Tuesday, May 10, 2011

the color of dog fighting

There was some chat on the Net today about a Today Show piece that highlighted a program to end dog fighting. The report was peppered with formula clips of dogs engaged in bloody battles mixed in with young black guys who've changed their ways. It was a schizophrenic five minutes as far as the dogs were concerned: dogs acting scary, dogs climbing agility equipment, more dogs acting scary, finished with a cute dog who wowed the show hosts with cute tricks.

The report raised eyebrows from people who've been watching this campaign work its marketing pitch on the general public. (Yes - of course the campaign is marketed. Every well-funded campaign is marketed.) We noted the audible silence of our colleagues as well as the predictable shock and horror reactions from the public: "Dog fighting is so so mean and someone needs to stop those thuggy people from doing it." Right - Okay.

But let me tellya my fine white friends: Young black guys in select neighborhoods in select cities are - proportionately - not a particularly big threat to the state of pit bulls in this country. And as far as we've noted in our work with municipalities near and far, dog fighting is not nearly the epidemic it's been made out to be. It's out there, it's awful and we want authorities to stop it - but it's not a so-called epidemic, worthy of juxtaposing violent images of dogs being slaughtered next to the faces of repentant young black men on the Today Show.

America believes differently though. Last weekend a student reporter came to our shelter-based training class, hungry to write a report on dog fighting. He chatted excitably about the epidemic that's everywhere. Did we have any former fighters we could point out to him? His buddy stood by with a camera, ready to grab images. I scanned the 40 or so dogs doing drills in front of us and did a quick inventory. Hmm. Not today. Maybe next week. "How about that one with the scratches on his face?" "Yeah - he's a Dogo Argentino and there's no telling what scuffle he got into." Explaining, "Dings on dog's faces don't necessarily point to organized dog fighting - or street fighting for that matter." I think I disappointed him, but frankly, we're like most cities with shelters crowded full of dogs who've simply lost their homes for a variety of unfortunate reasons.

No doubt there are way too many unemployed urban youth with too much time on their hands embracing the gore sport. However, historically dog fighters in this country have been - and quite literally still are - snowball white.

The bad guys can be counted as white high school science teachers, white female dog trainers, and even white humane investigators exposed on video for all to see. They're dotted around the country in pockets here and there, they're organized, and they're getting caught - as they should.

The difference is, only one color of dog fighter is being coached on how to show compassion to animals and paraded on the Today Show.

Overstating the problem of dog fighting, directing it at young black youths and flashing America with images of dogs engaged in battle might work from a marketing perspective, but it can actually work against the cause by deepening fear and stereotypes. This is especially true in communities that have BSL. From a big picture perspective, the larger threat to the dogs is much more insidious and mainstream than the guy in the ghetto: It's the unforgivable prejudice that forces families to surrender their dogs to a shelter because no property owner will rent to them -- even to a hero dog. It's the obstinate librarian in an affluent suburb of San Francisco who believes children should be shielded from short squatty dogs with fat heads. It's a city attorney who's leading others to believe that dog fighters are actually funding the fight to end a BSL-massacre in Denver

End Dog Fighting - of course. But a broader battle call should be to End the Ignorance before it infects policy makers in your town and sends untold numbers of dogs who've never been near a dog fight to their untimely deaths.

EDIT - The HSUS has since ended its "End Dogfighting" campaign and replaced it with the much more realistic and productive "Pets for Life" campaign. Bravo to them for recognizing that the 'guy in the ghetto' is not the enemy of the pit bull!


vchiumw said...

Good post, Donna.

Anonymous said...

I agree -- well written.

My initial education into the ways of the pit bull was from someone who grew up around dog fighting. While he had a lot of information, and mis-information, about the dogs, it was easy to discern truth from myth. "They don't feel pain"...yeah - let me kick you in the ribs and tell me what you're feeling.

As I learned more (through sources like the BADRAP website), I shared the information and hopefully helped his current and future dogs.

He wasn't a bad person. He just knew what he grew up with; what he learned from the adults around him.

Ending the Ignorance will have far-reaching benefits for the future of our beloved pit bulls.


Dianne said...

Well written and thought provoking piece. I may disagree a bit. Perhaps its due to the difference in demographics between where you are on the Left Coast and here on the East Coast, but I can say that here there is still a lot of dog fighting and it's almost entirely in the African American community. Remember, DC was once dubbed "Chocolate City" -- so its just the law of averages, not a race thing. I can tell you something you might find interesting. As an adoption counselor at this DC shelter, I have recently been stricken by the number of African American women who tell me they are afraid of pit bulls. They know its not rational, yet still. And on the other hand I had a similar woman who went tearing out of the shelter because one of our pits looked so much like the dog she had lost 6 months ago she just couldn't bear it. So, while I get your point about targeted marketing, I think at least on the East Coast its a market that needs targeting. I would also be on the band wagon to remove the fight imagery and label it pornography. That's how I got PETA to stop sending me literature. By the way, did I tell you I got a couple of women lawyers from PETA to pet a pit bull at our recent fund raiser? One was quite enamored of him, actually, and asked about adopting him. (Big smiley face)

Donna said...

You make an important point Dianne. If WA is full of black guys fighting dogs, and programs like these are highlighting that fact, then what are white people in outlying communities doing to stop it? That's easy: They're playing the NIMBY game and restricting the breed heavily in their (more affluent) communities. The perceived threat isn't just fear of the dogs - it's fear of that black youth and his dogs infecting their communities. I'm willing to bet that the effects of this stigma - including BSL - have been responsible for more shelter deaths than abuse issues. So if you want to look at this issue from a "what's killing pit bulls" perspective, I know which problem is bigger. The HSUS campaign is news worthy, but it's firing important resources that could go to dismantling harmful stereotypes. They're getting there though - slowly. I noted that WP wouldn't touch the dog on the Today Show, but at least he smiled at it. That's progress from a breed PR perspective. ;-)

Yes on black women fearing pit bulls. Tim and I live in an African American community in Oakland and there is def general fear with the women especially. Lots of history behind that fear, but maybe we'll save that for another post. There's only so many race issues you can tackle in one day (without getting tackled to the ground - lol)

Brent said...


Great piece. And yes.

Also impacted by the stigma created by this campaign are a lot of rescue organizations (certainly not all) - -who will systematically deny people of color from low-income neighborhoods from ever adopting a 'pit bull' from their rescues - and all of the subsequent problems that creates.

I know there is a fine line here -- because we don't want to be adopting dogs into negative situations (that, as you note, do exist) -- but I can't help but think the stigmas that exist in many of our own organizations are far too far to the side of keeping the dogs from going into homes.

Donna said...

Back to Dianne - of course I meant DC, not WA. It's early here and coffee is just brewing. ;-)

To Brent - Thanks for stopping by. Adopting to low income families does have some risk, but it's more about the problems they'll face when it comes time to move. Forget about it. We just got a return from a home we took a chance on five years ago. Bums me out, too. They're nice people, they loved their dog, but they're brown and low-income and unfortunately waited too long to tell me they were in trouble. Of course the stigma that blocked them from finding a dog friendly lease is never helped by the images landlords watch on shows like the one that just aired.

Unknown said...

This has always bothered me about anti-dogfighting campaigns, especially ones that claim to eventually be national in scope.

On one level, it is great to appeal to your audience. On another level, it's a freaking fine line to tread between targeting your audience and highlighting the very real racist and classist tendencies in the program.

Dianne said...

(Chuckles) Yeah, I was surprised you responded before noon my time. Is there a link to the "show"?

And to Brent and others, this economy has turned our statistics around so we are getting a significant number of dogs (everyone from beagles to pit bulls) returned because the folks have lost their homes. It's devastating.

Patty said...

Very good and thought provoking post.

Dianne said...

Link to the show:


Charity said...

After eading the post a few quotes that I have heard over the years being a "white pit bull owner" and teaching in an affluent community are still etched in my brain. Some that struck me (and hurt) the most were the following and came from parents at the school I teach at:

"Well, you are white and I would be afraid of your pit bull. If I see a black person with a pit bull, I get scared."

and... "Oh if you guys move here, you can move to the ghetto where the people with pit bulls live."

So Donna, thank you for the blog. That is why I am working so hard out here to break down the stereotypes...


Unknown said...

Beautifully-written, and you really brought it home in the end! Dog fighting IS bad - of course we know that - but equally as bad is the obvious societal ignorance regarding the Pit Bull breed overall.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Donna for the post. I have to admit I was one of those people who saw the footage and although my tummy turned with the over-run footage of the dogs fighting, was glad to see the correlation made between teaching young boys to correctly bond and care for their dogs and learning to empathize and bond with their fellow humans. In my short sighted enthusiasm, I liked that the segment showed main stream America that teaching responsible dog ownership for pit bull dogs also helped to teach young people about compassion, etc. and provide a bridge to become caring people. Had the dog fighting images been replaced with service pit bulls and families with pit bulls perhaps it would have been more effective overall.
In response to the epidemic of dog fighting - we're seeing a rise in our area of kids fighting dogs and in organized cock fighting. I wonder about the south too - going back to Katrina days and other visits to southern rescues - it was at one time impossible to report an organized dog fighting ring as the local police were supportive and we had to go to the fed level to report. It seemed to be part of the way of life in the areas we visited. And it was pervasive.
Thanks again,
Lynn in N. Cal

Donna said...

Thanks as always for your thoughts Lynn. I agree with you that there are pockets in the country where dog fighting is entrenched - parts of Louisiana for sure.

We don't believe that it's gotten so widespread that we need to warn the Today Show audience about an epidemic of young black men and their fighting pit bulls invading the peace in their towns, though. You're an optimist by nature and saw a solution in the face of the reformed dog fighter, but Suzi Homemaker in Pleasanton - who already thinks big muscular dogs and their dark skinned owners are rather scary - has just been given a compelling reason to move her family and her golden retriever to a gated community and support the next BSL measure that comes up. Thanks, Wayne.

In our view, this sort of shock and awe trumpeting from such a large animal welfare org is highly irresponsible and counterproductive and overrides so much of the good that could be done with stories like this.

One more thought: we watched animal fighters literally move out of SF as it became too expensive to live there and move to more affordable places like the central valley. You might be picking up on some of that shift. Same characters, so to speak but new addresses. On another front, the American Bully fad that you're starting to see signals a shift in people's interest away from the APBT to dogs that provide money from breedings rather than fighting (which they can't really do anyway with those luggey bodies). We expect we're going to be seeing less and less dog fighting as the American Bully fad sinks in - and the APBT and American Bully fanciers we talk with tend to agree.

So there! Some hope for you and your community that didn't involve scaring the crap out of your local naysayers.

Anonymous said...

Yup, I have to thank you for the big picture view.... you are correct - anytime we show our beloved pit bull dogs in any light other than positive with great families has the potential to feed the hysteria. These types of posts are so important for all of us to be able to expand our thinking! My background included fostering teen boys and working with teen gangs - I kind of forgot that America is just as afraid of this population as they are with our dogs. Darn it!

Lynn in N.Cal

Anonymous said...

I am digressing somewhat from the topic of The Today Show. I didn't see the piece and can't comment on that.

Donna, I don't know how much dog fighting there is in the Bay Area but your statements strike me as fairly anecdotal. While I respect your opinion, your statements would mean more with actual data to back them up.

I was at a laundromat in a nice area of Oakland two weeks ago. The other people there were two young men (one white and one black), washing three large green garbage bag of stained soiled towels, counting cash money on the table (mostly $20's), receiving cell phone calls, and talking about going to "pick up the dogs", "feed and bathe the dogs", and "getting ready for tonight's event". It would be wrong for me to conclude that dog fighting is on the upswing in Oakland or to speak of an epidemic because I do not know how widespread the problem is. What I do know is I was there with dog fighters. There is no doubt they were talking about fighting dogs and are likely operating in our city. There are dogs suffering at the hands of these morons and it is painful to think about it, whether it is a large enterprise or a small one.

Jennie said...

Said campaign has just made it's appearance in my city (Philadelphia).

I live in a neighborhood that's (currently) mostly occupied by people of color and is not unlike the one the campaign targets. Most of the people in my neighborhood LOVE my dogs, although a lot of the women are theatrically scared of them. Most of my neighbors do right by their dogs and love to hear about mine. They know I foster, they're always excited to meet new foster dogs and talk to me about them. Their ideas about dog guardianship and mine don't always mesh, but when push comes to shove, they're good to their dogs. They're not what you'd expect if you saw that video. I've participated in several low cost vaccine clinics in the area that is being is targeted and there are plenty of wonderful dog owners already out there. You'd never know that from their publicity.

It's sad that this extra effect of the EDC could spoil the truly good things that can come from humane education and offering people don't have them access to resources many of us take for granted. We really do have a problem here, but it's less of a dog fighting problem and more of a general ignorance problem. One of the local complaints about the EDC is that it isn't targeting "dog fighting" areas specifically, but rather targeting low income black communities. People who could benefit from the program and live in other sections of the city aren't welcome.

It's a pity they couldn't find a way to change the message and better promote the many positive things these dogs are doing. We'll see what it does for my community.

Donna said...

Darn - Unfortunately, blogger seems to have lost some recent comments during their shut down yesterday. I hope we can retrieve them. We value these kinds of discussions and welcome the exchange.

John Morris said...

Thank you for this thoughtful and informative post. I love the balance and big picture thinking that is so characteristic of your blog.

Kim said...

Thank you so much for this post! One of my adopted pit bull dogs came from an alleged dog fighting case in Philadelphia, so I'm happy to see the progress we're making with giving victims of cruelty fair treatment. But it saddens me to think of all the pit bull dogs (like my other two, who simply lost their homes when their owners fell on hard times) who are killed in shelters because the public won't adopt them or because shelters won't adopt them out for fear that they'll end up in a dog fighter's hands. This threat to our dogs is less sexy than dog fighting or even BSL, but far more deadly. Thank you, thank you, thank you for speaking up on this!

laura said...

Thanks Donna, loved your comments about ending the igonorance. We live in Memphis, TN which does have a pretty large pit bull population. We saw 2 pure staffies at the last AKC agility trial ( we compete with our mutts, including our pit-mix). While we were not shy about going up and introducing ourselves and petting the two she had, I was surprised how many people went out of their way to avoid her.She ended up doing really well and it was great to see them
as wonderful ambassadors for their breed.

The Foster Lady said...

@Dianne...agree with you entirely. We have a major problem with dog-fighting in the city of Philadelphia, and while I'm sure there are people of every color participating, it is mainly black youth who are engaged in this activity...the whole bullshit 'manhood' thing...which is why it's so berserk to have Michael Vick here and have him NOT doing what he really should be doing, despite what Wayne Paccelle and the HSUS say.

I think it's your weather there. As crazy as I know you will think this is, most of our pitbull type dogs are dog-selective...I don't believe we see as many dog-social pitbull type dogs here.

Donna said...

Don't forget Dina that we get half or more of our dogs from out of the area -- fight busts especially. (The dogs that come here with unsocialized behaviors are re-socialized. )

I agree with you that using the wrong role models can actually reinforce bad deeds in young men, just as some people reinforce the behavior of dog selectivity in their dogs. It's all about what you bring to the party.

Kim said...

Great post! Big picture thinking is definitely very much needed, and I respect you for putting it out there.

ms.camp said...

thanks for sharing this; i'm heart-broken by even the ignorance of some of my own family members when i tell them we're adopting a bully pit in a couple of weeks. makes me wonder if they'd be afraid to live around some of my students of color too.

Annette said...

To Anonymous -- I have no doubt you were in the presence of dog fighters at the laundromat. I hope you took down their license plate numbers, physical descriptions, and any other identifying information and reported it to your local animal control agency and vice dept of your city law enforcement agency. The only way to stop dog fighting rings is if everyone and anyone who sees evidence of it makes a personal mission out of turning them in to the proper authorities.

Donna said...

Because resources for humane investigations are slim to none in most cities, getting law enforcement to even consider opening an investigation takes quite a bit of compelling evidence including physical evidence and eye witnesses. I'm afraid that overhearing a provocative conversation would be considered hearsay and would really not go very far. Maybe the guys were breeders getting ready for a (legal) dog show? There have been several in the bay area in recent years and bathing dogs is very common before each.

mjmmorales said...

come on bay area responsible pit bull owners let's show them what we got.Pitbulls are just miss understood ,they are the most super friendly affectionate dogs ever.It's the people who abuse them & they end up with the bad rap.So sad.So come on bay area pitbull owners let's make a stand NO MORE WE WON'T STAND FOR ABUSE!

Anonymous said...

I love pitbulls just misunderstood

Mark K said...

It's not a "white" thing, it's not a "black" thing, it's a "criminal" thing. Dogfighting doesn't confine itself to one race, profession or socio-economic strata. One professional dogfighter, an older caucasian man, was described by people in his immediate community as a good neighbor, a "God fearing man" and praised for cutting the grass for elderly neighbors. And he was likley the #2 person in professional dogfighting at the time. The dogs end up as victims of the abusers and the system that is trying to protect them. Until each dog is treated as an individual, the tragedy that is the aftermath of dogfighting will continue to impact the lives of countless dogs whether owned by responsible, loving owners or some of the bad guys I seek to put in jail.

One voice counts said...

@Donna re 7:25 am @Donna About Louisiana. And entrenched. [Forgot to say great post on Today Show spot re now non existent End Dogfighting program.... retooled and eversomuch better Pets for Life program.] OK. So. Kinda like Alice going down the rabbit hole have been doing a lotta research on dog fighting. And yep, is entrenched. Louisiana, yep. Mississippi, yep. Ohio, check. Tennessee - to the nines. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and yep, even Virginia. Still. It's grim and it's pervasive. And though I'd like to focus on the positive of just how far we've come - there are some serious blues happening. Every day. Not sure can link to a video here - will try. If not, recommend Gamedogs 7:07 on YouTube. The color of dog fighting is blue. And it's not going anywhere. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rsh-7KlDLjQ

Anonymous said...

There isn't an epidemic? It couldn't be more apparent that this situation is out of control in Philadelphia.