RALEIGH, N.C. — The image of the American pit bull terrier was once the smiling dog living in a shoe with Buster Brown, or the lovable pooch with the circle around one eye that used its powerful jaws to pull members of the “Little Rascals” from danger.
But today, many see the pit bull as something very different: As either the center of a rural, Southern white tradition of animal baiting, or the vicious devil dog snarling on the covers of rap CDs or mauling other dogs for big-time purses, as in the recent indictment of NFL star Michael Vick.
The colors they have in common, says Cooke, an attorney and legislative specialist for the Michigan-based group that first officially recognized the breed nearly 110 years ago, are the red of blood and green of money.
The blood sport has operated underground for years, but many agree the hip hop use of pit bull images moved it out of the shadows — and the Vick case placed it at center stage.
The star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, who is black, is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in U.S. District court in Richmond, Va., on charges of sponsoring, along with three others, a brutal dogfighting ring on property he owns in Smithfield, site of their Bad Newz Kennels.
The document outlines a cruel operation in which dogs with names like Maniac and Big Boy are forced to do battle in carpeted pits for purses as high as $26,000. The men allegedly “rolled” young dogs in test bouts, and those animals lacking the desired killer instinct were “executed” — shot, drowned, electrocuted, hanged or, in one case, bodyslammed to the ground.
It describes a world of “break sticks” used to separate fighting dogs and “rape stands” meant to make aggressive females easier to breed.
“People have this image of them as some kind of uberdog,” Cooke says. “More powerful, more fierce, more terrifying.”
This could not be further from the description put forth by the United Kennel Club. “The essential characteristics of the American Pit Bull Terrier are strength, confidence, and zest for life,” the group’s Web site declares. “This breed is eager to please and brimming over with enthusiasm. APBTs make excellent family companions and have always been noted for their love of children.”
The American pit bull was developed in the late 19th century by British breeders crossing bulldogs with terriers. They were “looking for a dog that combined the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the Bulldog,” the kennel club says.
But to a dogfighter, “gameness” is code for a dog’s ability to keep struggling, even as its body goes into shock from blood loss.
The breed’s image remained largely positive until the late 1970s, when some widely publicized attacks on children started to turn the public’s perception, says Karen Delise, a veterinary technician who has studied fatal dog attacks for 15 years and is the author of the book “The Pit Bull Placebo: The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression.”
Every generation has had its guard dogs — the German shepherd, the Rottweiler and others over the years, she says. She blames the music industry — in concert with the media and the Internet for making the pit bull the devil dog du jour.
“It’s all tied into the hip hop culture, the image and projection of a dog as an extension of your manhood,” she says. “The pit bull is the ultimate accessory.”