“Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late: the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect.” Jonathan Swift
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.”
During this time, as police raided dog fighting operations, arresting dog fighters and seizing Pit bulls, the media began covering this growing subculture of drugs, guns, gambling and fighting dogs in earnest. Shelter personnel were interviewed about why the Pit bulls seized during the raids were being euthanized. Comments about the “killer instinct” of the Pit bull (unfortunately not defined as it was meant—dog-on-dog aggression) were found in these reports. Many of these shelter personnel lamented the destruction of these dogs and commented that despite their strength, tenacity and encouraged aggression towards other dogs, the seized Pit bulls were loyal, friendly and affectionate animals. Unbeknownst to the media, law enforcement and shelter workers, the exposure of this cruel and seedy subculture and their descriptions of the Pit bull’s fierce but loyal nature would strike a chord with a segment of the human population which has always been attracted to dogs they believe will enable them to impress or intimidate other humans. Exposing breeds of dogs involved in a negative function, through no fault of their own, will not increase their popularity with the average owner looking for a dog. Dogs portrayed in negative functions (fighting, guarding drug stashes, etc.) will only serve to increase their popularity with unsuitable owners who seek out dogs to increase their status as a person of power or intimidation. 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. By 1982, Pit bulls were becoming a hot topic and the media would capitalize on this at every opportunity. As the media delighted in reporting the Pit bull to be unpredictable and deadly, the population of Pit bulls accelerated each consecutive year. United Kennel Club (UKC) registrations show a 30% increase in registrations of American Pit Bull Terriers in a single year,(1983 to 1984). The media would be in full lather by 1985 and nary an expert or laymen would pass up the opportunity to comment on the Pit bull issue in any public forum, with the Pit bull population continuing to increase in step with the hysteria.
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. The Pit bull hysteria would continue unabated in 1987 and the media, not above cannibalizing itself, would begin to report on the over-reporting of Pit bull stories.
Two news stories in 1987 demonstrate with great clarity the extent of the hysteria about Pit bulls during this time. Some people became so frightened that they assumed any misfortune needed to be attributed to a Pit bull, while others used the hysteria and hype about Pit bulls in an attempt to disguise their own evil acts. In 1987 a woman rushed her bleeding and partially paralyzed dog to a Veterinary Hospital in Kalamazoo. The woman claimed her small dog had been “mauled by a Pit bull.” The dog had no visible bite wounds and x-rays were taken. It was discovered the dog had been shot and a bullet was lodged near the spine. The veterinarian commented that “unless Pit bulls are now carrying guns, the dog was probably shot by one of the woman’s neighbors.”1 Also in 1987, an Oakland, California, man called the police to report his 19-month-old daughter had stopped breathing. The man tried to convince police the family Pit bull had attacked and killed the little girl. There was absolutely no evidence the child had been attacked by the dog. The investigating officer stated the dog blamed for attacking the child “was so young, it barely had teeth.” The father was arrested on suspicion of murdering his daughter. The Pit bull puppy was taken into custody by Animal Control.2 In 1987, Rolling Stone magazine did a remarkable and graphic exposé on teenagers, inner city gangs, violence and the horrific abuse of Pit bulls, entitled “A Boy and his Dog in Hell.”3 This investigation into inner city youth showed that not only were Pit bulls being used as an extension of their owners’ depravity, but were extensions of their teenage owners’ egos. When Pit bulls lost an arranged street fight they were subjected to unimaginable cruelty and violent deaths, because they became a source of embarrassment or failed to uphold the machismo image of their owners.
Addressing the societal ills identified in the Rolling Stone report—crime, poverty, animal abuse, ignorance, greed, depravity, and man’s lust for violence—is a far too daunting and disturbing task for most people. So much easier on the human psyche to address the situation with Pit bulls as Sports Illustrated did that same month. On July 27, 1987, the 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.4 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).5 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. The author of this article is blithely unaware or unconcerned with his role in perpetuating the problem. While this type of journalism may be entertaining, the demonization of dogs by the media has serious consequences. Demonizing certain breeds only furthers their appeal to the most extremely abusive of owners while feeding into a public hysteria and frightening off any potential suitable owners for this breed of dog. This same month, July 1987, still another major publication, People Weekly, would also contribute to the hype and hysteria about the Pit bull with their article, “An Instinct for the Kill.”6 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.”7
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.8 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. The primary focus of the study was breed of dog and victim profile (age/sex). While the media was quick to quote the CDC findings on the percentage of Pit bull attacks, virtually no coverage was given to one important finding in this study. A number of times in report, the CDC identified the risk of infants left unsupervised with dogs. In summarizing their findings the CDC wrote, “In particular, parents should be aware that very small infants left alone with a dog may be at risk of death.” This finding with the potential to save lives was ignored. The number of Pit bulls found in attacks was of much greater interest. The 1980s media and epidemiological focus on breed was a drastic departure from the multi-faceted approach of the early 1970s. Now, the story of dog attacks began and ended with breed of dog. Politicians, the media, and even some “experts” discussed and debated the problem of canine aggression only as it related to the Pit bull. Pit bull history, anatomy, and temperament were all dissected and examined at length. Little to no mention was made of the factors that had been recognized for centuries as contributing to canine aggression. The heat-stressed, chained dog that attacked a child in 1965 was now being reported as the “family Pit bull” which mauled a child. Almost no one cared to know anything about a dog attack, apart from breed. Yet the courts and law enforcement have often demonstrated that incidents of severe/fatal aggression were the direct result of negligent, dangerous and/or criminal behavior by the dogs’ owners. In the 1980s an unprecedented number of owners (Pit bull and non-Pit) were beginning to be charged criminally when their dogs were involved in a fatal attack. During this period, fully 25% of all owners of Pit bulls involved in fatalities were convicted of some type of criminal offense related to the attack. Law enforcement and the judicial system not only recognized that owners were the direct cause of their dogs’ involvement in attacks, but pursued the matters criminally. Unfortunately, then (as today) many other owners escaped convictions due to the fact that many local or state laws did not adequately address negligent and/or abusive dog owners. Nevertheless, four Pit bull owners during the 1980s were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and received prison sentences after their dogs were involved in a fatality.
Another Pit bull owner received a 5 year prison sentence for reckless injury to a child when his 4-year-old stepson wandered near one of his Pit bulls chained to a utility pole. His defense, “That boy knew better than to get near that dog,” probably did not help his case. (He was allowed to serve this sentence concurrently with a 10-year sentence he had already received for drug possession.) Other owners of Pit bulls (and other breeds) were convicted of crimes ranging from child endangerment to criminal negligence. So while politicians, the media and others were clamoring about Pit bulls behaving unpredictably, the courts found and proved that indeed many of these attacks were very predictable. Finally, in 2001, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) convened a Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions to address the continuing dog bite problem and to assist in avoiding “ineffective responses” following a severe dog attack in a community.9 This in-depth study reported that “dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite.” Unfortunately the findings and information presented by these learned experts has been largely ignored by many communities when addressing dangerous dogs.
If the media acknowledged their over-reporting of anything Pit bull in the late 1980s, one would imagine they would be able to recognize their intense over-reporting on Pit bull related matters today. Apparently not. During the middle 1990s, as the Rottweiler appeared to be replacing the Pit bull as America’s new guard/protection/intimidation dog, the Pit bull’s popularity with unsavory owners who sought out dogs for negative functions appeared to have waned. No surprise, Rottweilers then overtook the Pit bull in severe and fatal dog attack statistics. With a new monster looming on the horizon, the media briefly took their focus off the Pit bull. It seemed the Pit bull had finally run its two decade course as America’s favorite super-predator and the unfortunate Rottweiler was positioned to suffer a similar fate. In 1997, there were “only” 400+ newspaper headlines with the words “Pit bull” in them (down from 850+ in 1987). In 2000, the third and latest CDC report on dog bite-related fatalities in the United States released another set of pseudo-statistics claiming the Rottweiler caused the most fatalities for the years 1997 and 1998. But, again, the CDC report counted the number of Pit bulltype dog attacks from their previous two studies (dating back to 1979 and still using media sources for breed identifications) and released a total for Pit bull-related fatalities during the last two decades, from 1979–1998.10 The unbridled media coverage of this report could only be described as orgasmic. Within a month after the release of the CDC report, hardly a person in America did not come to know that Rottweilers and Pit bulls caused the most human fatalities over the previous two decades. It didn’t matter that the odds of dying from a dog attack during the year 1996 were 1 in 11,534,087, while the odds of being struck by lightning during the same year were 1 in 4,210,857.
Nor did it matter that some of the dogs included in this study were terribly abused or were invited to act so aggressively by their owners. Dog breeds involved in fatal attacks were big news. If the intense media focus on an event which occurred to one person in every 11 million exaggerated the risk of a fatal dog attack, things would get much worse for the Pit bull.