Public Enemy Number One

Street-fighting dogs: Inside the world of the much-abused, ever-maligned pit bull

Much of what she heard and saw defied her expectations. Like the Chisago County deputy at the Sunrise Township raid, she was amazed at how quiet the dogs were while fighting. But the most surprising thing, she says, was how normal the spectators and principal participants seemed. In fact, Evans notes, many of the participants were middle-class businessmen—a phenomenon she attributes to the considerable expense of maintaining top-level fighting dogs. Befitting that social status, there was considerable adherence to code and protocol.

When one of the younger participants lit a joint during one match, Evans recalls, he was reprimanded. "The older guys said, 'That's disgraceful, smoking at the pit. The dogs won't be able to breathe the way they should be able to." For Evans, the other big surprise was the relatively low level of mortality she witnessed. In the course of 13 matches, she says, she saw just three dogs killed. Mainly, she figures, that was because owners wanted to save prize dogs if it appeared they were obviously going to lose. (John Goodwin, of the Humane Society, points out that deaths from dogfighting often come later, after the match, and adds that a lot of puppies that don't make the grade for fighting are used as "bait" dogs to train the real fighters, or are summarily dumped and left for dead.)

In the end, Evans co-authored four scholarly papers on dogfighting, concerning both its contemporary variations and its history. In the essay "Entertainment to Outrage: A Social Historical View of Dog Fighting," she traces the origins of the sport to the English practice of bull-baiting, in which bulldogs were set loose on livestock. At the time, Evans says, people believed the practice would help tenderize the meat. "In 17th Century England," Evans writes, "it was illegal to slaughter a bull without first baiting it against a dog. [But] while the spectacles may have arisen to serve vital functions, they quickly progressed from utility to sport." Over time, such baiting sports, including the even older practice of bear-baiting, evolved into an important form of popular entertainment, one that was governed by royalty and enjoyed by the masses.

Mike Mosedale

The initial backlash against such spectacles came from the church. The objection had less to do with any notion about animal abuse, Evans notes, than "the fact that bear and bull baiting were being practiced on Sundays and therefore people were not attending church." In England, all baiting sports were outlawed in 1835. Because dogfighting could be conducted more furtively and cheaply than bull- or bear-baiting, it increasingly became the pastime of the underclass. So when the wave of poor immigrants from England and Ireland came to the U.S. during the 1800s, they brought bulldogs with them. Dogfights (and cockfights) soon emerged as a popular form of entertainment in city bars, especially in the main port of entry, New York. As in England, reformers pushed to outlaw dogfighting. In 1867, the New York Legislature banned all animal fighting. As a practical matter, the crusade served to drive the practice out of the city and into the hinterlands, most notably to the states of the American South, where it took root most deeply.

As the sport's popularity grew, fanciers established formal rules for matches. Breeders also began experimenting with bloodlines, mixing bulldogs and rat terriers. This ultimately led to the development of the dog that is now almost exclusively used for fighting in this country, the American pit bull terrier. (In other countries with dogfighting traditions, other breeds are used. In China, there is the Shar Pei—tenacious, loose skinned animals that are often referred to as the Chinese fighting dog, while Japanese dogmen prefer the Tosa—enormous beasts that engage in a peculiar, sumo-like style of combat.) American dogmen like to boast that no breed, large or small, is a match for a game-bred pit bull. With its unrivaled biting power, lowered inhibitions, and freakish tolerance for pain, the gamest pit bull can beat the best of any other breed.

Given the sorry state of their current reputation, it's hard to believe that pit bulls were America's favorite dog for much of the 20th century. In World War I, a bull terrier mix named Sergeant Stubby was smuggled across the Atlantic aboard the USS Minnesota by a soldier who discovered the dog wandering loose in New Haven. Embedded in the trenches with the 102nd Infantry, Sergeant Stubby earned acclaim for alerting his unit to impending gas attacks and incoming mortar fire; he was also credited with capturing a German spy. The most famous pit of all was the black-circle-eyed Pete of Little Rascals fame, who was registered as a Staffordshire terrier. But the pit bull's popular image as steadfast companion animal faded after World War II. The dogs were supplanted by breeds suddenly made fashionable by movies and TV: collies (Lassie), beagles (Snoopy), and Dalmatians (courtesy of Disney). In mainstream culture, the pit bull receded from view and into the underworld.

The American pit bull terrier is often confused with the similar-looking American Staffordshire terrier and the Staffordshire bull terrier. Even experts can't always tell them apart. All three are referred to colloquially as "pit bulls," and all three are powerful testaments to the efficacy of canine eugenics. Game-bred American pit bull terriers display a number of highly unusual characteristics. In combat, they don't bare their teeth or raise their hackles. And unlike most dogs, which will yield once dominance has been established, the game-bred pit will sustain astonishing physical punishment without submitting. The legendary Louisiana dogman Floyd Boudreaux celebrated the traits of the game dog in a bit of romantic doggerel: "He will not cower, he will not cry/For to be called a cur he would rather die/A cur and a fighter are not the same/A cur is a quitter, but a fighter is game."

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