Bronwen Dickey was working as a freelance journalist for various publications (including this one) when she met her first pit bull. Within a few years, she had embarked on an extensive study of the notorious dog breed and, with her husband, adopted one of her own. The result is Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, the rare book that turns a scholarly, balanced lens on the charged cultural narratives around pit bulls. Published this year to wide acclaim, it also garnered a lot of hate. Dickey wasn't surprised by the backlash, only by its severity. "Why does Bronwen Dickey hate children?" one tweeter asked. There were death threats. At a June reading in Durham, a protester shouted until the police came to escort Dickey out of the building. When we met at an outdoor café recently, weeks after the hubbub had died down, she never removed her mirrored glasses, and she wore a silver neckclace she'd bought at the height of the craziness: a silver bar stamped with the words, "NEVER READ THE COMMENTS."
INDY: I was interested to learn that the pit bull was once seen, basically, as "America's dog."
BRONWEN DICKEY: You look at popular culture from, say, 1890 to 1930, and the dog with the patch over his eye is everywhere: bank ads, shampoo ads, railway ads. It's seen as the most all-American, unfussy, good-natured dog. There was very much this Horatio Alger theme with the pit bull, the plucky scrapper that maybe came from the streets but had a good work ethic and pulled himself up. The fear narrative got going in the mid-1970s around dog fighting, especially when the dogs found their way into urban neighborhoods. The media really hyped them as being the dog of choice for drug dealers, and it just exploded into this mushroom cloud.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Dickey (second from left) and others at the home of Lori and Robert Hensley. Lori directs the Coalition to Unchain Dogs; Robert is a lawyer for the ASPCA.
The other side of the pit bull argument is that it's really down to the owners. But it's not as simple as that.
Not at all. I was really careful throughout the whole research process because there was so much bullshit. There was negative bullshit, tons of that, but there was also tons of positive bullshit.
Who's putting out the positive bullshit?
The pit bull community is kind of divided between people who think they're ultra, uber, extra dogs and people who see them as underdogs and victims of cruelty and abandonment. The thing is, both can be true. The pool is so big. When people reduce it to it's this or it's that, none of it is accurate. The world is a very complicated place. Animal behavior is a very complicated field.
You talk about "breedism"—does that mean believing that pure breeds are better?
And also just that some breeds are not normal. They are not deserving of homes; they need to be exterminated, and then things will somehow get better. It's simply not true. I think that, for most complex social problems, the punitive approach does not work. Abstinence-only education does not reduce teen pregnancy. Incredibly punitive drug possession laws do not solve the problem of addiction. So eradicating animals that people love and that, in most cases, have never harmed anyone, is not going to solve the problem of dog bites and public safety.
It hasn't been a cakewalk promoting this book. I read the transcript of your interview with Terry Gross. It seemed almost a little voyeuristic, with so much of the interview devoted to your parents.
That was the most harrowing experience of my life. That surprised me a bit. Terry's a wonderful interviewer, and if you listen to most of her interviews, she wants each one to have that emotional heft. And with a book with a lot of science and data, but with a little bit of that stuff about my background and my family, I think she just wanted it to feel richer and fuller.
But I wasn't expecting it, for sure. I was so nervous. It was the first interview I had ever done. I think I cried afterwards. My mind went blank; my throat went dry, and you realize you're talking to this person who is one of the best in the world at what she does, and you want to say everything right and be clear and have nice pithy sound bites. And then, of course, it gets into some really intensely emotional stuff that you're highly aware of telling eight million people, and of course I'm aware that my family is listening, and of not wanting to say anything that's painful to them, because while I may have chosen to put myself out in the public this way, they did not. So it's a really delicate thing.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Meet Arthur, the Hensleys' pit bull
And that choice you made can be wielded against you. I guess when you're a writer and you decide to make your work public, you have to be prepared for the consequences.
That whole thing was interesting, too, because women get so much more of the real vicious, personal attack stuff. Female journalists get a lot more of that. It made me really interested in the harassment of female journalists online. Someone wrote in The Guardian, "Having an opinion is the new short skirt of the Internet." If you are a female journalist and you have an opinion about everything, you get what's coming to you. And I think that's a really toxic and dangerous proposition. I certainly don't want other journalists who look at what's happened to me—which is only this tiny percentage of what's happened to a lot of other people—and think, I don't want to go there, because I just don't want to deal with it. That's a horrible prospect, to have that chilling effect on a conversation.
How much of a negative reaction did you expect?
I definitely knew I would get some, but I didn't know how unbridled it would be. Part of the research that was really important to me was to hang out with various factions of the pit bull communities and look at message boards and what people were preoccupied with, the issues they felt were most important. The anti-pit bull faction was really, really worked up—and I had heard about a dog rescuer in Colorado who had to file a police report. She had received some really disgusting, homophobic stuff since she was married to a woman, and I was aware that stuff was out there. But I didn't think it would be as personal and unrelenting. It made me understand that bullying and harassment is so not about the target. It's about other people bonding with each other over a common enemy, signaling that they're part of this group: I hate X. And hating X is a really good way to form bonds with each other, especially in the online community.
How sustained was it?
It's really died down, thank goodness. Most online mobs have kind of a short attention span, but when I was getting interviewed a lot, that was the worst of it, because every time my name would come up in a Google Alert, they would descend on not only the article and the comments section, but there were several reporters who messaged me said, "I'm now starting to get nasty messages because I reviewed the book or because I spoke to you."
Your intent was to give a balanced look at this phenomenon. How about the racial hypothesis? Do you think that plays into the backlash you experienced?
Early on when I started researching the book, I had been looking for a long time for a subject that would allow me to take one thing and use it as a lens for a whole lot of things I was interested in. In 2008, when by happenstance I met a friend's pit bull, I had always been afraid of the dogs, and it just made me pause and wonder if this dog was the exception to the rule or if there was something more there. I just started asking the question, and as a journalist I started doing a little research and getting more and more into it.
I wanted a simple answer to what I thought was a very simple question: Are pit bulls more dangerous than other dogs? And there was absolutely no simple answer to the question. The rabbit hole got way deeper than I ever thought it could get, and when I adopted my own dog and I saw these very strong reactions that people had to her, the kind of weird comments that would come up, that's what started me paying attention to the racial stuff.
Comments about "thugs," "dealers," "gangbangers," "the ghetto," "criminals"—it was pervasive. And the more I researched it, it was like this heavy fog over everything. Even people who really loved the dogs, that language is so ingrained in the way we talk about pit bulls. And the people who were assumed to be "thugs" and "dealers" were just people. When I started noticing that everywhere I went, I thought, it may make people uncomfortable, but if I didn't talk about this, I would be such a coward.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
How is the book doing?
It's in its fourth printing, which is great. The thing that I was most worried about—will people in the sciences, sociology, and anthropology think that it was a worthy effort? And they did. It's much more important to me that a group of smart, thoughtful people find something of value in it than it sell a bazillion copies. I'm so grateful to have a book with my name on it that I'm not even worried about how it does commercially. But the response has been really amazing in terms of outlets that want to talk to me. I mean, Fresh Air—that was mind-blowing. It was reviewed in the Science section of the Times. So it all feels surreal.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dogs of War"