I am a seasoned polemicist in the pit bull wars (I'm not a fan of pit bull type dogs, to put it kindly, as you can see in this 2017 piece published in The Walrus online). It's been quite a while since I've engaged on that front, though. So a recent book review published in Aero magazine acted upon me as a bugle to an old cavalry horse.
Titled "critical race theory is Coming for the Dogs," I had a pretty good idea of what tack its author, director of The No Kill Advocacy Center, Nathan J. Winograd, was going to take. I was not disappointed. The book in question is The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals, by gender and sexuality studies academic Katja Guenther. Winograd's recap of an all-too-familiar line of reasoning told me this was a book I needn't waste time on.
Winograd writes that Guenther claims dogs are being killed because of "capitalism, anthroparchy (!), white supremacy and patriarchy." She says allowing dogs to sleep inside the home is a privilege reserved for the white and wealthy. She says that "racism, classism and the caste system are at the heart of the broken animal sheltering institution."
Guenther also suggests that dangerous dogs should get a pass from animal control when they act out in threatening ways, because dangerous dogs are more likely to be the companion animals of disadvantaged Black and Latinx (sic) men. If this curious strain of logic reminds you of the Black Lives Matter movement calling for defunding of the police in the name of racial equity, you're on to Guenther's plot. For Guenther—and the dog-fixated gender-studies academics who preceded and inspired her—pit bulls are canine avatars for young, lawless men of colour
Ho hum. Been there, done that. Guenther is bringing nothing new to the dangerous-dog conversation that hasn't already been hiding in plain sight for decades. Only she is amplifying her audience reach past the academic echo chamber by toning down the normal unintelligibility of academese, and translating it into language the general public can (sort of) understand. It's getting positive response. Seems like the cultural moment is ripe for it.
I listened to an interview Guenther did with Kristen Hassen, of Human Animals Support Services (check out their glossary for Diversity, Inclusion and Equity, you'll think you're on a university campus rather than at a dog shelter), who devoured every word out of Guenther's mouth with uncritical eagerness. In the conversation, Guenther characterized dogs that snarl at or bite shelter staff as a form of "animal resistance," a genre of "purposeful action." Aggression should not be seen as a "fixed characteristic," Guenther says, but as a stress-induced pathology that can be cured by good treatment in a loving home. Dogs that bite staff or visitors may only be exhibiting "a strategy" to "reject the human domination of animals." This claptrap made me gag, because waving away canine aggression to humans as transient and situational rather than as a cautionary sign of trouble ahead is about the most dangerous advice you can give a prospective adopter.
And then I checked out an article Guenther wrote, "Taking the ghetto out of the dog." From the abstract:
"This paper examines how rescuers of pit bulls in the Los Angeles area participate in remaking pit bulls so that the dogs shed their racialized, gendered, and classed identities as companions to black and poor Latinx men and instead become suitable companions for white, feminized middle-class homes. Pit bull rescuers employ a range of strategies to make the dogs more palatable to the types of adopters rescuers see as desirable, and help reinforce rescuers' construction of whiteness as morally superior vis-à-vis non-human animals. Even as they work to save individual dogs, rescuers of pit bulls leave intact beliefs that the dogs' previous guardians were problematic and fail to challenge the social structures that lead the dogs into the shelter."
This opaque linguistic jungle is not easily traversed. But happily, I never descend into the pit bull rabbit hole without my trusty pit bull gobbledygook-cutting scythe at my side, so here is the translation: Pit bulls are often dumped in the shelter Guenther happened to study by underclass owners, mainly black people and Latinos, who have abused them by neglect, constant outdoor chaining, dogfighting, inhumane punishment, and so forth. Their rescuers want to see the dogs rehomed with people who will treat them well. It happens that many of the potential adopters are white, and intend to treat the dogs as normative family pets (lucky dogs!). These rescuers are therefore acting in a racist fashion since, by affirming gratitude for a rescue dog's future comfort and security, hitherto inexperienced, they are casting aspersions on the moral character of the previous owners, whose abuse of the dogs can be entirely explained by "social structures," i.e. systemic racism.
Twenty years ago, the words "critical race theory" (CRT) meant nothing to me. Nor was I in the loop on queer theory (QT). What caught and held my attention in the early days of my career in journalism was a cultural curiosity no other mainstream Canadian opinion writers had glommed on to: the escalating trend to pit bull love in certain segments of the population, and the by no means coincidental rise in devastatingly grave dog bite-related maimings and deaths, overwhelmingly caused by pit bull type dogs. Little did I know at the time I began my slow but steady descent into the pit bull love rabbit hole that I would end up arriving at both CRT and QT through a back door used by a weird but powerful advocacy movement rather than the front door opening on to university campuses.
Naively, I considered people who insisted that pit bulls were wonderful pets and no different from other breeds with regard to risk as merely ignorant of their loved breed's history and epidemiology. The pit bull, I would futilely explain in my columns, was bred to inflict pain and suffering on other animals for the enjoyment of a certain segment of the population, and for nothing else. First, they were used to bait bulls. Then they came into their own with dogfighting as a lucrative gambling operation. (You can find the ineluctable statistics on pit bulls' human and animal depredations, and much more on their history here and here.)
Dogfighting is a disgusting, blood-lust activity, I would further futilely explain, requiring an animal that is predisposed to fight to the death regardless of the pain it suffers. There is a reason professional dogfighters will not use any other breed than pit bulls (or Rottweilers, genetically related to pit bulls) for their "sport." You cannot infuse a dog with a passion for fighting to the death through bribery or punishment if the dog is not already genetically endowed with a high prey drive and single mindedness once engaged in its attack. (Only a pit bull will attack a cow or a horse, and pit bulls have attacked and killed some).
Dogs will take pleasure in exhibiting the activities for which they are particularly well endowed. Greyhounds are not only good at running; they take joy in it. Likewise with terriers and digging. Likewise with pit bulls and random, unprovoked violence. Of course not every pit bull will erupt in random, unprovoked violence against humans in its lifetime, although plenty of owners ensure they don't by constant vigilance. But it is extremely rare for a dog of almost any other breed ever to erupt in unprovoked violence, with or without vigilance, against either animals or humans in its lifetime.
Historically, black Americans have a special reason to distance themselves from pit bulls. Pit bulls were used to hunt down runaway slaves, whom they would often tear to pieces. The KKK kept itself financially afloat in large part through revenues from dogfighting. When the KKK and the equally racist and socially-disordered skinheads dominated dog fighting, intellectuals could freely call them out for the moral trash they were, and their dogs for the abused and abusing brutes they were. You can be sure that if pit bulls were still strongly identified with the white underclass of the southern US, you would not see educated people maundering on about how sweet and misunderstood they are.
Over the years I found that my well-reasoned and evidence-rich columns weren't making the smallest dent in pit bull love. People caught up in the pit bull cult don't care about evidence—as is very clear from Guenther's pseudo-scientific approach—and the sadder fact is they don't care much about the victims of pit bull savagery. Because it is no coincidence that sympathy for pit bulls amongst the educated class surfaced at about the same time that the once-marginalized (and illegal) industry of dog fighting re-emerged in the black underclass. The pit bull, once a metaphor for terrorist oppression of blacks by white supremacists, was now a metaphor for black liberation and identity pride. And identity pride—in whatever form it takes—is a sacred ideal in progressive circles.
Amongst academics—especially Queer theorists like Guenther—pit bulls are largely seen as accessories to disaffected black men, some of whom, like football celebrity and dogfight obsessive Michael Vicks (Winograd's detailed description of the scenes of torture and carnage investigators found on Vicks' property will turn your stomach) avert their normally dog-empathetic eyes away from the extreme abuse of dogs involved in blood sport. Black men who abuse dogs simply cannot be condemned; that would be racist. Academics like Guenther saw an opportunity in the black male/pit bull nexus to expiate their CRT-induced white guilt. Instead of scolding black culture for dog fighting, they sought first to understand it, and then to sympathize with those who partake in it, and then to "disappear" the bad image of their agent of violence—the pit bull—into the oubliette of historical revisionism.
Intellectuals had to validate this form of black "cultural" expression in a way that they could justify to themselves. No problem. Rhetorical legerdemain is the intellectual's gift. Moral inversion is his or her specialty. In their minds, without skipping a beat, the pit bull was now transformed from an animate weapon of destruction into a fine animal: game, courageous, loyal, good, and true. And a victim of terrible prejudice! Just like black men!
LGBT academics in particular take a very serious interest in the intersection of dogs and humans. Googling "queer theory, dogs" a few days ago brought up over seven million hits. Of them, almost 2.5 million are devoted to pit bulls. One of the more prominent specialists in queer/dog writing and teaching is trans professor of gender, women and sexuality Harlan Weaver of Kansas State University. I discovered Weaver many years ago, when he was doing his PhD. Here is his 2012 website description of himself:
"Harlan Weaver is a soon-to-be graduate of the History of Consciousness Department at U.C. Santa Cruz. Harlan's dissertation, Thinking and Feeling with "Trans Affect," explores the role of feeling in both transgender experiences of embodiment epistemological practices. Harlan's new project comes out of ten years of pit bull advocacy (and love). In it, Harlan explores the ways that species, breed, race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, and nation are mutually shaped by relationships between humans and so-called dangerous dogs, 'pit bull-type' dogs in particular."
Uh huh. Even my trusty scythe is no match for this tangled verbal thicket.
Weaver is the author of such papers as, "Pit Bull Promises: Inhuman Intimacies and Queer Kinships in an Animal Shelter;" "The Tracks of my Tears: Trans* Affects, Resonance, and Pit Bulls and Parolees;" and "Becoming in Kind: Race, Gender, and Nation in Cultures of Dog Fighting and Dog Rescue." Get the picture?
For an illustration of how all these ideas became conflated in the academic world, ending up as jargon-infused propaganda for the pit bull advocacy movement, which trickled down into the general population (pit bulls have achieved a staggering rise in popularity over the last few decades)—and to show you how very derivative Guenther's ideas are—we have only to turn to a doctoral sociology thesis that was submitted to the University of Southern California in 2007 by Theresa Allen. It's called "Petey and Chato: The Pitbull's transition from mainstream to marginalized masculinity." (The dog names in the title come from a famous Latino cinematic pit bull and a pit bull "fighting champion" in a popular comic series, Barrio Quien Sabe.)
As soon as I read Winograd's review of Guenther, I remembered my eye-popping encounter years ago with this thesis in the days when I hadn't yet heard of, let alone come to understand, what constituted critical race theory.
In her introduction, Allen lays out the ideological scenario with which Guenther's writing is imbued: "Sociology has hardly considered non-human animals as subjects, especially as actors, significant in the network of relations of power and violence to oppression. Just as we understand certain populations as marginal due to their perceived status as 'other,' the pit bull, as a stigmatized breed belonging to a marginalized species, reflects a similar structure of power and oppression." All the cultural Marxism buzz words that are now so familiar.
Allen's subjects are young, lower-status, mostly black men she met and interviewed at a downscale veterinary clinic, where their pit bulls were treated. Many of them are unemployed. Their pit bulls are important to them as symbols of masculinity. Allen comes to like them and sympathize with them and their dogs.
In academic-speak, such sympathy emerges as: "The construction of the pit bull as vicious serves the dominant population by addressing a fear of the inner-city male, racial minorities, whose favored method in achieving a macho presentation involves the subversion of mainstream values."
Unpacked, she is saying that we—you and I, gentle reader of the oppressor class—have deliberately "constructed"—just made up!—an image of the pit bull as vicious, simply because it is the dog of choice of racialized youth, and because their concept of masculinity doesn't match our own "mainstream" vision. According to Allen, this unfounded image allows us to marginalize young black men and continue to enjoy our hegemonic status.
If you recommend, as I do, the phasing out the breeding of pit bulls in the interest of public safety, Allen alleges, then what you are really in favour of is racism: "By framing the bull breed as a bloodthirsty predator, we justify its destruction in the same manner that we justify gang sweeps, stepped up penalties for gang membership and punishment based on one's physical likeness to the stereotypical 'gang member.'" Removal of gangs as a nuisance abatement, just like pit bull bans, works to "sanitize the public realm" of that which seems threatening. (Gangs are in fact a threat to public safety, but that is of no concern to Ms. Allen.)
This thesis is juicy with pit bull mythology and pulpy with conspiracy-theorist accusations. Pit bulls, Allen claims, are the result of "selective breeding as a very loyal and innocuous human companion," they are "especially tolerant of children," they were well-known as "nanny-dogs" and so forth. This is all bulls**t. The "nanny dog" meme is a complete myth, made up out of whole cloth. Pit bulls have always been bred for what they are; and it is, tragically, the popularity of the myth that they are especially reliable as companions for children that is responsible for so many children being savaged or killed by them—disproportionately black children, ironically enough. According to pit bull experts Merritt and Beth Clifton of Animals24-7.org, black children under the age of ten are more than three times as likely to be bitten by dogs—mainly pit bulls—as white children.
And then of course, Allen peddles the tired old conspiracy theory that the media is to blame for overblowing pit bull incidents in order to direct negative attention to "young, poor, urban males of a racial minority." Thanks to the pit bull advocacy movement, the opposite is true. Most incurious media swallow the pit bull cult's well-marketed apologetics hook, line and sinker, happily perpetuating the idiotic notion that pit bulls get a "bad rap" because they are "stereotyped." (As if all animal line breeding had any other purpose but to churn out stereotypes.)
In an academic thesis about pit bulls and their image, one might think the doctoral candidate wouldn't be able to avoid data and statistics about pit bulls' actuarial risk to public safety. One would be wrong. Data and stats are old hat in the postmodern "constructionist" universe. No, in our brave new academic world, as Allen explains, "the way in which we understand the world is dependent on our culture and historical context. A social constructionist points to daily interaction between people as the basis for the creation of knowledge—shared versions of knowledge are constructed."
That is to say, "knowledge" is what I personally "know," and what you personally "know"—but most important of all for the purposes of this thesis, what young, underclass black men "know."
And what in fact do these young, CRT-deprived men know? When Allen asked them why they chose a pit bull, almost all said they liked its "toughness" and that it was "intimidating." Amongst the names of the dogs were monikers like Tonka, Felony and War. These young men had no illusions about the true nature of pit bulls. But strangely Ms. Allen doesn't accuse them of "constructivism."
Life is dangerous for young black men in their "oppositional space" and therefore dangerous for their pit bulls as well, we're told. One subject mentions that a friend's pit bull "was shot by the police." This fact is duly recorded by Allen with no context or explanation as to why the police shot the dog. The implication is that the dog must have been innocent, just as young black men shot by the police sometimes are. But pit bulls are never shot by police at random. Why was Allen so incurious about the nature of the incident?
I could go on and on—this thesis is a parodic goldmine for proof of the corruption in scientific rigour that first metastasized throughout the groves of academe, and has now broken out into the mainstream, along with other manifestations of CRT and QT—but here is the rebranding of the pit bull as a "threatening outsider" and victim in a nutshell: "his brute animality made him the perfect vehicle for the projection of fears about human savagery that had been displaced onto racial-minority males. This displacement has a long history in colonialism, when imperialists often perceived of indigenous peoples as beasts, having brute-like qualities."
Syllogistic summary: Black people are victims of racism and colonialism and many young black males enjoy affiliation with pit bulls. White people are inherently supremacist and imperialist. For any white people to ascribe any attributes to pit bulls that might make society think less highly of them in relation to other breeds of dogs—even in the interest of their own safety–is racism and imperialism, and must be suppressed.
One can only marvel at the vaguely doglike figurines that emerge when academics like Theresa Allen and Katja Guenther get hold of the smoothly linear balloons of epidemiology and biology, blow them up with the hot air of ideology and begin to twist away at them. It's a clever party trick, and that's all. Time to stick a pin in them.
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