Is it natural to fear Pit Bulls? And what can we do about it?

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pit bull ban.jpg

A Denver law required that Pit Bull leave the city or be killed (MSNBC)

In 2005 I visited Denver. It happened to be the week the Pit Bull ban’s grandfather period ended. In other words, Pit Bulls were illegal to own and as of that week, any Pit Bull in
the city was a target for seizure and euthanasia.

As I stood in the shelter that morning, slackjawed and humbled, rows upon rows of Pit Bulls looked back at me. We had the same expression on our faces: “This is all wrong. There has been a terrible mistake.”

I thought, “These are owned animals; loving family members.” I imagined them feeling, “I have a home; I love my family.”

These Pit Bulls had been seized from their homes, without
provocation on their part, as part of a city-wide cleansing. Other than being, ostensibly, Pit Bulls, most of the seized dogs had done
nothing wrong other than living within the city limits of a town
with a breed ban.

Breed bans are troublesome for many reasons.

  • They detract from the very real issues of dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners.
  • They are applied haphazardly, based on looks alone.
  • They criminalize, for no good reason, an entire segment of
    the population — those folks who have adopted Pit Bulls and, in many cases, Pit
  • They lend an air of credibility to myths about Pit Bulls.
    (Pit Bull jaws CANNOT “lock”!)

And, on a more philosophical level, Pit Bull bans smack of dangerous thinking.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, wrote in the New Yorker about what Pit Bulls can teach
us about profiling
. Generalization is a handy evolutionary adaptation (“Mmm, I
bet that’s a tasty berry,” said the caveman), but generalization is also called
stereotyping, or even profiling. How do we know when we’re
doing it to our benefit or our detriment?

Last week Jeffrey Kluger reported in Time magazine on a study that seemed to indicate racism may be hard-wired in our brains. Researchers at Harvard found that “[w]hite subjects respond with greater activation of the amygdala — a region that processes alarm — when shown images of black faces than when shown images of white faces. … Later studies have shown similar results when black subjects look at white faces.”

I think breedism and specism, like racism, may also be “natural,” but as with racism, we have the power (and the responsibility) to
overcome it. As Kluger writes of the human brain, “there are higher regions that can talk sense to the lower

The Harvard researchers also found that people reacted with less
amygdala activity when shown friendly faces such as Will Smith’s and
Harrison Ford’s (“The more you think about people as individuals,” one
scientist said, “the more the brain calms down”). Likewise, we should
think about dogs as individuals.

Our fear of dangerous dogs is legitimate. They have big
teeth and every once in a while you come across a dog that isn’t afraid to use
them (although I’ve met at least as many careless or mean people as mean
dogs). But communities should focus on legislation that targets the truly dangerous dogs and irresponsible owners.

To learn more about Pit Bulls and their special needs — and in honor of Pit Bull Awareness Day on Oct. 25 — visit our good friends at Bad Rap.
Then check out Petfinder’s 10,000 adoptable Pit Bulls, and help us get them into appropriate homes.