DURHAM, N.C. — The Regulator Bookshop is a modest street-front store just a few blocks from Duke University, the kind of place where until recently the most controversial reading involved the basketball coaches from the Blue Devils’ main rival. But earlier this month, a man’s combative questions so alarmed store employees that they called police to escort the guest author out the back door.
“The policeman was a bit surprised to have taken this kind of call,” said Tom Campbell, one of the store’s owners. “All this for a book about a dog?”
Not just any dog. The author featured that night was Bronwen Dickey, who says she spent seven years talking to experts and activists and examining history and science to bring “new layers of complexity” to the debate over whether pit bulls are inherently dangerous. Instead, “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon” has become a lightning rod in one of America’s ugliest, most persistent battles over animals — one that sometimes surfaces in public hearings and bookshops, but mostly takes place through hate-laden social media posts, character attacks on advocacy websites and memes depicting bloody dog-bite victims or vengeful pit bull haters.
Since the book’s release this spring, the 35-year-old Dickey has been lauded by pit bull advocates as a hero, a role she says makes her uncomfortable, though her book argues that the breed has been unfairly demonized because of poor statistics, sensationalized news accounts, prejudice against owners and, in some cases, deprivation or abuse.
But among pit bull opponents, Dickey has become a target of scornful, personal digs: They have suggested picketing her Durham house, put photos of it online and, using her name, have written one-star reviews of her book on Amazon. One Facebook comment quipped that the book would cause her dead father, novelist and poet James Dickey, to “roll over in his grave and grab a fifth of Jack Daniels.” He was an alcoholic.
Knopf, her publisher, says it has taken the unusual step of scheduling the author’s appearances only at venues that provide security. Dickey has installed home surveillance cameras and filed a harassment report with the local police. She is trying to ignore Internet comments and postings — which last week included unflattering photos of her and a caption mocking her name as “Brown-nose Pittie” on a Facebook page called Anti-Pit Bull Memes.
Dickey said she knew she would face pushback, but she expected opponents “would take issue with things I had actually said.”
If that’s true, it was probably naive. In the three decades since the first municipal pit bull bans, the debate has only gotten more toxic. Many local breed-specific bans have been overturned or preempted by state legislation, and they are opposed by the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But about 700 remain, and more are proposed with each report of gruesome assaults by dogs identified — sometimes incorrectly — as pit bulls, including one last week that left a Connecticut woman dead. Police later clarified that the dogs in that attack were American bulldog mixes.
“The pit bull issue is probably the single most divisive issue related to animals in America today,” said Hal Herzog, a psychologist at Western Carolina University who studies human-animal relationships and praised Dickey’s book in a blurb on its back cover. “I think that the main reason that [pit bulls] draw out such deep emotions is that, unlike conflicts over animal research, circuses, zoos, and meat, the pit bull debate is deeply personal.”
Many advocates own pit bulls and “know” that they are lovable and misunderstood, Herzog said, while many opponents “know” from personal experience that the dogs are dangerous by nature. “As is always the case with animal issues, each side has their own facts,” he added.
Take a tour of the many pit bull-related Facebook groups, and it’s quickly clear that what Dickey has faced is just a reflection of a battle where there’s no middle ground, only vitriolic extremes.
“Ms. Dickey is inserting herself into the middle of a culture war that a more prudent person, given her name recognition, would thought better to steer clear of,” wrote the anonymous moderator of a group then known as Pit Bulls and Amputees. The page has since been renamed Pit Bull Public Safety Education and Advocacy.
At its core, the Internet war has two highly polarized sides. One is accused of being apologists for violent dogs, for caring more about animals than people and for downplaying injuries and deaths. The other is characterized as pit bull haters, “foamers” who make generalizations about a “caste” of dogs based on media reports of horrific incidents, not scientific data.
Each side’s tactics can be crude. Critics proffer endless analysis of news reports of pit bull attacks and occasionally gloat when dog owners are injured or killed. (“Only thing better than one less pit dog is one less pit dog owner,” one Facebook commenter wrote about a St. Louis-area man killed last month by his dog.) They scour social media sites for photos of children posing with pit bulls and re-post the pictures with derisive comments.
Kimberly Stojakovic, a Phoenix social worker, said she jumped into the online war after she discovered that a photo of her daughter and her pit bull had been shared by the Pit Bull Propaganda Machine Revealed, a Facebook group run by Wisconsin activist Jeff Borchardt. Stojakovic now writes a blog called Zombies and Dogs, and one of her main targets is Borchardt, whom she calls a stalker and harasser.
“They were saying my dog is going to eat my kid’s face,” Stojakovic recounted. “So much about this fight isn’t even about dogs. It’s about not sitting down and letting somebody halfway across the country be able to say whatever they want to say about your family.”
Borchardt, whose son was killed by two pit bulls in 2013, responded to an interview request by sending a link to a blog post he penned about being taunted by pit bull backers. They made jokes about playing kick ball with his son’s head, he wrote, and told him he was “an incredibly irresponsible parent that had a kid get eaten by a dog.”
“It’s a real sewer,” Canadian columnist Barbara Kay, who advocates pit bull bans, said of the rhetoric. Borchardt and his allies “feel like they are a tiny little battalion fighting for the truth against a whole army.”
People at the bookstore reading in Durham said Craig Brown, the man whose presence prompted the bookstore’s call to police, repeatedly asked Dickey how many victims she had interviewed and then stood outside the entrance distributing anti-pit bull fliers. According to his own account on Facebook, he was “pretty confrontational.” Dickey said she responded that she quoted just one at length but requested interviews with about 15.
That answer has since been twisted into a rallying cry against her: She interviewed only one victim.
By email, Brown said he asked questions that Dickey “didn’t want to hear.” Brown, whose Facebook profile says he lives in Raleigh, said he has not been attacked by a pit bull but knows someone who has, and he compared his thinking about the breed to his action after hearing about a dangerous baby crib: “I got a different crib. I didn’t write a book about misunderstood cribs.”
“What I think is they are too dangers [sic] of a pet for children,” Brown wrote about pit bulls. “The Why is because for years I’ve been watching what they do every day.”
Dickey said some opponents’ points are valid — the idea that pit bulls were once “nanny dogs” is a myth and the argument that their behavior stems only from how they’re raised is “not a scientifically credible statement at all.” A big problem for both sides is that data on pit bull populations and attacks are so poor, she noted.
Many victims of pit bull attacks wouldn’t talk to her, she said, but she doesn’t think that weakened the book. If a plane crashes, she argued, reporters don’t need to talk to every victim, but they do seek out engineers and mechanics who might be able to determine what went wrong and how to prevent another crash.
The security concerns of her publisher are a bit embarrassing, Dickey said recently, sitting in the living room of her Durham bungalow as her 12-year-old pug, Oscar, waddled around the coffee table. Nola, her 7-year-old pit bull mix, was at doggie day care.
But she said she isn’t sure how much of the anger directed at her is just posturing. “They’ll talk very cavalierly about poisoning other people’s dogs,” she said.
“The people they claim to be advocating for, they deserve better than that,” Dickey said. “They deserve somebody hanging out at city hall, not in the comments section.”