Pit bulls are generally thought to be aggressive animals, better suited to fighting than being good pets. But UCR professor Katja Guenther says that reputation may tell us more about ourselves than the dogs.
Katja Guenther is a professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside. Much of her research explores human-animal relationships – most notably, the one between pit bulls and their owners in Southern California.
Guenther says one reason so many pit bulls end up abandoned in shelters is because of breed-specific legislation – different kinds of laws and regulations that prohibit pit bulls from living in certain places.
Guenther: “I think what's happened with pit bulls, as I talk about a lot in my written scholarship, has to do with kind of a racialization of the breed. When they originally were imported to the United States they predominately belonged to English and Irish immigrants, so whites in the United States. But by the middle of the 20th century, the predominant understanding of who had pit bull type dogs in America were black men. And the dogs have really been vilified in the mainstream media but also in a lot of ways in black-produced media as tough, aggressive, fighting dogs that are bred and used primarily for either guarding human property or engaging in dog fighting. And so that's given a lot of people the impression that these dogs are animals who are dangerous, that they're both more likely to bite people, and if they do bite people that they're more likely than some other breeds to inflict serious damage on people. And so that set of beliefs has really contributed to you know, broad public understanding of pit bulls as a dangerous type dog and that supports this logic of breed specific legislation.”
So what happens when pit bulls end up in shelters? Oftentimes, Guenther says, they’re adopted into white, middle- and upper-class families. And that means a restructuring of the dog’s identity.
Guenther: “A paper that I recently published looks specifically at the ways in which people who are involved in rescuing pit bulls out of animal shelters in Southern California in the Los Angeles area re-inscribe pit bulls so that they're closer to whiteness and to create social distance for pit bulls away from the animal practices of blackness. So what we see is a pit bull rescue community that's predominately made up of middle and upper class white women and they use a range of strategies to try to make the dogs more appealing to what they see as desirable homes, so white middle and upper class homes. And also, to convince people that those are the types of homes more generally that pit bulls belong in and that they shouldn't just be associated you know, in the public imagination, with lower income men of color. Specifically, black and Latinx men in the southern California context.”
This practice of inscribing the pit bulls with whiteness is done in several ways.
Guenther: “There are a couple of different strategies that rescuers of pit bulls use to, you know, shift pit bulls away from lower class black and Latin masculinity and to more accommodated in white middle- and upper-class homes. Some of those practices include things like renaming individual dogs. They often come into the shelter or even in the shelter itself receive names that kind of connote either aggression or an association with lower class people. Names like Phantom or Venom or Spanish language names like Negro or Chico. And so, the first thing they do is rename the dogs with things that are more clearly Anglo-identified. So, names like Riley or Kermit for example. And then they also engage in a whole series of practices around the animal's actual bodies and the depiction of those bodies. So, a really common thing, for example, that you see in pit bull rescue are photographs of the dogs that are taken where the dogs are staged really and what are clearly middle- and upper-class homes where they're sitting on comfortable dog beds and in the background, you can see kind of, you know, Pottery Barn types of furnishings. The dogs are often shown wearing sunglasses or flower wreaths on their heads or scarves or other types of fashion accessories. Pajamas are huge as well for pit bulls right now so everybody's putting their pit bulls in doggy pajamas. And these are ways of kind of infantilizing and therefore, feminizing the dogs. Making them seem less masculine and less scary and making them look kind of cute and friendly instead. But those are also, you know, practices specifically associated with how white middle- and upper-class people conceptualize animal guardianship. So, there are a lot of these different types of smaller practices that the rescuers are engaged in to really shift the way that people think about and see pit bulls.”