Pit Bulls in Chicago
Ice has crusted my bedroom windows in a way that obscures the outdoors, making it an unreal world past the curtains. I could sleep here all day in the warmth. I am entering the second month of sleeping in this bed alone, my divorce papers signed, just waiting for me to save enough money to file them.
Smack! Lick! Somehow it shocks me every morning, as if it’s never happened before, as if I forgot I had a dog. But each morning, or early afternoon if we’re being completely honest here, Jake, my fifty-five pound lump of love and energy, comes jumping onto my bed, rousing me. I know, his brown eyes seem to say. But I have to go outside and I have to eat. You have to get up for at least fifteen minutes, for me.
For months, Jake was the reason I got up every day. His pleading eyes, his dance at the door, his feet in my face until I gave in: he gave me some sense of normalcy in an otherwise unplanned-for and unknown world. He watched movies and hours of Mad Men with me, suffered through various renditions of the song “Landslide” with me, huddled under blankets with me, and watched me eat ice cream.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, Jake saved my sanity in those cold months. And when I think of that sweet boy’s face, trying as hard as a dog can to be supportive and understanding of crazy human emotions, I can’t wrap my head around the fact that in some cities, he is not allowed to reside. Many insurance companies will not insure a home covered in his dog hair. In strictest cities, he could be taken from me and euthanized. All of this because Jake is part pit bull terrier.
Breed-specific legislation, or BSL, is the route some municipalities have taken in an attempt to curb attacks by “vicious” dogs. This is based on appearance of the dog, as DNA testing of dogs, while available, is expensive, not to mention complicated when you start analyzing mutts. American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, and Rottweilers are among the most common targets of BSL. Breed bans are in effect in many cities, some mandating that owners of certain breeds carry more insurance or build higher fences, to an outright ban, as in Denver, Colorado, where many pit bulls were taken from their owners and euthanized, without any history of violence or incident. There have been breed bans proposed in Chicago, as in the early 2000s, by Alderman Virginia Rugai of the 19th ward. A petition from pit bull advocates to Mayor Daley cited a dog “temperament study,” finding that 83% of pit bulls passed, topping much-loved breeds like the Labrador retriever, the Golden retriever, and America’s hero, Lassie, the Collie.
The American Pit Bull Terrier has an interesting history, and continues to write a fascinating present and future. Originally bred in Britain, pit bulls were bred as bait dogs for bull fights. Once this practice was labeled inhumane, humans turned the dogs on one another. But, as now, there were always pit bull lovers, admiring the breed’s strong devotion to their masters. When the British began immigrating to the States, they brought their pitties, too. Once across the pond, these pups did everything from helping to hunt in the new frontier to protecting children left at home alone when both parents had to leave the house to work in the fields. Think Nana from Peter Pan.
Fairy dust aside, the pit bull also became a war hero. At the time of the first World War, the breed was known for qualities a country at war would be smart to align itself with: bravery, loyalty, and strength. The pit bull showed up on many war posters, and the most decorated war dog in WWI was a pittie.
Pit bull advocates cite the 1980s inner-city explosion of drugs and street violence as the rejuvenation of fighting pit bulls. The “sport” grew, and by 2007, reporter and activist Tio Hardiman found that 4 out of 5 children living in the Chicago neighborhood in which he worked had witnessed a dogfight. Many drug dealers now keep pit bulls, naturally loyal and protective of their masters, and train them to be aggressive, in order to protect their business.
Dogfighting is illegal in all 50 states. There have been several major busts in the Chicago area in the past several years, and of course, Michael Vick’s bust garnered national attention. Yet, the problem persists. Many groups in Chicago work specifically with pit bulls and against BSL and dogfighting. I adopted my buddy Jake from the Anti-Cruelty Society. Other local organizations include New Leash on Life, PAWS, & Chicago Canine Rescue. The well-known Chicagoan, Steve Dale, is also a pit fan and was heavily involved in thwarting the breed ban early this decade.
Being a pit bull owner is also being an activist, really. Your dog, unfair as it might be, will be judged differently than the Maltese down the block. When the Maltese freaks out, it’s a yappy dog yapping. When your pit bull loses his mind over a squirrel, you’ve suddenly got an out of control, dangerous pit bull for your neighbors to talk about. Training is of the utmost importance. The Anti-Cruelty Society actually includes a basic training class in the cost of all pit bull adoptions. When walking my Jake, I’ve been asked if I fight him, if I would sell him to the person inquiring, and if he’s ever killed a baby — not joking. People cross the street when they see us coming. And, people always, always wants to know why. Why a pit bull? “Why would a nice girl like you want a mean dog like that?” I always think to point out that a nice girl like me gets stopped by creepy guys like you, and that’s why. But, as an ambassador for the breed, I tell the truth. I tell everyone that Jake is a lover. That he’s afraid of the car, the smoke alarm, and greets me at the door with a dance on his back legs that looks a lot like the Thriller video. I tell them that he’s never taken a life, except Duck-Duck, a squeaky plush duck he won in a training class. And, of course, I tell them that he also very well might have saved mine. I think about those sad days of mine, and I think of the simple joy of walking Jake in the park, snow crunching under boot and paw. I remember coming home to an empty house for the first time, only to find that it wasn’t empty at all.
What you can do:
**Thinking of adopting a dog? If you’re up to the immense responsibility, consider a pit!
**If you own a pit, train him or her well.
**Do not leave your dog tied up outside—even for a moment—as pits are one of the most stolen breeds, to be fought.
**Be extra-vigilant at dogs parks. Even if your pit didn’t start the scuffle, it will probably get blamed for it.
**Tell everyone proudly what kind of dog you have! If your dog is social, let it meet people. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve shocked with Jake, and how many minds he has changed.
**Adopt, don’t buy! There are so many pits that need homes in the city of Chicago.
**If you can’t have a dog, volunteer with a pit-friendly organization. If you have another kind of dog or pet, find out if the groomer, kennel, or training facility you frequent allows pits. Some are biased; spend your money at pit-friendly places!
Some Local Chicago Shelters Adopting Pitties:
Animal Care and Control
New Leash on Life
Puppy Love Love Cats
Chicago Canine Rescue
South Suburban Humane Society
Chicagoland Bully Breed Rescue
Project Rescue Chicago
Safe Humane Chicago