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Pit Bulls, Road Warriors: Life in Our Urban Jungle

July 05, 1987|David Glidden | David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside

RIVERSIDE — It's a jungle out there. There are coyotes in Bel-Air, mountain lions in Orange County and bobcats in Riverside. There are guard dogs trained to maul intruders who might come upon their owner's crop of marijuana. And there are mad dogs in public parks and on the freeways, all shooting at each other, occasionally killing children playing. There are pit bulls and road warriors.

Crazed adolescents loaded down with ammunition and tanked up with drugs and alcohol cruise our freeways, spoiling for a fight. Some drive by barrio neighborhoods, shooting randomly at windows. A woman I knew in Riverside was killed that way. One day she was waiting on tables in a restaurant I frequented and the next day she was gone. Then there are simply those of us who have had so bad a day we carry weapons in our vehicles and on our persons, looking for relief from our all-so-insignificant frustrations: Walter Mitty with a gun.

There are menacing pet owners fond of steel-studded dog collars and survival knives, who turn their backyards into little citadels, waiting in the anger of their hearts for some intruder for their dogs to maul. Some eagerly anticipate an excuse to kill or maim, but unlike their adolescent counterparts, they do not care to go to jail for it, so they wait for a pretense. When they leave their homes some carry loaded shotguns in their vans or pickups and revolvers in their pants. If the excuse never comes for an incident to make their day, they shoot at traffic dawdlers or other such offenders, most often under the disinhibiting influence of alcohol.

People like these, looking to kill and get away with it, share this anger with their children and their pets and provoke hostility. We've all heard of tough guys who beat their dogs for misbehaving and go on to beat their wives. If they even bother to take their dog to obedience school, the training they seek no reputable trainer has to offer: to teach a dog to kill. The children of these angry souls and their pets as well have never had a chance in life for happiness or love, since they have been raised on hate instead by their parents and their masters.

Circumstances can make killers of us all, turning people bestial and beasts into murderers. The mounting weight of poverty can be enough to break a person's self-control. Environmental factors play a role, too, from smoggy crawling on the freeways to insufficient training and education, designed to give us endurance in adversity. At the same time the patience of a dog with children is proverbial, while we humans most often operate on a shorter fuse. Every living thing has its breaking point. But a decision must be made to act. And the motivation must first be there to do it.

The motivation to breed a dog to earn its owner money by fighting in a pit is a purely human one. The animal such breeding can produce has no such motivation. It may be aggressive, strong-willed and slow to yield to authority, but in the end it does what it is taught to do by the humans who control it. It is not a feral beast, like a wild pig fending for its food. It is someone's pet. And we do a disservice to these animals when we ascribe motives to them only humans have, such as the yearning for revenge or to take it out on baby.

Whatever their breeding history, pit bulls are currently the focus of considerable hostility. Some would ban them altogether from existence. But the same once was said of German shepherds and Doberman pinschers. Those who love these dogs as pets and those who train them know them to be loving creatures, too, loyal and fond of exercise. Those who teach pit bulls to obey their masters and heel on a leash also know that their rare jaw musculature is the physiological source of their tenaciousness, in grasping hold of something and never letting go. This may require the use of a breaking stick, to be inserted in the back of the pit bull's mouth to pry the jaws apart, in training them to yield. Owners who are ignorant of such facts about these dogs and those who own temperamentally aggressive animals without bothering to train them properly should no more be allowed to own such pets than a six-year-old should be allowed to drive a car.

It is important to distinguish an aggressive animal from a vicious one, and the same goes for humans, too. A vicious dog is a dog you cannot read, who bites without reason and attacks without cause, as a handler I know describes it. These are all clear cases of pathological deviation, rare enough in the general population and detectable by doctors. But to say a certain subspecies is altogether vicious is no less absurd and racist than to say the same of human beings.

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