"sent by Satan"

A story about an alleged Detroit area "pit bull" which killed an 11 month old baby has rapidly become national news (having been picked up by countless news feeds -- all of which use the phrase "pit bull" but which refuse to identify the deceased or the parents).

In most accounts, the dog is described as 2 years old, but suddenly in this story it is said to be 5 years old, and raised from a puppy.

Considering that this incident is being cited in support of breed bans, I wondered how they can be so sure about the breed. Does anyone know whether this dog was in fact a pure-bred American Pit Bull Terrier? What about the layers of fact-checkers? The reason I'm sounding so testy is not merely because Coco feels defamed, but now I see the dog suddenly being described as a "pit bull mix":

Fire Chief Dan Hagen said firefighters responded to the family's home on Nevada, in a subdivision near Nine Mile and Gratiot Avenue, at 2:47 p.m., one minute after the emergency call came in.

"(Responders) did everything they could medically and transported the child to the hospital," Hagen said.

"It was a pretty frantic situation."

He said the dog, a pit-bull mix, was killed by the father, who shot the dog several times during the attack. Police did not release the name of the couple or their son.

NOTE: I called and spoke to the reporter (Christine Ferretti) who told me that she was not only told that the dog was a pit bull mix, but that it weighed 110 lbs. Not only is that an abnormally large size for a pit bull, but according to the breed standard, the desirable weight is between 35 and 60 pounds for males, and between 30 and 50 pounds for females. (Coco weighs 40 lbs.)

So, while it is possible that the dog in question was a pure-bred pit bull, I rather doubt it. Does anyone verify these things? Or is it just impossible to resist the temptation of putting "pit bull" in news headlines? And if it turns out not to have been a pure-bred pit bull, will an apology to the breed be forthcoming?

Even though the parents and the child have not been identified, an uncle is purporting to speak for them, and warns that the dogs are "sent by Satan":

Eastpointe -- The uncle of an 11-month-old boy killed by the family's pit bull said today the grieving parents want to warn others about the dangers of a breed that is "sent by Satan."

"I know there is a love affair with pit bulls," Terrence Lovejoy said during an emotional press conference at the Eastpointe Police Department. "But neighbors, parents ... get rid of them. They are sent by Satan."

Lovejoy said the boy's parents, who have not been named, asked him to speak to the media on their behalf. The couple had been married 17 years and were thrilled when they finally conceived their son, whose first birthday would have been May 3, Lovejoy said. "We were preparing for his first birthday. ... Now we have to prepare for a funeral."

Lovejoy said the toddler was standing on his parents' bed Wednesday with the parents in the room when the dog, without barking or growling, suddenly grabbed him. The family had the dog since it was a puppy, and it had never shown signs of aggression, Lovejoy said. He said the dog was never left alone with the child.

Never shown signs of aggression? Then why are the neighbors in the video complaining that they were "terrified of the dog" and scared to walk past the place:
"he's real huge and real like mean, every time we walk past he'll bark or he'll growl or he'll jump on the fence like he's going to attack"
Not that it has any more to do with the attack than would the house being in foreclosure, but the dog was not licensed, and I suspect there may be more to this story than is being reported.

The problem with emotionally inflamed stories like this is that they supply fuel to people who want to ban dogs by breed. Bad as that is, it's worse when they can't even get the facts straight. Suppose this dog was half pit bull and half Rottweiler. Or half pit bull and half Presa Canario? Which "satanic" genes get the credit, and why?

Whatever its genetic lineage, these people had this dog for years, the neighbors were afraid of it, and they had a large chain link fence with a "BEWARE OF DOG" sign around the yard. Aren't these things considered, you know, clues?

I'm having trouble understanding how blaming the entire breed as "Satanic" helps in the analysis.

MORE: Another article refers to the dog as a "mixed pit bull." Mixed with what, I'd like to know.

Which leads me to ask a question. If we are going to play dog eugenics games, what if it turned out that statistically, pit bull mixes turned out to bite more people than pure-bred pit bulls?

The reason I'm asking is that I don't believe that the pit bull has a genetic propensity to bite. If anything, their tendency is quite the opposite, and the reasons may be found in the dog's background:

Quite ironically, the fact that there are so few attacks on people is an unintentional but logical byproduct of the dogs' historic background of being pitted against bulls, bears, and other dogs for sport. While the medieval brutes who bred these canine gladiators were anything but kind, they could not tolerate any dog with the slightest inclination to attack humans, for otherwise how could they have pitted them? Under the rules which evolved in dogfighting, the dogs had to be handled routinely, picked up, separated, then faced off to determine whether a dog was a coward, or whether it would walk across the "scratch" line to take hold of the other animal. Dogs that turned away, or tried to jump the pit were considered defective, as were dogs which displayed any tendency to turn and bite humans -- even in the heat of combat. The result over the centuries was a dog that was downright amiable, even clownish -- in many cases almost ridiculously so.

Now, this is not just my opinion -- many, many students of the breed have noticed this over and over again. (A fascinating New Yorker piece explores the phenomenon in detail.) It seems like a paradox to people, but it isn't. I've always suspected that the "natural born entertainers" were more likely to survive the sadism and cruelty which inhered to these blood sports -- perhaps out of pity, perhaps simply because people enjoy being entertained. Like it or not, the cruel spectacles were also circus performances, and people like circuses, and shows. (Shades of WWF, perhaps?)

Paradoxical as it sounds, the dogs were simply too powerful for the slightest hint of viciousness towards humans (who had to handle them in the pit) to be tolerated. But cross them out with dogs bred to be watch dogs, and who knows?

The above argument, of course, assumes that there is a genetic component to canine behavior. If there is not, then of course not only is my speculation wrong, but so is the idea of banning any particular breed for alleged genetic propensities.


Coco is looking over my shoulder again.


I'd better watch what I say....

posted by Eric on 04.23.09 at 04:09 PM


IMHO, the existence of a vicious dog is more a reflection of the owners than of the dog. With appropriate or better said inappropriate treatment, most dogs- regardless of pedigree- can turn into nasty brutes.

My observation has been that nasty dogs tend to have jerks for owners.

Your points about pit bull temperament versus those of pit bull mixtures -especially with guard dog breeds such as Rottweiler- make sense to me.

Gringo   ·  April 23, 2009 5:31 PM


An interesting analogy for crimes committed with "assault weapons".

11B40   ·  April 23, 2009 8:24 PM

Yes, reporters all over the nation prefer AK-47s and pit bulls to any other make or breed for all crimes.

A 110 lb dog is huge. What could you possibly breed a 50 lb dog with and get a puppy growing to over twice mama's weight?

Donna B.   ·  April 24, 2009 12:40 PM

I would not want a dog that weighed over 100 pounds -- pit bull or otherwise. I like to think that I'm the alpha pack leader, and even though I spoil Coco and she's a sweetheart, I can pick her up easily. If she were to go nuts with a sudden brain disease or something, she just lacks the weight and heft that a 100 lb animal would have. If a huge dog gets to thinking it's in charge, what happens when there's a crisis when you want to be in charge? If a SWAT team were to mistakenly show up at my house on a faulty warrant or something, I can safely pick Coco up with one arm (even though she's strong as an ox) and lock her in a closet for the duration. The dynamics of an excited, athletic, 100 lb. beefcake dog would make such a thing considerably more difficult. (Hence I wouldn't have one.)

But if you go out and get a dog like that, it's your responsibility if something happens -- not "Satan's"!

Eric Scheie   ·  April 24, 2009 6:39 PM

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