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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Pits

Crown, now Sweetie

The latter half of this essay is based on a news story, “There’s a Dog in This Hunt” published in the Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2007

Who might have predicted when I chose the subtitle for this year’s volume, that the image of the dog would be so appropriate? While I certainly realized that current events, fueled by the Bush administration and the Iraq war, were leading us “to the dogs,” I could never have imagined how literal my prediction might become, that a major football player such as Michael Vick would be arrested for organizing and supporting dog fights and that he, personally, would be found responsible for killing several of the animals who did not sufficiently “perform.”

Nor could I have guessed that a groundskeeper at the Beverly Hills home of celebrity Ving Rhames would purportedly be mauled to death by Rhames’s massive bulldogs—although the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office argued that, despite the reports in the media, the caretaker apparently was not mauled by the dogs, but died, perhaps, of a heart attack.

Who might have imagined that the “queen of mean,” hotelier Leona Helmsley would, upon her death, leave her white Maltese, Trouble, a $12 million dollar trust fund?

Equally surprising was the day (October 17, 2007) the normally chipper and seemingly unflappable talk show host Ellen DeGeneres broke into tears on her own show as she related how, after adopting a pet dog, Iggy, she discovered the rambunctious little beast could not get on with her cats. Accordingly she had passed the dog on to her hairdresser’s family, whereupon the family’s 11 and 12-year old daughters fell in love with the pet. However, when the adoption agency heard of DeGeneres’ actions—a signed agreement specified that the animal would not be given away without the agency’s permission—people from the Mutts and Moms adoption center took the dog away and placed it in another family, leaving the two young girls in sorrow over Iggy’s loss. “I don’t want another dog,” cried the 11-year old Ruby, “I want Iggy.” Taking this incident to an even higher level of melodrama, the two women running Moms and Mutts, Marina Baktis and Vanessa Chekroun, received death threats.

From May to September of this year, numerous television and news reports announced attacks throughout Los Angeles by pit bulls, some resulting in extremely serious and life-threatening injuries. I began to notice these reports on May 6, when a pit bull that previously attacked and wounded two small dogs and killed a cat, was freed by an unknown person from County Animal Care and Control shelter and twelve hours later attacked a miniature Australian shepherd dog, biting three individuals who attempted to save the shepherd.

On June 4, two police officers responding to a burglary, were confronted by a vicious pit bull and shot the dog who was, according to the report, “inches away from biting” one officer’s leg. A month later, a pit bull attacked a small dog which officers, fearful that it would kill the dog and attack onlookers trying to separate the two, shot the pit bull, killing it.

On September 5, a pit bull named Maggie attacked a mail carrier in a neighbor’s yard, “repeatedly biting him in the face.” The owner of the pit bull had only a month earlier had another pit, Brutus, impounded and euthanized for biting a woman on the lip.

These were, moreover, only the attacks of which I read or heard; there were numerous others throughout the United States during this same period. Perhaps the worse case was the attack by a pit bull of three people, two of whom were hospitalized, during a Labor Day parade in Des Moines. But just as terrifying is the August 22nd mauling of a woman by two pit bulls as she lay asleep in her bed in Gig Harbor, Washington. Just four days before I wrote this piece, a woman in a suburb of San Francisco was attacked by a pit bull while she was holding her baby. In order to protect the child she was forced to throw her boy in a nearby garbage can.

As if I needed another incident in order to validate my choice of the bleak assessment of 2007, two days after Christmas a woman in the small, high desert town of Yermo, California, near Barstow, was attacked by three pit bulls and mulled to death. When friends and, later, police attempted to approach the dogs still surrounding the woman’s body, the dogs turned on them. Police shot and killed one of the dogs, and later shot a second aggressive pit in a search of the neighborhood.

Although I am sure that, given the ferocity of this breed, there are numerous such attacks every year, never before have I personally heard of so many attacks in such a brief period of time. Obviously I am attune to any mention of dogs in 2007, and this reportage may also have something to do with the fact that newscasters are increasingly shifting from actual “news” reporting to a coverage of weather catastrophes, car chases, and other “human interest” stories which include positive and negative interchanges with animals—also never before have I heard so many reports of bears and coyotes intruding upon local neighborhoods!

Yet this pit bull coverage, particularly when put in the context of a film like “Year of the Dog,” has led me to feel even more justified in my metaphoric expression of the direction of our society. Perhaps I should have described it as “the pits.”

I found it curious, accordingly, when I read in a front page story published in conjunction with the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, of a local woman who had helped save animals in New Orleans who were abandoned as the hurricane approached. Like other caring individuals, Pia Salk (daughter of the author and psychologist Lee Salk, and niece to the developer of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk) descended upon that devastated city, scooping up the surviving animals and placing them in the protection of the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales to the west of the city. One of the pets placed under its protection was a dog from the “ravaged” Seventh Ward of the city, Crown, a pit bull belonging to Kara Keyes.

Upon returning to her half-destroyed home after the hurricane, Kara and her husband, finding others of their animals dead, did not even have the energy, so they claimed, to seek out the missing Crown, who had meanwhile been transferred to an Albuquerque shelter and ultimately adopted by Pia. Salk found the animal had not been spayed, that his ears had been badly clipped, and that the dog was suffering from worms.

When Salk’s other dog, her Labrador Luna, attacked her new friendly and trusting pit bull—whom she now called Sweetie—she advertised for another home with several shelters throughout the country. After hiring a dog trainer, however, Luna and Sweetie became friends, and Salk grew further attached to the animal.

Meanwhile, Sweetie’s picture on the internet reminded one animal shelter worker of Crown, and Keyes was contacted. She wanted the dog back, but in a telephone conversation with Salk, Keys was told by the young California woman that she was not willing to give the dog back to someone who did not know how to care for it.

Keyes was understandably insulted and has hired a lawyer to demand the return of the dog. But any judge, no matter how straight-forwardly the law may read (I presume that if they can properly identify the dog, that Keyes would be determined as the “owner”), if he can allow himself any consideration of the issue, is faced with a Solomonic decision.

The two pictures illustrating this article, one of a young, attractive, and casually dressed white woman (Pia Salk) with her dog Sweetie on a Southern California beach and the other of a clearly distressed, heavily tattooed black woman sitting upon her concrete steps outside her unpainted house speak volumes of the breach between these two animal-loving women.

The head of the Animal Rescue organization of New Orleans as well as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine explain that there are other traditions concerning animals at work here, that because of financial difficulties and social attitudes there is a reluctance to neuter animals or to test on a regular basis for heartworms in certain parts of the South. Pit bulls are prized for their fierceness of appearance, and so their ears are generally clipped. Unlike most parts of the United States where a dog must be tethered, in the poor South, “You come out, you whistle for your dog, and the dog comes back.”

The terrible divide of race is again called up in such images and statements. One wonders if these two New Orleans authorities quoted might have spent less time on accounting for the local traditions and more upon explaining to their local citizens why such actions often lead to dog attacks and to the death of the dogs themselves that the gap between the cultures—at least with regard to the care of animals—might have been somewhat bridged.

It is clear to me that Sweetie might be better cared for than Crown. Yet one also recognizes in the pained eyes of Kara Keyes the totality of her loss—not just of her beloved animal, but of everything in her life. Salk’s refusal to return her Crown, if nothing else, is a symbol of everything that has worked against her, a world that has created vast depths of human neglect.

In 1992 or 1993 Howard and I were invited to dinner at the house of actor Harry Hamlin and his then-wife, Nicollette Sheridan near Mullholland Drive. It was generally a pleasant evening as Nicollette described how Harry—whom she declared was a true “romantic”—had courted her. I don’t recall much else about the evening, except that we met Jonas Salk. He spent much of the evening describing how he and his research team would soon discover a cure for AIDS, something to be devoutly wished, but which obviously did not occur before his death in 1995. As Howard later described his impressions of the man, “he was certainly the center of all conversations, someone incredibly full of himself.”

However, growing up in a time when children about you were falling ill from polio, when parents, terrified of the mysterious crippler, frequently warned to dry off immediately after leaving the pool, and being of a generation who recall standing in long lines to receive the first vaccine for the dread disease, one can only be in awe of the man who so changed our lives.


kfoz said...

Gosh, I don't know where to start. So much misinformation in one post. To begin with, you are writing about pit bulls, yet you use an illustration of a bull terrier. Then you claim someone was attacked by Ving Rhames bulldogs, which were actually mastiffs. Then you go on to detail all of the pit bull attacks and insist that there must be more because the breed is so vicious. Actually, pit bull attacks are over-reported by the media. The attacks you are not hearing about are those by labs, retrievers and other "safe" dogs.

Here are some sites that might help you:

Curtis Faville said...

My only first-hand experience with Pit-Bulls was a next-door neighbor, an odd Chinese fellow who was raising two young boys, and got an ugly Pit which he kept in a makeshift cage in his back yard. The dog was called, merely, "Doogie". Mr. Tong would go out every so often and taunt the dog in stentorian tones, and flinch at him, exciting the dog and making him bark and jump against the cage. It wasn't clear what Mr. Tong intended to do with him; but he was rumored to have been a high stakes Blackjack Player in Reno and Las Vegas, and was reported to have once tipped a whole gaming table over in fury at a bad hand. Anyway, after a while, the dog became more frustrated, and managed to tear away the grapestake fence separating our properties. We called the city pound. The animal control officer came out and determined that the dog was just a "cute, friendly" little guy, but nevertheless took the dog away. He was returned to Mr. Tong shortly thereafter, but a few months later, the dog was seen wandering the neighborhood, and was eventually impounded again as an abandoned stray. Mr. Tong moved away not long after that.

I was never able to find out if Tong was grooming him to fight, since I saw no direct evidence of that, but it certainly seemed suspicious. The dog was so ugly, and unseemly, that I couldn't imagine why anyone would feel affectionate about him.

I love dogs, and go to dog shows, but these ugly Pits that people can't control don't belong in neighborhoods. I suppose in the country, or for certain hunting situations, they're okay. Not otherwise.

When I was a paperboy, I was frequently attacked by dogs of all kinds, who would chase me and bite my leg and ankle. I got to hate them, and would kick them hard if I could. I had to wait about 35 years to finally appreciate them, their great variety and character(s).

The Pit attacks you hear about are only the tip of the iceberg. I understand how owners may want to protect their reputation, but there's no denying that Pits are a risky breed to keep, and special requirements should be applied to their owners. Any animal that has been only partly domesticated, is a gamble in crowded society.