Why would anyone feel the need to write a children's book about a pit bull? I and the illustrator, Dula Yavne, have been asked this regularly since releasing Galunker: a rhyming book about a hapless but lovable dog who is loathed because of his breed. Galunker is mostly intended as an entertaining tale about a canine outsider, but there's no question that it's also a parable with a crucial lesson. And surely the hatred that drives the mass killing of pit bulls is not an appropriate topic for eight-year-olds? We disagree. Bigotry is instilled at an early age, and that's when it should be countered. And if you don't believe that we're dealing with genuine hatred, consider this story.
In 2012, the actor Nick Santino committed suicide, on his birthday, after being pressured to kill his pet dog. He had to choose between his neighbors -- who were harassing him mercilessly -- and his pit bull. He made the wrong choice. Unable to live with himself, he took an overdose of pills less than 24 hours later. The suicide note read: "Today I betrayed my best friend. Rocco trusted me and I failed him. He didn't deserve this."
When this story was posted on the web, one Dawn James (who uses this name, but generally hides behind the pseudonym "Craven Desires"), wrote beneath it: "Well good! Just one less Shit Bull in the world and one less Pit Nutter to worry about!"
This is the kind of bigotry we're up against. And it's not simply seething amateur bloggers. One of America's most respected gay-rights activists, Dan Savage, wrote a piece entitled, "Pit Bulls Should be Boiled Alive like Lobsters and Fed to Their Idiot Owners."
I generally admire Dan Savage. He should know better. Pit bulls are the victims of bogus statistics, most of them cooked up by a single unqualified quack, and that same strategy was used for decades to demonize gay men. Yes, the analogy between dogs and humans is fraught -- I try to avoid it -- but sometimes it's instructive. The myth that gay men are statistically more likely to commit pedophilia than straight men has been soundly refuted, as has the myth that pit bulls are more likely than other dogs to attack and kill people.
Even Snopes has weighed in here: “What is the most dangerous type of dog? It’s complicated, but according to study after study, and when controlling for outside factors in individual dogs including training, early experiences, and excitability, the most aggressive and dangerous type of dog across the board, accountable for the vast majority of fatal attacks, is the intact male — independent of breed.” (Brooke Binkowski)
And so, Dan Savage has bought into a vicious myth, based on pseudo-science, no more valid than the assertion that natural disasters are God’s response to homosexuality. His words qualify as hate speech.
Galunker was conceived as an antidote to Dawn James and Dan Savage. And to those who contribute to this prejudice, sometimes with the best of intentions. Whether moral or factual, wrong is wrong.
Barbara Kay, for instance, who writes for Canada’s National Post, does not use the language of trolls and demagogues, but is equally devoted to ignorance masquerading as science. She is overawed by the bogus statistician introduced earlier ― she told me in an email that he is her “primary source” ― and has announced that I will have blood on my hands for writing Galunker. Nothing strikes her as more irresponsible than a children’s book about a breed that she considers criminal. She has reviewed our book twice. She has never read our book.
Also, she has made a point of not reading the definitive study of this breed: Bronwen Dickey’s “Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon.” Barbara Kay has clearly heard that Ms. Dickey ― after seven years of exhaustive research, combing through the history and the scientific literature ― has demonstrated that the pit bull hysteria is completely unfounded.
And worse, Ms. Kay is aware of what Bronwen Dickey has discovered about her favorite expert, Merritt Clifton, the “statistician” mentioned above. Ms. Dickey points out that his publishing record is abysmal: despite having boasted of over a hundred peer-reviewed publications, he is in fact responsible for only two not-quite-academic papers. “In one of them, he cites his own newsletter twelve times. The rest of the citations came mainly from Web sites, news reports, and press releases.” He “possesses no relevant credentials.”
Barbara Kay’s apoplexy directed towards us (in two reviews of Galunker published on, yes, Merritt Clifton’s blog), has to do with her perception that we are “pushing toddlers towards pit bulls.” If she took the time to read the book, she’d discover that there isn’t a single toddler in it, and that it’s a bit complicated for toddlers: it’s aimed at readers between eight and eighty. She’d also discover an essay and cut-out poster at the end of the book, devoted to teaching children and parents safety rules ― along the lines of the Red Cross rules for swimming ― appropriate to interaction with dogs of any breed.
Parents and children sign a contract at the beginning of Galunker, pledging to adhere to these rules.
Yes, we make it clear that pit bulls have been unfairly demonized, but this in itself is a crucial element of dog safety: do not teach your children that any dog ― especially a sizable, powerful breed like a St. Bernard, American Pit Bull Terrier, German Shepherd, Doberman, etc. ― should be assumed safe. Breeds have differences, but far outweighing these is the fact that dogs are individuals.
I mention those breeds, because all have, at one time or another, been the Frankenstein monster of the day. Pit bull hatred is a relatively recent phenomenon. After Stephen King’s “Cujo” was published, for instance, the St. Bernard was considered satanic. When the Germans were our enemies in World War Two, it was the German Shepherd. (Oh, and ― comically enough ― the German connection after World War One inspired an epidemic of Dachshund phobia.) Bigotry tends to have solid, identifiable roots.
We do make the point in Galunker that large, muscular dogs are not appropriate for every family. We stress that those who do decide to make one of these a member of the family should adhere strictly to certain rules: most important being socialization, proper training, and spay/neuter ― to take in a large male dog, and not have it fixed, is dangerous and irresponsible. Unlike those who believe that Breed Specific Legislation will solve the issue of dog bites ― an approach that has failed worldwide ― Dula and I favor education, as well as rigorous legal remedies: stringent leash laws, and zero tolerance for people who inflict dangerous dogs upon the public. Bigots wish to express prejudice; we wish to keep people safe.
And our book, Galunker, has run up against prejudice everywhere. I was told that it would be a fool’s errand to even submit the manuscript to one of my usual publishers (Doubleday, Random House), so Dula and I put it on Kickstarter. It became one of the most successful kids’ books in Kickstarter history: we aimed to raise $27,000, and ended up with more than $62,000. Which was a good thing, as the book proved far more expensive than we imagined to print and distribute.
And, most important, our supporters who received the book are thrilled with it. People who love pit bulls are, luckily, even more passionate than people who hate them.
Not only will we not have blood on our hands ― an absurd assertion ― but we hope to stay the bloody hands of the hatemongers responsible for the killing of approximately half a million pit bulls every year.