An anthropology lesson from the dogs at a city shelter
By Molly Tamulevich
(In the spring of 2006, I spent a semester abroad in Merida, Mexico. I was supposed to be studying cultural anthropology, but the most interesting lessons I learned were about the relationships between humans and other types of animals, how we use animals to create our personal identities, and what our perceptions of other animals says about our perceptions of other humans.)
I returned home to the United States full of enthusiasm and ideas. Five months in Mexico had profoundly changed the way I saw the world. I’d gone from rare steak eater to vegetarian, I’d ripped grape-sized ticks off the ears of street dogs, and I’d begun to see how animals are an often neglected indicator of social attitudes.
With the bull-headedness and drive of a toddler learning to walk, I spread my message of animal rights with a hammer around campus. My classmates and coworkers were subjected relentlessly to my new priorities. I’ve come to understand that this ardor is common among activists: the singularity of purpose, the thrill of constantly fighting for your ideals, the knowledge that you are spending your days in an effort to combat injustice. This is the unsustainable high that fuels revolution. It wasn’t revolution, however, that I encountered when I started working with animals again; it was humility, reality and the knowledge that issues of animal welfare are far from black and white.
Meeting the dogs at the Philadelphia animal shelter
In the spring semester of my senior year, I designed a class that allowed me to learn about animal shelters in the United States by becoming a volunteer at Philadelphia Animal Control.
Unlike the shelter where I had volunteered in Mexico, the animals were all housed indoors. Even though the shelter was located in a rough neighborhood, the facilities were much more advanced. There was on-site euthanasia, a clinic often filled with vet students, and a windowless room that housed any small animal who was not a dog or cat. These included birds, rats, hamsters, snakes, and on one occasion, a baby tiger who had been found riding in the sidecar of someone’s motorcycle.
On our orientation tour, we were sternly warned about the dangers of many of the animals. Volunteers were only allowed into certain parts of the shelter. There was an area for safe dogs and another for dangerous dogs. But to me, the dogs on either side of the fence looked similar. In fact, most of the dogs at the shelter had the same build: short hair, large heads and broad shoulders. Dangerous or not, it appeared that Philadelphia had an abundance of pit bulls.
I had heard the term ‘pit bull’ from TV, movies and occasional references in the news, but I had never, to my knowledge, seen one before. I quickly became familiar with them. There were amber-eyed pits and brindle pits, squat shouldered Staffordshire terriers and scarred veterans of the fight scene. Blue, red-nosed, white, deaf, occasionally tattooed – I had no idea there could be so much variation in one type of dog. There was also the occasional mastiff or Doberman, a Lab mix or German shepherd, but my overwhelming impression was that this was where pit bulls came to die.
On some days, every large dog at the shelter was a pit bull or pit bull mix.
Making new friends
When I learned that shelter dogs often lack sleep due to excessive noise, I began taking the dogs into a quiet room with me, letting them calm down and eventually nap on my lap. I had never felt more connected to animals than at these moments.
The dogs were often 70 to 80 pounds, their ears cropped, tails docked. They lay next to me on a dirty couch, huge skulls resting on my legs like bruised fruit.
I realized one day as I watched potential adopters pass by the cages, that pit bulls were the Malix Pek – or street dogs – of the United States.
The pattern was the same as what I’d seen in Mexico: people from different ethnic backgrounds, income levels and genders had different dogs. In Philadelphia, the people with pit bulls were generally young men of color from the surrounding neighborhood. I was usually the only white person left on the bus when I arrived at the shelter. By the time I returned to the train station near my school in the suburbs, I was firmly replanted in the white majority, and the dogs that promenaded through the neighborhood were golden retrievers, Shi-Tzus and floppy eared mutts. I rarely saw black men, Latino men or pit bulls walking the streets of Bryn Mawr.
The language of discrimination
As pit bulls became a bigger part of my life, I noticed that people used similar language when discussing pit bulls and their people. We call pit bulls aggressive, dangerous, unpredictable and intimidating – the same words that the media often dance around when describing young men of color. Our cultural imagination places pit bulls in the fighting ring, chained in an ‘urban’ yard, and threatening the safety of the neighborhoods where they live.
Contrast this to the ‘loyal, friendly, obedient adorable and dependable’ yellow Labs that so often appear as family dogs in advertising and children’s movies. Language is a powerful force: 100 years ago, the bloodhound was thought to be an inherently violent killer. Fifty years ago, the adjectives we use to describe the golden retriever were used to describe pit bulls.
The stigma that comes with this new image has taken hold in public imagination. Political correctness does not allow overtly racist depictions of humans. However, the language used to describe pit bulls and other supposedly aggressive animals is, historically, how white-dominated media has tended to describe minorities. In a subtle shift of focus, words that are no longer acceptable to refer to human minorities are used to describe animals associated with them. As soon as I began to set all those words and associations aside, I found that the dogs I met were not what the stereotypes would have me believe. Quite the opposite, they were individuals – capricious, interesting and intelligent.
Last on the list
Sadly, most of the dogs I met in Philadelphia were routinely destroyed; there was simply no demand for them. Pit bulls were last on the list for new homes.
I realized that the decision to adopt often has little to do with the dog herself but the cultural position of the adopter. Our communities have certain expectations of what animals belong where. Breed bans are one of the indicators of how communities dictate what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ pet. The language we use belies our prejudice. Pit bulls are “dangerous,” pit bulls are a “threat,” pit bulls “should be banned.”
We do not target those dogs whom we write about as heroes, or the dogs walking freshly groomed around suburban cul-de-sacs. We target the dogs who are associated with poverty, immigration and other-ness. Our society has written a story and cast it with human and animal characters. Pit bulls are currently playing the villain through an act of cultural impressment, bound up in the fears, ignorance and associations that humans have against one another.
We have lost sight of the animals themselves and allowed ourselves to react to a caricature created through a mix of history, politics and media sensationalism.
It’s a pattern that breeds discrimination against human and non-human animals alike, and one that needs to be broken through education, understanding and interaction.
What do you say: More pit bulls and are killed in shelters than any other kind of dog. Why do you think that is? What’s your own experience with and attitude to these dogs? Do you think that people tend to have dogs that reflect something about their own social status? Let us know any thoughts you have in a comment or on Facebook.