On Monday, February 18, 2019, Disney Pixar released a nearly 9 minute 2-D animation short called “KitBull”, about two neglected animals – a stray black kitten and an abused dog labeled “pit bull”, who later is implied to be a victim of dogfighting – and the heartwarming connection and the perceived unlikely friendship they forge.
Through the week, my personal Facebook newsfeed was peppered with an array of opinions and thoughts – both good and bad, about what they just witnessed. From major kudos to Disney Pixar for taking on a project like this and exposing the dark side of animal cruelty, to a cautionary tale of the perpetually reinforced stereotypes about dogs labeled “pit bull” all coming from dog fighting backgrounds. To a degree, both are right, their points are taken, and conversations like this need to occur so we can all be better advocates, especially for the ones needing us most. Do I think this, and other forms of popular culture, along with the media, are the sole sources that perpetuate such stereotypes? No. I don’t. But, if exploitation is truly the key concern here, then here’s some additional things to ponder and consider.
I often tell the story about my current three dogs – Preston, Era and Fergie, who came to me at different times – at different stages of their life and mine, all with their own unique personalties, as well as their challenges.
Preston came into my life first, in April 2008, from the Cleveland-based rescue – For The Love Of Pits. While visiting this rescue, which only occurred due to the production of my first documentary film that started as an anti-dogfighting documentary, soon after morphing into a film examining breed specific legislation (BSL), I stumbled upon this little black dog, who simply captivated my heart. With open wounds – which today are scars you can still see, he was saved from a home in Akron (OH) on July 6, 2006, where he was allegedly used for fighting purposes. At the time I met him, I was living in Lakewood, Ohio, who had just proposed a ban of “pit bull” dogs the following month after meeting Preston and declaring my intentions of adopting him. After passage of the law (in July 2008), I was finally able to bring him home on October 4th…after many months of unsuccessfully trying to find a rental property outside my current city that would allow me to have him.
My next dog, who I named Era – because it was to be a “new era in her life”, was my first foster from the city of Cleveland Dog Kennel, in June of 2011. She came to me as an estimated six month old puppy, who needed a home to crash at for a couple weeks, until she got on a transport bus and made her way to somewhere in the New England states to be put up for adoption. Preston and Era hit it off from minute one, and since I was already thinking about adding another dog to our household, it made sense to officially adopt Era. She was already home.
The following year, I saw Fergie’s picture being circulated on Facebook from the volunteers of the Cleveland City Dog Kennel, soliciting for donations for a rescue to pull her. After a couple days, I saw very little attention being paid to her, so I offered to make a donation. When another day or two passed, and there was still no rescue coming forward, I gave up and said I would foster her if a rescue friend will pull her (since the kennel didn’t offer direct adopt back then), with the plan that I would have her temporarily, providing her a safe place until an interested family finds her and falls in love. But this was no easy decision for me personally, because I knew there was a possibility that adding a 3rd personality in our home may disrupt or compromise the peace we had already established.
Then, it was discovered that Fergie was heartworm positive, among a laundry list of other non-fatal ailments due to some form of neglect or possible abuse, and would need to be secluded for about two months while she went through her treatment, which in hindsight was a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to take things slow, while she was on the mend, giving her time to trust that we were not going to hurt her. The day I brought her home, she was clearly on guard, and deservingly so, as who knows what she went through. But, as time passed, and with focus on her body language, behavior and her comfort level, she ended up fitting in like she belonged. After one year – to the day, I made it official and adopted her, too. She, too, was already home.
Living with all of them for the past 6-7 years, I can say without a doubt, the one thing they all do share in common was someone in a shelter labeled them all “pit bull”, and each could’ve been killed simply for it, without ever knowing who they actually are. It could’ve been real different for each one of them.
We’ve all seen it. Stories about dogs coming in municipal animal shelters picked up as strays, who have completely unknown backgrounds, and the assumptions made about what their past life was like. Typically, the assumptions made are based on the physical condition the dog came in as. For example, dogs with cuts, bites, and other abrasions, are often immediately determined to be survivors of being used as a bait dog – the term to describe an innocent dog who was used to test the willingness of another dog who is purposely being used and trained to fight (who is also a victim). We believe labeling a dog with unknown pasts, perpetuates stereotypes.
The dogs who are actually saved from environments like this, differ in a variety of ways – behaviorally, as well as physically. As is the case with dogs found as stray, who enter shelter doors around the country, and are immediately given a breed designation. For example, the way we identify dogs as “pit bull”, because they appear to share one or more subjective physical characteristics or traits that are “common” with other dogs branded it, perpetuates stereotypes.
We believe our labeling system in general perpetuates stereotypes, because it doesn’t take into an account the individualism of that dog or animal (or, for that matter, the human, too). When we tell the story we want to tell, we take away from the individual animal’s real story, and go down a rabbit hole that can create unintended consequences where the marathon for his or her survival is uphill a mile from where the starting line is for the other contestants.
We get it, though. We want to know what the animal suffered through, so we know how best to help. It often makes for a great adoption story, too. But, these don’t really help the victim, by generalizing their possible abuse, when we should be focusing on the individual 100% of the time, since everyone copes with things like trauma in their own individual way.
Lost in the vast majority of the comments I personally saw, was that of another generalization that never seemed to gain any steam – the fact the stray kitten was black, and the myths surrounding them. Which is an equally important lesson to keep being reminded of – that all generalizations are dangerous…even this one. We all need to be better at not perpetuating stereotypes. And, it starts with how we label them.