The Most Feared Dogs May Also Be the Most Misunderstood

Many countries ban pit bulls as a dangerous breed but “there’s no science that bears that idea out,” says this author.

In 2014, while playing near his house in Phoenix, Arizona, four-year-old Kevin Vicente was savagely attacked by a pit bull named Mickey. But when the authorities sought to put the dog down, public opinion swung behind the dog, not the boy.

The incident illustrated the bitter divide in perceptions of pit bulls—as Bronwen Dickey, author of Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon, has discovered to her own cost. By attempting to show that negative views about pit bulls have often been shaped by misunderstandings of the breed and its history, she has unwittingly become a heroine for the pro-pit bull community and the target of threats and harassment from those who see her as an apologist for a vicious animal. Her bookstore appearances now require security, and her home has been equipped with surveillance cameras.

When we caught up with the author by phone, she explained how her own pit bull, Nola, confounded her fears of the breed; how the story of the pit bull is deeply interwoven with the history of the United States; and how a foundation in upstate New York is trying to restore the reputation of this most polarizing breed. 

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ALFRED A. KNOPF

From 2005 to 2015, pit bulls killed 232 Americans, about one citizen every 17 days. They are banned in the United Kingdom and several other countries. Shouldn’t they be banned here?

No. The first thing I did when I was consulting this book is reach out to the experts in the animal sciences to talk about what’s going on with these incidents and how best to prevent them. Fatalities are incredibly rare. In the U.S., we have 320 million people and between 77 and 83 million dogs. So your chance of being killed by any type of dog in the U.S. in any given year is one in 10 million.

People who have studied these cases, like Jeffrey Sacks at the CDC, have shown that when it comes to fatalities caused by pit bulls, the breed identifications are often not accurate. The title “pit bull” has expanded so dramatically over the years that people are lumping any dog with a large head and short coat into that category rather than separating out each of the pit bull breeds.

So you are disputing the statistic?

I am. A study on fatalities between 2000-2009 in the journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that in over 80 percent of those cases there were four or more significant factors related to the care and control of the dog. These were dogs that had not been socialized; were large and sexually intact; and had no relationship to the person who was killed. In other words, perfect storm of factor upon factor.


Four-year-old Kevin Vicente was attacked by a pit bull named Mickey in Phoenix, Arizona. Ten months later, he still bears the scars. But when the authorities threatened to euthanize Mickey, public opinion swung behind the dog, not the boy.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KPHO CBS 5


I have to confess: I have never met a nice pit bull. They are the only breed I avoid when walking my Dalmatian. It is an inherently aggressive breed, isn’t it?

[Laughs] I guess it’s dueling anecdotes. But, first of all, it’s not one breed, it’s four. There’s the American pit bull terrier; the American Staffordshire terrier, which was the American Kennel Club conformation breed that branched off from the American pit bull terrier when folks wanted AKC legitimacy and didn’t want to be associated with the American pit bull terrier riff-raff. There’s the Staffordshire bull terrier, which has been a conformation breed since the 1930s; and the newer breed called the American bully, which was derived from the American Staffordshire terrier in the 1990s.

Secondly, there’s no science that bears that idea out. When people say, “Oh, these dogs are bred for fighting,” it’s true that the original breed, the American pit bull terrier, which originated in 1889, was developed for fighting. But the three other breeds that are lumped into this category have always been dog show conformation breeds. They don’t have that heritage. The fact that they get lumped in is part of the problem because we’re basing things on what they look like and not necessarily what they are.

Tell us about your own experiences with pit bulls. Have you owned them? Would you trust them around your children?

I grew up in the 1980s, and I was always terrified of them. It wasn’t until I started to meet some that I began to question those assumptions. My own pit bull is called Nola. She is seven and is extremely affectionate, wonderful, and smart. I always hesitate to invoke that example because the fact that mine is wonderful doesn’t negate the fact that there are really nasty dogs out there! [Laughs] You can’t make broad generalizations. I have met everything from the most scary and unstable pit bull to the most bombproof and mellow. It’s such an individual thing.

Mickey the pit bull nearly killed a child but ended up in a cushy, air-conditioned cell while the boy could not find funds for medical surgery. Aren’t we in danger of treating animals better than human beings?

Yeah, if we aren’t careful we are. That was one of the things that troubled me. It was a major media spectacle. Kevin Vicente was severely bitten. He was temporarily blinded in one eye and his jaw was broken. Everyone thought the dog would be euthanized. Instead, there was this social movement, with thousands of people signing petitions to save the dog and sending in donations, while the fund for the boy’s treatment hardly gained any donations.

Today, Mickey is living in an air-conditioned cell in an Arizona jail with a thousand-dollar webcam so people can see what he’s doing. Thank goodness, after the attention the case received, the Vicente family has had more donations. This is a child who really suffered, his family suffered, and that deserves an incredible amount of compassion. But once a dog becomes a symbol like that, people can act in ways that are not rational.

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit