. Ligons and her two children were walking her dog,” a pit bull, “and Lara thought the dog posed a threat to her cats,” according to Fresno police chief Jerry Dyer.
“Ligons allegedly stabbed Lara multiple times before her husband, 31-year-old Thurman Ligons, showed up at the scene and drove her away. Neighbors called 911 and Lara was rushed to Community Regional Medical Center, where she died,” Warmerdam finished.
Laquandra Ligons in 2015 accepted a 12-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Thurman Ligons was sentenced to serve three years as an accessory.
In the same category of bullying leading to death of a victim concerned about her cats was the February 7, 2014 fatal mauling of Klonda Richey, 57, in Dayton, Ohio, by two Cane Corsos, a mix of pit bull and mastiff, belonging to her neighbors Andrew Nason, 30, and Julie Custer, 27.
Richey had complained about the dogs’ behavior 12 times to the Montgomery County Animal Resource Center, and had called 911 about the dogs sixteen times, reported Jill Drury of WDTN, but Nason and Custer continued to allow their dogs to terrorize Richey until the dogs finally cornered and killed her. Nason and Custer were convicted only on two counts each of failure to control dogs.
Roland E. Younce
But people in North Carolina who really care who is bullying whom about pit bulls need look no farther than Lenoir, in the west-central part of the state, to the example set by pit bull owner Roland E. Younce, 63.
Younce’s pit bull in January 2008 injured wheelchair-bound neighbor Tony Moore’s daughters, who were 6 and 7 years old at the time. Moore sued Younce for $1,910 in medical costs, but lost the case, after which Younce continued to allow his pit bull to roam, leading to at least 26 incidents in which sheriff’s deputies were called during the next 18 months.
Moore in May 2009 shot the pit bull on the Moore family’s front porch, then called the sheriff’s department again. When sheriff’s deputy Marty Robbins arrived, Younce shot and wounded Moore, Robbins, and Moore’s younger daughter, missing Moore’s elder daughter, who was also present.
Younce died in the ensuing shootout.
Look in the mirror
Against the record of at least four homicides in seven years by pit bull owners against people who complained about their dogs, there appear to be no homicides or even assaults by pit bull victims and victim advocates against pit bull owners.
But disputes among pit bull enthusiasts over transactions involving pits led to at least two murders in 2015 alone. Justin Rourke, 32, of Wichita, Kansas, is reportedly now serving 31 months in prison for fatally shooting Roman Padilla, 41, in June 2015, while Danny Breaux, 38, of Thibodaux, Louisiana, is to be tried in September 2016 for manslaughter after beating to death Cuong Tran, 39, in November 2015.
If pit bull advocates anywhere feel threatened by anyone, they might best protect themselves by looking in the mirror.