His smile was gigantic as he flopped lazily upside down in his trainer’s arms, fresh off a spectacular performance of athletic prowess that both delighted and titillated his cross-species audience.
Justice had made a long and difficult journey from the pit bull fighting circuit on the East Coast to his joyous and inspiring performance at the third annual Texas-sized Pittie Pride Festival in downtown Austin on Sunday.
This fantastic creature was the answer, plain and simple, to anyone who has ever been snowed by the erroneous idea that pit bulls are, by their very nature, killing machines.
On the contrary, Justice was pure joy embodied.
His lean, red-gold body turned flips some six feet in the air as he caught Frisbee after Frisbee between those much-maligned and highly misunderstood jaws. Nearly 200 pit bulls yelped and barked and hooted their pleasure, a playful and excited audience.
“When they love you,” said their owner, LeRoy Golden, by way of explaining the ease of training pit bulls, “they’ll do anything for you. And that’s part of their problem.”
Meaning that when Justice and other pit bulls are taught by their owners to fight other dogs, or to become vicious guard dogs, they will comply out of love and loyalty.
Their very nature, as it turns out, works against them in the wrong hands and feeds into a misperception that ends every day with thousands of pit bulls being abused by ignorant owners or put to death in shelters because fear and ignorance stands between them and loving homes.
Loving and trusting humans that seek to do them harm or turn them into killers, in fact, may be the only downfall of a breed that is regularly and unfairly brutalized by society - particularly by a lazy media beast that needs a demon to sell to an ignorant and reactionary audience.
(And believe me, as a member of the media, I know of which I speak on that point.)
Sunday’s event, organized by the advocacy group Love-A-Bull, Inc., was a celebration of pit bulls in recognition of the group’s Pit Bull Awareness Day in Austin.
Starting with a parade down Congress Avenue and ending with several hundred dogs and owners at Republic Square Park downtown, the festival featured training demonstrations, live music, and a presentation by Tim Racer and Donna Reynolds, who rehabilitated the so-called “Vick dogs”—survivors of the horrendous dog-fighting ring for which football player Michael Vick spent time in prison.
(Racer and Reynolds say some of the Vick dogs will never be able to live normal lives, but that many are doing well and that they did much to advance understanding and compassion for the breed.)
The festival sought to encourage responsible pet ownership as well as set an unofficial world record for the most pit bulls in one spot.
Since Guinness doesn’t do breed-specific records—who knew?—there is no actual record to either set or break.
But not even halfway through the day, 9-year-old Eviaiha Smith registered her tiny, mewling pit bull puppies—Danger, Fat Lady and Big Man—at numbers 190, 191 and 192. And she didn’t need Guinness or anyone else giving her a reason to be there. She was bursting with pride in her family’s ten pit bulls—only three of whom joined them on Sunday.
“They’re just so fun," she said, stroking Danger’s gray fur.
Ever since the Centers for Disease Control released a study in 2000 suggesting that pit bulls were more dangerous than other breeds (a study that the CDC itself has since debunked, and admitted was flawed, for a dozen reasons) the American Pit Bull Terrier and, perhaps more tellingly, dogs that simply look like them, have been persecuted in a manner that recalls villagers, torches and Frankenstein.
“I didn’t notice anything different about her until people started looking at her weird,” said 35-year-old Brigid Creger of her first pit bull, Abby.
A blond, well-coiffed mom, wife and supply chain analyst in Cedar Park, Creger hardly looks like the stereotypical thuggish pit bull owner. She’s a well-spoken, mainstream suburbanite and looks, well, like most of the people who were hanging out with their pit bulls on Sunday.
At Mud Puppies doggie day care and grooming in Austin, owner Edward Flores says his shop has never had to turn away a pit bull for behavioral problems. One of their clients is a wonderful, well-behaved 95-pound pittie named Blue who had been turned away from every groomer and doggie day care in town, by owners who took one look at the massive broad chest and huge grinning maw and made a snap decision.
Blue, Flores said, is a joy to have in his facility and has never had any issues getting along with humans or dogs.
But that kind of info doesn’t stop people from condemning them as an entire breed—and using them to criticize and judge their owners.
Creger said she gets grief all the time from her neighbors, coworkers and others about owning two pit bulls in the same home as her 3-year-old daughter, Madelyn.
It seems to be the one way in which people in this mind-your-own-business society are still comfortable attacking someone’s parenting skills, in fact.
Several parents on Sunday said people seem to have no qualms at all—from close family friends to random strangers—in bringing up their objections to them owning a pit bull with a child in the house.
Michael and Whitney Cavazos said they were lectured by “everybody” when they chose to bring Tank, a powerful blue pit with a spiked collar, into their home with their infant, Dominik.
Is it understandable that someone would not want an animal around that’s capable of hurting their children—even on accident?
Sure. In that case, where are all the advocates for bans on horses, cats, and—in the case of one infant death reported by the Los Angeles Times some years ago—Pomeranians?
People describe them as “scum” on websites, and they divorce Facebook friends who try to defend them. Lawyers publish web pages touting their perceived dangers and inviting people to file money-grubbing class-action lawsuits against pit owners. Cities like Miami and Denver pass pit bull bans only to see their dog-attack statistics unchanged from the likes of cities such as New York and Chicago, which don’t have bans and have seen up to 90 percent decreases in dog bites in the last 30 years.
Their critics trot out myths to back their vastly unresearched opinions, the most popular of which is the completely false one about pit bulls’ jaws locking on its targets and that unproven theory that pit bulls are ticking time bombs.
These people vigorously defend a mysterious willingness to decide that one highly publicized pit bull attack means all pit bulls are alike, much like the indefensible position that one undocumented immigrant from Mexico means that all Latinos swam the river to get here.
Among the most embarrassing and irresponsible factors in all this is the treatment of pit bulls by the news media.
We in the media like stories about bad guys, and we like stories that draw high ratings/hits/circulation numbers. Pit bull stories, unfortunately, make it easy to do both because they let us play on fear and ignorance while skimping on time and facts and increasing our audience.
But some stories simply don't have two sides.
In covering Sunday's festival, I’m not going to drag out the cursory anti-pittie quote from a victim because, frankly, while the experience was horrific, being bitten by a dog does not make them experts on an entire breed.
I’m not going to talk to your typical man-on-the-street because, frankly, while they may have consumed lots of stories about dog bites, simply watching TV does not make them experts, either.
And as a member of the media, I'm not going to be dragged into a CYA-inspired back-and-forth that gives ink to unsubstantiated rumors simply for the sake of appearing to be fair. This is a common trick of the media that occasionally fools even the most discerning viewer/reader/listener into thinking we're actually being balanced.
(Allowing someone to parrot untruths unchecked is, actually, unfair and intellectually dishonest, and it's time the media quit doing it. But that's a WHOLE 'nother essay...)
On Sunday, the story simply was that hundreds of beloved pit bulls and their proud owners turned out to show society that these dogs, like Justice, can be pure bundles of joy. And, with or without the audience, to just celebrate their dogs in a nonjudgmental environment.
And it’s a role she’s taken on enthusiastically and, thankfully, with some success.
“I’ve changed a lot of minds,” she said.