A new TV commercial for Verizon Wireless has dog-lovers in an uproar. In the spot, an urban hipster climbs over a fence into a junkyard to get to an LG cellular phone, awakening two sleeping Pit Bulls guarding the yard. As the guy gets close enough to touch the phone, he just misses the dogs reaching the end of their heavy chains, stopping short of catching him with their bared fangs. The slogan goes: “Dare you to touch one.”
This commercial exploits the stereotype of the Pit Bull as a snarling, vicious monster in chains. But no dog should ever be chained, and the rescue of the 50 Pits abused by convicted dog-fighter Michael Vick proves the “vicious” stereotype dead wrong. One of the former Vick dogs, Leo, a.k.a. “Dr. Leo,” now visits hospitals in California, spreading love and cheer to patients as a therapy dog. Talk about a Pit poster boy.
Best Friends Animal Society, the Utah sanctuary that is rehabbing the former Vick dogs, circulated an online petition. Angry Verizon subscribers began switching their BlackBerry accounts to other providers in protest. Yet despite the Humane Society of the United States asking Verizon to pull the ad, the company refused. “These are fictional ads, designed to be over the top, to break through the clutter and get our message across,” said Verizon Wireless spokesperson Brenda Raney. Then, late last week, Verizon caved in to consumer and animal activist pressure, pulling the offensive TV ad in all markets.
“Everybody knows that profiling is wrong when applied to people, but people seem very free to apply it to pets,” says Joseph Pentangelo of the ASPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement Division, which routinely rescues Pit Bulls. As it happens, HLE’s mascot is a red nose Pit named Cherub who has lived happily at the Animal Precinct for the past six years. “There has never been an incident of him being the slightest bit aggressive,” Pentangelo reports. “He’s happy to greet strangers.”
Meanwhile, another instance of canine breed profiling may be seen in The Dark Knight. The newest retelling of the Batman legend is thrilling moviegoers — all except those who love Rottweilers. Fans of this breed, which — like the pit bull — is widely maligned and misunderstood, are upset to see their favorite dog portrayed in America’s hottest flick as an evil menace on four legs. Maybe “no animals were harmed” during filming, but the thousands of sweet Rottweilers already languishing in animal shelters certainly won’t benefit from the way The Dark Knight portrays the breed.
Pit Bulls have a hard time getting adopted at animal shelters because of bad press in the MSM, which exploits “Pit Bull attack” stories because they are violent and sexy. Pit Bulls visiting hospitals? Sorry, that’s not sexy enough for most MSM editors and producers, who’d rather characterize these animals as unpredictable, bloodthirsty beasts with a taste for human blood, more demon than dog. As a result, animal shelters across this country are overcrowded with gentle, affectionate Pit Bulls that no one wants to adopt because of the horror stories they’ve heard on the news. Despite the best efforts of rescuers, these dogs wind up killed by the thousands for lack of cage space.
Still, a few Pits do manage to get adopted by kind people — people with names like Mel Brooks, Rachael Ray, Jessica Biel, Bernadette Peters, Mary Tyler Moore, and Jon Stewart — but it certainly helps a Pit’s cause if his coat is any color other than black. According to Petfinder.com, animal shelter statistics show that big, black dogs are always the last to be adopted. Too many people still believe lingering, foolish superstitions about “evil” dark dogs.
But black dogs are not evil, whether they happen to be Rottweilers or Pit Bulls. Sadly, old stereotypes die hard, while innocent dogs die every day in animal shelters — as many as eight million each year.
It wasn’t always thus. In a famous World War I propaganda poster, select dog breeds are depicted as symbols of their respective nations: the French Bulldog stands for France; the Dachshund, for Germany. At the center of this canine summit is a handsome white fellow, the American Pit Bull Terrier. His shoulders draped in the stars and stripes of Old Glory, he’s a proud flag-waver with a bold motto: “I’m neutral — But not afraid of any of them!”
It’s been a long time since Americans were proud to identify with the Pit Bull. Once a noble national mascot and a popular family pet — as a boy, Fred Astaire had one, and so did John Steinbeck, Helen Keller, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson — the Pit Bull would experience a terrible reversal of fortune, reviled as the public enemy. Today, the Pit Bull is the single most feared and legislated-against dog in the world — and also the most routinely abused. Favored by dog fighters and drug dealers because of his awesome strength and intimidatingly muscular physique, the Pit Bull has a fierce loyalty and willingness to please people that is exploited terribly by the criminal element.
In the care of kind people, Pit Bulls excel at such upstanding, all-American activities as assisting police officers in narcotics detection or performing heroic search-and-rescue work. A Pit named Dakota was hand-picked by FEMA and NASA for the team that searched for the remains of the seven astronauts who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
But in the hands of scum, these same dogs are over-bred and kept in appallingly neglectful circumstances, forced to fight other dogs to the death, then abandoned or cruelly killed when they demonstrate their truly gentle and sociable natures — “undesirable” traits from a criminal’s POV. In short, the Pit Bull is punished for the misdeeds of his abusive owners.
Although millions know a very different side to the Pit Bull — the dependable friend of children as embodied by Our Gang’s faithful mascot Pete — the “vicious” stereotype stubbornly persists. Breed bans in Denver and Ontario have made it illegal for residents to own a Pit Bull. On Monday, July 21, all but one member of the Lakewood, Ohio, City Council voted to pass a Pit Bull ban; Pits already living in Lakewood must be muzzled on city streets. And thanks to certain political animals who claim to be “dog lovers,” breed-specific legislation, a.k.a. BSL, looms threateningly over several other states, including New York, where I live with my four Pits. All this, despite Amsterdam recently lifting its ban on Pit Bulls because the ban did not result in a decrease in dog bite incidents.
Is this any way to treat an all-American icon?