One theory advanced to account for the breed's unusually stable and congenial-to-people disposition is that he is far too formidable a beast for it to be prudent to allow vicious individuals to survive (and thus to propagate).... This selective process tended to weed out the mean dogs and has left us with a dog with an almost ridiculously amiable disposition.
—RICHARD F. STRATTON
This Is the American Pit Bull Terrier (1976)
The mean ones are the aberrations still. But the aberrations are more numerous.
—RICHARD F. STRATTON
July 8, 1987
America has a four-legged problem called the American pit bull terrier. And the pit bull, its "ridiculously amiable disposition" notwithstanding, has a two-legged problem called Man, to whom Stratton's second quote could also be applied. These two species are not new to each other. They have intermingled for some 200 years, and some say their common history goes back as far as the Romans. But something has happened to the pit bull in the last decade that says as much about the nature of American society as it does about the nature of this aggressive animal. Far from being an aberration, the American pit bull terrier has become a reflection of ourselves that no one cares very much to see.
"They're athletes. They're wrestlers. They're dead game," says Captain Arthur Haggerty, a dog breeder and trainer in New York City who owns five pit bull terriers and has trained hundreds of others. "They will literally fight till they're dead. If you found that quality in a boxer or a football player, you'd say it was admirable. Will to win. That's what a pit bull has."
Others call it a "will to kill." At least 35 communities nationwide have considered banning the breed from within their city limits, and while such ordinances have run into constitutional problems stemming from the difficulty in defining exactly what a pit bull terrier is, their number is growing weekly. The horror stories involving pit bulls are voluminous. Recent tragedies include the death of two-year-old James Soto, who was mauled in Morgan Hill, Calif., on June 13 by a neighbor's pit bull. The attack rendered the child "unrecognizable as a human being," according to paramedics. Nine days later a national television audience watching the evening news was treated to the terrifying spectacle of a pit bull terrier attacking Los Angeles animal control officer Florence Crowell. The 33-year-old woman survived but spent five days in the hospital.
On April 6, a retired surgeon, 67-year-old William Eckman, was killed by two pit bulls on a street in Dayton, Ohio. On that same day, 16-month-old Melissa Larabee of Jones, Okla., was killed by the family's pet pit bull, who bit her in the throat. In June 1986, 20-month-old Kyle Corullo was attacked by a pit bull in Ramsay, Mich., while playing in his grandmother's backyard. The dog, fighting off the child's mother, dragged the boy into a nearby lot and shook him to death "like a stuffed animal."
In the last 18 months, 12 of the 18 confirmed dog-related fatalities in the U.S.—or 67%—have been caused by the pit bull terrier, a breed that accounts for only 1% of the U.S. dog population. And the maimings are far more numerous. Often it is small children who are the victims of unprovoked attacks. There is no definitive source for animal attack statistics, but pit bull fanciers claim that statistics show other breeds of dog bite more frequently—German shepherds lead the list—and accuse the media of publicizing only pit bull maulings. DOG BITES MAN isn't news, they say, but PIT BULL BITES MAN is.
Unfortunately the pit bull, when it attacks, doesn't merely bite man—or, most horribly, child—it clamps its powerful jaws down and literally tears its victim apart. "The injuries these dogs inflict are more serious than other breeds because they go for the deep musculature and don't release; they hold and shake," says Sheryl Blair of the Tufts Veterinary School, in North Grafton, Mass., which last year held a symposium entitled Animal Agression: Dog Bites and the Pit Bull Terrier.
"Most breeds do not multiple-bite," says Kurt Lapham, a field investigator for the West Coast Regional office of the Humane Society. "A pit bull attack is like a shark attack: He keeps coming back."
"A pit bull," says Judge Victor E. Bianchini of San Diego, "is the closest thing to a wild animal there is in a domesticated dog."