Pit bulls have been in the news lately, and that’s not a good thing.
A string of pit bull attacks has reignited a decades-old debate about whether the breed should be legal.
Earlier this month, a 7-year-old girl died after being attacked by a neighbor’s pit bull in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. An 11-year-old in Georgia had his scalp halfway torn off, half his ear bitten off, and suffered deep puncture wounds on both legs when two pit bulls attacked him while he was riding his bike.
In November, two pit bulls attacked a 7-month-old boy in Washington, D.C., leaving him fighting for his life in intensive care. The infant suffered a fractured skull and other serious injuries and required surgery.
The tragic list goes on. Many of the victims are young children, but some are adults, and some are even the dog’s owner, who is left heartbroken and bewildered when his pet attacks him. In a cruel twist, pit bulls also tend to be extremely affectionate towards people, making them a favorite among dog lovers.
The breed has long been controversial, however.
Critics say the dogs should be outlawed given how frequently they attack people, and how deadly it can be when they do.
In 2019, pit bulls killed 33 Americans, 69% of all fatal dog bites that year, according to DogsBite.org, one of the most prominent groups criticizing pit bulls. The next deadliest were mixed-breed dogs and Rottweilers.
Back in 1980, Hollywood, Florida became the first locality in the country to crack down on pit bulls after a dog scalped a 6-year-old boy and mangled his face. The city required pit bull owners to have $25,000 in personal liability insurance, but two years later a judge scrapped the law, saying there was not enough evidence that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs.
About 1,200 U.S. cities currently regulate pit bulls, DogsBite.org estimates.
In 1987, a Sports Illustrated cover blared, “Beware Of This Dog: The Pit Bull Terrier” with a photo of a snarling dog.
The U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marines currently ban pit bull–type dogs as well as Rottweilers and other breeds deemed too dangerous for base housing.
Nevertheless, pit bulls have many defenders in the U.S. who say it is individual dogs, not specific breeds, that are too dangerous to live side by side with humans.
“All dogs, including pit bulls, are individuals,” the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) said in a position statement on pit bulls.
“Despite our best efforts, there will always be dogs of various breeds that are simply too dangerous to live safely in society,” and so laws must be passed and enforced that focus “not on breed, but on people’s responsibility for their dogs’ behavior,” ASPCA said. Breed-specific laws “create the illusion, but not the reality, of enhanced public safety,” the group added.
In 2013, the Obama White House came out against “breed-specific legislation,” calling it “largely ineffective and often a waste of public resources.”
“The simple fact is that dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they’re intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive,” the White House said at the time.
Pit bull supporters point to a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association that found irresponsible dog owners, not breed, were the main cause of fatal dog bites.
One of the most confusing traits of pit bulls is that their vicious attacks often seem to come out of nowhere, perpetrated unprovoked by dogs with loving owners.
Pit bulls are 48% more likely to attack without provocation, according to a 2013 study on head and neck dog bites published in the American Journal of Otolaryngology.
Critics argue that the attacks can happen suddenly because pit bulls were originally bred for now-outlawed blood sports like dog fighting, and not even the best owner can love the “fighting gene” out of them.
Pit bulls were originally a cross between the muscly Old English Bulldog and the quick and feisty Black and Tan Terrier. Dog fighting breeders wanted the strength of the bulldog, which was bred for bear and bull baiting, with the agility of the terrier.
The pit bull’s deadly “hold and shake” bite style worked well in the context of dog fighting. The dogs will often sustain the attack until they themselves are killed, according to Colleen Lynn, founder of DogsBite.org.
“If we can’t regulate the breed – or outlaw the breed – at the very least pit bull advocates, humane groups and veterinary groups that oppose these regulations, need to start being honest about this dog breed. Genetics in dogs are real,” Lynn told The Daily Wire.
If pit bulls are ever outlawed on a large scale, pit bull lovers will be loathe to give up their dogs, who are beloved members of many families.
Nevertheless, they are up against difficult statistics when it comes to dangerous dogs and which breed consistently sticks out.