Best Friends Animal Society Online Forum

March 21, 2005


Merritt Clifton, Editor Animal People Question from Linda: I’ve been reading all the info I can on the dog fighting underground in our country – including a stack of articles I got from HSUS’ west coast office – & am developing a plan of attack for our region. Though I have the assistance of HSUS’ regional office, this issue has not really been dealt with in our neck of the woods, and the more I read, the the sadder & more repulsed I become. Merritt Clifton response: The HSUS literature will not really help you a fraction as much in combating dogfighting as it should. Neither will the literature or strategy of any other major mainstream humane society or animal control agency in the U.S., because all of it tends to tapdance around the crux of the problem. One of the major reasons why the major organizations in animal protection tend to tapdance around the problem is a deep and indeed deliberately cultivated misunderstanding of the ethnic and racial issues involved. Most animal advocates who deal with dogfighting today tend to recognize it as a deadly problem in inner cities, associated with Afro-American and Hispanic drug gangs, as well as with white methadrine addicts in rural areas--but most of the people trying to stop dogfighting today don't know how it came to be where it is. Most are not clearly aware that as recently as 25 years ago dogfighting was virtually unknown in inner cities. Most U.S. animal control officers had rarely if ever seen pit bull terriers, or American Staffordshires or any of the many other terms used to describe what are essentially just color variants of the same breed of fighting dog. Dogfighting in most of the U.S. was an artifact of history. Historically, dogfighting had once been practiced in waterfront neighborhoods around the country, brought from England along with the dogs. Dogfighting thrived as a gambling pastime of sailors for more than 100 years, but before it spread far from the coasts and the Great Lakes, it was discouraged by the strict antigambling perspective of frontier Protestant religion, by the association of dogfighting with idlers, by the impracticality of transporting fighting dogs by wagon or train, and eventually by the aggressive opposition of the author Jack London. Allied with Massachusetts SPCA founder George Angell, his voice amplified by the hundreds of Jack London Clubs that Angell sponsored via the American Humane Education Society, Jack London between 1905 and his death in 1916 drove dogfighting out of the respectable sporting press. Dogfighting was soon banned by legislation in almost every state whose legislature the Ku Klux Klan did not control. From then until the early 1980s, dogfighting was almost exclusively a fundraising activity of the Klan and Klan splinter groups, along with cockfighting and pigeon shoots. As recently as the early 1930s, Klan chapters would openly advertise dogfights, cockfights, and pigeon shoots. As overt racism became less and less respectable, along with cruelty to animals, the ads became more discreet. By the 1970s, as the Klan itself faded, the Klan connection was barely visible--unless you knew what to look for. By then, the Klan itself had largely morphed into motorcycle gangs and skinheads, and the younger generations of racists had fled to the west and Pacific Northwest, pursuing twisted dreams of building a white supremacist empire that would stretch from Utah to Alaska. Instead of moonshining, they cooked meth. Instead of bedsheets, they wore tattoos. But they took dogfighting with them. In Oakland, where the national headquarters of the Hell's Angels and the Black Panthers were only blocks apart in the early 1970s, where I first

encountered dogfighting, and in prisons all over the country, the white bad guys and the black bad guys met, exchanged cultural influences, and produced mirror images of each other: white pimps. Black dogfighters. If the Imperial Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan had devised a plot about then to do the maximum possible damage to Afro-Americans, he could not have concocted a more diabolical scheme than to introduce dogfighting to black inner cities. With the proceeds from dogfighting in decline for generations, there was no longer any reason to keep it as an exclusive franchise, while unleashing pit bull terriers amid crowded housing projects and multi-family small framehouses full of little kids was a surefire way to kill and maim many more children, faster, than the Birmingham Bomber ever dreamed of. Here was a weapon deadlier than razor blades for inner city youth to fight with, with more backfire potential than a zip gun. Here was an animal whom crime-plagued people would chain to porches for protection, who would as often harm them instead. But the Imperial Grand Wizards Ku Klux Klan are not really wizards at all. There was no big plot to what they did. Certainly they did not anticipate that the bleeding-heart liberal humane community would unwittingly become their strongest allies--and would continue to be for the next 30 years, at least. During the same years that dogfighting was spreading around the world from port to port with the British Navy and merchant fleet, a few generations before Charles Darwin spent his shore leave deducing the theory of evolution instead of attending dogfights, the principles of selective breeding to produce fiercer fighting dogs and faster racehorses became generally known. While gamblers produced the pit bull terrier and kindred fighting breeds, upper class dog fanciers developed the concept of the purebred show dog. They also applied the theory of selective breeding to explain their own good fortune. Inherited wealth was theirs not simply because their ancestors were on the winning side of a war, or kissed the king's butt, or both, but because they were of "good breeding," which perhaps even entitled them to own slaves. "Well-bred" people of course had to have "well-bred" dogs. From out of the attitude of class superiority came the further notion of the superiority of dogs whose gene pool was deliberately narrowed to the point that a similar narrowing among humans would most assuredly produce idiots. Breeds were defined as "pure" only when it was no longer possible to discern the work of natural evolution among them. The theory of evolution arrived as a great challenge to this mistaken view of natural hierarchical order. Evolution recognizes adaptability, not specialization, as the ultimate requirement for species survival. Purebreds, human or canine, are maladaptive and foredoomed to extinction. "Breed" and "race" represent the beginnings of slow adaptation into more specialized creatures whose opportunities to thrive despite habitat change over the centuries are relatively limited. The infinite variability of mutts--hybrid vigor--is the trait that best ensures passing one's genes farthest into the future. Adherents of a belief in racial purity tend to resist accepting the implications of evolution. Remember what I said about the production of idiots. People who worry about preserving particular dog breeds are mostly unwittingly upholding similarly misguided pre-Darwinian ideas. Dogs themselves did quite well at selecting the traits that would best ensure their survival, including in proximity to humans, for millions of years before humans mucked about in the process, creating breeds--like the pit bull terrier and many dozens of others--who have no natural analogs and could not survive on their own, in their natural ecological niche, without undergoing considerable backward evolution to resemble their much less specialized ancestors. However, dog breed fanciers are a considerable subset of the dog-keeping population. From the beginning of the humane movement, dog breed fanciers have been among the highest donors to human organizations. When most of the U.S. banned dogfighting in the early 20th century, the humane community abruptly found itself called upon to dispose of countless dogs who had been bred for fights that would now never occur.

Even though those humane societies that held animal control contracts were already struggling to find ways of quickly killing ever larger numbers of harmless humble mutts, the humane community responded to the discomfort of breed fanciers over mass destruction of pit bull terriers by initiating the first large-scale attempt to alter the dangerous image of the breed. Books such as Pep: The Story of A Brave Dog were commissioned and distributed to public school libraries, for example, to attempt to persuade the public to adopt pit bulls over humble mutts. The current claims of pit bull defenders that pit bulls were once America's favorite dog, were not dangerous toward human handlers, etc., can mostly be traced back to that epoch. (In fact, the most popular dog breeds when pit bulls are said to have been most popular were the American collie and the Border collie, reflecting the then-longtime importance of the since almost vanished U.S. wool industry.) Between the early 20th century and the early 1980s, breed fanciers similarly called upon the humane community to help defend and rehabilitate the image of Dobermans and German shepherds, who never actually rated high in actuarial risk, i.e. amount of payout in death and injury cases relative to the numbers of dogs insured. Except for trained guard dogs, whose behavior was specifically modified to increase their threat potential, Dobermans and German shepherds were never demonstrably more dangerous than other large breeds. Then came the invasion of dogfighting into inner city black neighborhoods. Remember where it came from. Be aware that a black child is now three times more likely to be killed or maimed by a dog before age 10 than a white child. Be aware of the role of fighting dogs in guarding the crack houses that menace entire neighborhoods with the sort of traffic they attract. Know the extent to which bad guys with their bad dogs have amplified the fear that inner city people already had of street crime. Remember the origin of the whole idea of "breed" as a virtue, among people dedicated to maintaining their own privileged status by equating it with their own "racial purity," distinguished by "good breeding." Now consider the irony that in the mistaken equation of "breed discrimination" with human racism, the Humane Society of the U.S. and American SPCA, among others, have since 1984 joined the American Kennel Club in leading the opposition to breed-specific legislation that would fight the proliferation of dogfighting in exactly the same manner that we fight drug abuse: by prohibiting the production and sale of the dangerous item and associated paraphernalia. Prohibiting the production and sale of crack, speed, and heroin in no way interferes with the legitimate production and use of drugs of authentic medicinal value. Prohibiting the production and sale of dog breeds who have been artificially manipulated to become weapons will in no way interfere with the right to existence, such as it is, of any wellbehaved living dog. It will merely ensure the rapid reduction in numbers of the only dogs who in the U.S. are bred and disposed of like meat, with an average lifespan of only about 18 months, whether killed in the ring or euthanized by an animal shelter, and a euthanasia rate of 93% when admitted to animal shelters. Pit bull terriers and their close mixes, constituting under 5% of the U.S. dog population, have accounted for half the total actuarial risk in each individual year since 1982. Rottweilers have accounted for about 25%, and all other breeds combined have accounted for the remainder. While there are human victims among all classes and ethnic groups, Afro-Americans, especially Afro-American children, have suffered most. Failing to fully integrate the Afro-American community into humane work during the 20th century, after a promising start in the 19th century, was the first great dereliction of duty toward Afro-Americans of the U.S. humane movement. The second was failure to keep dogfighting from spreading into the Afro-American inner city, from the most racist niches within white America. Both failures now need to be rectified--as does a significant dereliction of duty toward dogs. No dog chooses to be a pit bull.

As Randy Grim has observed among the feral dogs of the abandoned industrial areas surrounding St. Louis, dogs themselves genetically select away from pit bull traits as rapidly as they can, so that within two generations any defining pit bull characteristics disappear.


Question from Linda: So, what do you suggest be done? HSUS, as little credit as you give them, has at least encouraged the courts to prohibit felons on probation for drug offenses from owning or possessing pit bulls or any other dogs. You cited the problem of fighting dogs being used to protect crack houses; they are also used in many other aspects by persons involved in illegal activities and persons on probation/parole. Anyone involved with or knowledgeable about dog fighting is aware of the connection between dog fighting, drug sales, illegal gun sales, and prostitution. This is a much broader problem than what the Ku Klux Klan has done to AfroAmericans. Merritt Clifton response: Read 100 Years of Lynching, by Ralph Ginzburg, and then let me know if you care to repeat such a fundamentally ignorant remark. The Ku Klux Klan and splinter groups lynched Afro-Americans in 46 of the 48 continental states between 1865 and 1965, tens of thousands of them, and raped, beat, tortured, robbed, and vandalized hundreds of thousands more, most of them innocent of any crime. There is scarcely an Afro-American my age who didn't have a close relative who experienced KKK terrorism first hand. You are never going to be able to deal effectively with dogfighting until you recognize that among many young Afro-American men owning a fighting dog is symbolic of taking away and personally controlling and using a former instrument of repression. Ironically, dogfighting and the proliferation of pit bull terriers in particular, Rottweilers to a slightly lesser extent, are still among the instruments of those who most oppress the AfroAmerican community--and now the terrorism comes mostly from within. The white dogfighters, meanwhile, are the same trash they always were, but now they cook methadrine in the rural West and Northwest more than they cook moonshine in the South. Stopping the proliferation of dogfighting requires recognizing that the linkage to crime is not just an association with crime; it is an association with crimes of repression and dominance, committed by low-status males not just for money or kicks, but as part and parcel of trying to raise themselves up by forcing someone else down. These days the human victims are usually the women and children who are unfortunate enough to be in proximity to the dogfighters: their own wives and girlfriends. Their own children. The most numerous victims are the dogs, several of whom have recently been founded hanged, like lynching victims, in St. Louis. Why do you suppose that was? What do you suppose inspired it? What message was it supposed to send? It is a question of how we are going to address the violence that is so prevalent in our culture, race aside. And how are we going to deal with a network of violence (the dog fighting network) that has resources well beyond any government or animal advocacy agency? Personal participation in violence in American culture is actually much lower, overall, than it has ever been. Our schools are far less tolerant of fighting than when I was lad, duking it out daily with gangs of bullies in order to eat the vegetarian lunch I made myself in peace. Our courts are far less tolerant of drunken brawling, wife-beating, and sexual assault. Violent men are held in far less community esteem. The odds that a man will go to war are still just a fraction of what they were during the Vietnam War years, let alone the World War II years, so flush that rhetoric about "the violence that is so prevalent in our culture."

Show me any society, anywhere, that has reduced violence faster. We still have a lot more personal violence going on than our Canadian neighbors, but much less than our Mexican neighbors, whose levels of violence are actually quite comparable to what ours used to be, a mere two or three generations back. What all of this tells me is that we know what to do about violence and how to do it, once we form a societal consensus that we want less of it. It involves applying a whole range of strategies, from early childhood education to how we manage criminal justice. One of the most important elements is reducing access to weapons. Restricting where men could take sidearms markedly reduced saloon shootouts, for example. Another important element is reducing public tolerance of contributory behavior. Not only drunken brawling but public drunkenness itself is now socially unacceptable, even for sailors on shore leave. That wasn't true half a century ago in many and perhaps most working class neighborhoods. Both of these elements point toward the necessity and utility of accepting and promoting breed-specific legislation to prohibit the breeding and sale of pit bull terriers, their close mixes, and other dogs bred specifically for fighting characteristics. Rottweilers and their close mixes belong on the list as well, as the only other breed type associated with comparable actuarial risk. Descended from the medieval cart-pulling dogs who were crossed with terriers to produce the ancestral pit bull, Rottweilers are actually among the closest pit bull relatives. [Other descendants of cart-pulling dogs apparently didn't share much with the fighting dog gene pool, and enjoy generally good reputations.] I already hear the rumbling from pit bull defenders that if pit bulls are banned, other breeds will be produced to fight. Stow it. Dogfighters have been experimenting for centuries to try to develop other fighting breeds. What they have come up with are the likes of the Dogo Argentino, Presa Canario, and Fila Brasiero, all of which are predominantly pit bulls, crossed with other large dogs. Of all the major fighting breeds worldwide, only one, the Japanese tosa, is not primarily a pit bull. None of them have close analogs in natural dog evolution, all of them are the products of highly contrived human intervention in their gene pool, and there is no rational reason why anyone of good sense and compassion should want to breed more of them. Incidentally, overbreeding most kinds of dogs, e.g. Dalmatians and Chihuahuas, is eventually self-corrected by market factors. When all the homes are filled, the price drops, so the breeders stop turning them out -- albeit after animal shelters are flooded with the homeless offspring. Overbreeding pit bulls and close mixes is not corrected by market factors, because the dogfighting market exists to profitably dispose of any who flunk out of homes or never find homes, but do not find their way to shelters. The secondary market in fighting dogs and bait dogs for training fighting dogs has kept overbreeding pit bulls lucrative. The existence of the secondary market makes breeding pit bulls much more like breeding pigs and chickens (or racing greyhounds) than like breeding animals who are not considered short-cycle disposable commodities.

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