There are some book subjects that lend themselves to becoming perfect gift ideas for children frazzled by the question of what to get their parents on holidays. For example, there are the countless golf collections that are released around Father’s Day, and the multitude of gardening instructional tomes that flood store shelves a week before Mother’s Day.
So when Bronwen Dickey’s debut non-fiction book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, was announced for a May release date, it seemed like perfect timing. While the book’s flow and narrative reads more scientific than those glorified picture books that publishers push out for last minute sales during that month, its release still read the same to the more cynical reader among the aisles at Barnes & Noble. What Dickey’s treatise has garnered in attention over the past two months telegraphs that this isn’t the usual fluff of the season, however.
During a reading held in Durham, N.C. early in June, Dickey was met with heckles from an aggressive anti-pit buller. Yes, there are people who consider themselves anti-pit bulls, and their opinions on the matter are so strong as to create social media groups to get their views across. Things grew so out of hand at this reading that Dickey found herself being escorted by police out of the store for her protection.
This was followed by a member of the Facebook group Pit Bulls and Amputees posting a picture of Dickey’s house online, and another member posting the message, “We will destroy her.” The young writer has since filed a harassment report with Durham police.
“Part of the research that I did for the book was paying attention to conversations that were happening everywhere, including online, so I was pretty aware of the social media presence of the folks who were very vocal about hating pit bulls,” Dickey says. “I knew that there was a strong level of hate there, and that drew me even more into believing that there was an interesting subject there. Pit bulls just cause such strong emotions – people either love them or completely despise them – so I was aware, but had no idea how vicious and personal the attacks would be. I hope, while it’s been pretty difficult to handle, that the wider world sees what’s really going on. We are projecting all of these strong feelings onto an animal that is really a blank slate in a lot of ways, and that really says a lot about us and where we are.”
It isn’t hard to find examples, both positive and negative, of these strong feelings among Charleston residents. Last May, many opened their hearts and wallets up to area rescues when a 15-month-old pit named Caitlyn was found in North Charleston with her mouth completely taped shut. Two months later, another North Charleston pit was euthanized after attacking its owner’s wife, resulting in her left arm being amputated below the elbow.
The latter incident points a spotlight toward one of the key elements in many arguments against the breed. Many feel that the dog has been bred purely for its perceived viciousness, and no amount of feel-good adoption stories found online are going to change their minds on the subject.
“It tells you just how powerful a symbol this dog is to some people,” Dickey points out. “The attitude of hatred and extermination is very strong in these groups. It’s sad, but to be fair to those people that haven’t been so fair to me, there are gaps in our laws. When someone is hurt by a dog, there’s not really a lot of legal recourse they can take, other than attempting to take the owner of the dog to court. There is really no strong law that forces anyone to take responsibility for medical bills or anything, so I can understand if someone else’s recklessness has caused you to end up with a serious injury making you very angry and upset.”
Another key point, and one that many anti-pitters furiously demand isn’t true, is that the backlash against pits has a racial element to it. Many of the more militant anti-pit members will point toward the breed’s popularity among African-Americans and hip-hop fans, hinting that they are there for intimidation.
“Race and racial politics are a theme in the book, and these people — who all admit to not having actually read the book, which is fine — take offense that I point out that a lot of the rhetoric around pit bulls is heavily racial in nature,” she explains.” Things like, ‘We have to ban these dogs because they are owned by thugs, dealers, and gang members.’ Now, I’m not saying that anyone who has been bitten by a pit is a racist or anything to that effect, but the snowballing of news reports at any time that there is an attack is greatly stoked by a whole lot of race-baiting. Without all of the fear-mongering news reports in the late ’80s, I don’t think pit bulls would have nearly the reputation that they still live with today. In Austin, a lady was recently killed by a pack of dogs, and I don’t think that these groups will be making any kind of big movement for her death. It’s not like she’s any less dead just because the attacking dogs looked to be mixed breed.”
But for all of the protests and tirades that the writer has dealt with this summer so far, her enthusiasm for the project is still palpable. What began as a pipe dream has become one of the most surprisingly controversial pieces of pop culture this summer.
“It’s a surprise to me, because I had no expectations about its success at all,” Dickey admits with a laugh. “Every day I wake up and can’t believe that I even have a book out there that even has my name on it. I’m so self-doubting as a writer that I can’t believe that I survived the process of writing it and came out on the other side. The fact that people actually like it is just crazy.”