The scene was Hollywood-ready: On a gritty New York street, a homeless man is having a seizure on the sidewalk. At his side, his unleashed pit bull. When police approach, the dog rises to defend her master, barking as it charges them. The cops shoot the pit in the head, leaving it in a pool of blood in the street.
It’s the aftermath that breaks the stereotype. The dog, Star, somehow survives and is taken to a shelter, where she's given extensive medical treatment. Instead of being vilified in the press as a ruthless killer, Star is by and large depicted as a loyal and even adorable dog who reacted in a normal doggie way. As it stands now, it’s not clear whether Star, who lost an eye and some hearing but otherwise seems to be doing well, is suitable to be put up for adoption. But the entire incident displays a remarkable reversal in what was for years a reflexive reaction to any pit bull anywhere: It’s vicious. Kill it now.
Starting in the 1980s, pit bulls came to embody all of the public’s fears and anxieties about what was wrong with America's inner cities. The dogs have been stock images in a familiar, grim urban picture that includes drug dealing, racial tension, gun violence, and decay. Many cities and counties have banned them; Miami-Dade County in Florida just upheld a 23-year ban on pit bulls and related dogs by a 63.2 percent to 36.8 percent margin.
But all this time, there have been people who have spoken up for pit bulls as terrific companion dogs particularly suited to city life, one with a long history in American culture. There was Petey, of Little Rascals fame, and Buster Brown’s dog, Tige. World War II propaganda posters used the pit bull as a symbol of American spirit.
And now, just as the nation is starting to see its cities in a more positive light, the tide looks like it may be turning in favor of pit bulls again, too.
One of the breed’s most stalwart defenders is writer Ken Foster. Foster is the author of The Dogs Who Found Me, a 2006 memoir that tells how he got through a tough patch in his life thanks to his relationship with a series of stray dogs he encountered – including several pit bulls.
Foster now lives in New Orleans, and I called him to talk about his forthcoming book, I’m a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America’s Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet, which will be published by Penguin in October. It’s filled with beautiful pictures of the dogs doing what their owners know they do so well: cuddling, playing, kissing. He writes about the complicated genetic history of the dog, and its essentially American nature:
[W]hat is a pit bull? A pit bull is exuberant, affectionate, loyal, block-headed, athletic, ridiculous, occasionally stubborn, challenging, rewarding, and loved. A pit bull is American, and like most Americans these dogs are a jumble of DNA and contradictions, which is, naturally, what pit bull lovers love most about their dogs.
It’s a positive portrayal of the breed, says Foster, that publishers initially shied away from when he pitched the idea a few years ago. But the image of the pit bull has changed even since then, he says. His book chronicles how in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal, the dogs began to be seen in a more positive light, as victims of circumstance, rather than as perpetrators of violence.
"Just like the trend was to use them for fighting, or to use their tough images as an extension of your own tough image, now there’s this trend in the opposite direction," Foster tells me over the phone. In the background I can hear the six dogs currently in residence at his house frolicking raucously (four are his, two are foster dogs).
"The pit bull has become the hipster yuppie dog," he says, laughing. "In New Orleans, everyone who moves here adopts a pit bull immediately, almost as a matter of course. Which is a great thing, obviously." Foster says his only concern is that the trend might prove to be just that – short-lived and ephemeral.
Still, he says he's seen a real shift in the way people view the dogs. In 2008, Foster founded the Sula Foundation, an organization named after one of the dogs he memorialized in The Dogs Who Found Me. Sula is dedicated to helping New Orleans pit bull owners care for their dogs more responsibly and combating what has become a real population problem, offering low-cost vet clinics, free spaying and neutering, training, and adoption services.
"When we started Sula, we were the only people who would do this," says Foster. “Now all the area shelters adopt [pit bulls] out. The basset hound rescue group even has a pit bull!"
Recently, a New Orleans dog named Spartacus put a public face on the pit bull community in that city. Caught in crossfire, the dog lost his leg to a gunshot wound; his vet bills were paid for by a fundraising effort. "Every news organization in New Orleans did a story on him," says Foster. "His face was everywhere." The coverage was unremittingly positive, and 10 days ago, according to Sula’s Facebook page, Spartacus found every dog’s greatest hope: his "forever home."
Will continued better times for the nation’s cities mean the same for its loyal companion dogs? Foster hopes so. "The hatred of pit bulls was a knee-jerk reaction,” he says. That response represented a manifestation of people’s fears about the world they lived in. "People project all sorts of things onto these dogs. They are an inkblot for people’s anxieties."
Maybe now that our urban angst has eased a bit, we can see something else when we look into a pit bull’s eyes.