Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lions and snapping turtles and pit bulls, oh my!

Some years ago [ok, a lot], I worked my way through high school and part of college as a veterinary assistant. Mostly the job entails mopping up quantities of poop and restraining the business end [usually but not always the end armed with teeth] of whatever animal the vet is administering unpleasantness to [shots, heartworm sampling, temperature taking...].

We always rejoiced when a pit bull was brought into the clinic. Robust, agile, strong, stoic, and ridiculously friendly dogs, the main danger in treating them was that they'd slime you with kisses, even as you were cleaning and suturing small wounds.

Sure, it was an open secret that dogfighting happened and that pit bulls were the dog of choice, but the ones that people cared enough about to bring to the vet were mostly pets. The fighting dogs generally just lived or died, there were always more where that one came from, and the lucky ones were taken out in the woods shot if they weren't going to make it.

The pets were usually farm and ranch dogs: gentle enough to babysit toddlers, rough-and-tumble enough to play with older kids, authoritative enough to handle unruly livestock, and tough enough to hunt feral pigs. And with a short, smooth coat that didn't collect mud or burrs or hold in the heat, they were ideally suited to life in the South.

Plus, they come in lots of cool colors.

How did this paragon of dogdom become the devil dog du jour? [I stole that phrase from I-don't-remember-where-on-the-web.]

Blood sports
have been and still are popular the world over: dogfighting, cockfighting, and baiting of all kinds of animals. Bear baiting was a popular spectacle, much enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth I, but bears were expensive to obtain and keep. Bulls were relatively plentiful and cheap though, and bull baiting could be enjoyed by rich and poor alike.

Bull baiting. Fans on bleachers, surrounding a high-walled pit, in the center of which was tethered a bull, to be set upon by dogs. Thus was born the bulldog, not really a breed so much as a type of dog, heavy and slow and tenacious. Somewhere along the line people got the idea of kicking it up a notch, and infused the agility and ferocity of the terrier breeds into their bull-baiting dogs. Thus was born the bull-and-terrier, which developed into several breeds over the years, the most infamous of which, thanks in no small part to Michael Vick, is the American Pit Bull Terrier.

In spite of their acknowledged prowess as fighting animals [when specifically raised and trained for it], many of the other myths about pit bulls are overblown or downright untrue. They attack and kill smaller dogs. Their jaws have more crushing power than Superman has superpowers [check out those snapping turtles!]. They're just plain vicious [better temperaments than Snoopy, actually].

I leave you with some further links about pit bulls:
A Popular History of the Pit Bull in America
Pit Bull Rescue Central


Steve Bates said...

I do not know any pit bulls personally, but I met some Chows... the devil dogs of another jour... that had been raised from puppies by the monks at a monastery (well, OK, they called themselves monks and their residence a monastery). Those Chows were among the sweetest dogs I've ever met... even though I was a stranger, visiting someone at the monastery. I suspect the early interactions of dogs and humans do a lot to determine the dogs' behavior... not to mention the humans' behavior toward the dogs.

hipparchia said...

not to mention the humans' behavior toward the dogs.


ps. the dog who has been helping me raise all these kittens? chow-x.