Today we're talking with Anne Calcagno, author of Love Like a Dog
FQ: Any reader who delves beyond the first few chapters in Love Like a Dog, realizes that you have a passion for animal rights, especially those of the pit bull. Can you tell us why you are so enmeshed in this cause?
In truth, happenstance intervened in the form of an animal shelter. My daughter wanted to volunteer and needed an accompanying adult. And so, I discovered dogs (having always had cats). Today an average 67% of shelter dogs are pit bulls or pit bull mixes so you can’t volunteer and ignore them. Our planet has accumulated an overwhelming number injustices – human trafficking, massive starvation, genocides. I did not focus on animal rights because I deem it the most essential of all issues facing humanity. But, in the plight of the pit bull, the door opens onto historical memory loss, illegal underground economies, and cultural prejudice and profiling. This situation became urgent in me, and I plunged headlong into writing. Over 200 counties in The United states have breed specific legislation against the bully breeds, that is, pit bulls are forbidden in these counties, that is they face obliteration, genocide. I believe that, once we decide that “deleting/removing/re-positioning” a group of human or non-human animals is our moral right, we next justify social and judicial constructs to legalize our murders.
FQ: Dirk’s father told him that “Pits’ll do almost anything for their master.” Do you have a special story that has been relayed to you, perhaps one of a pit that has rescued its owner?
Though it is not true for every bully breed dog, in general I would describe them as tending toward a very determined independence. It is this quality, mixed with devotion and a high tolerance for pain, that enables them to fight to the death for their master. For one, the terrier gene can make them pretty darn insistent. Then, when you consider that they were bred centuries ago to take biting hold of a stag, boar, hog or bull, and cling until that animals’ mad fight for life was over (which is when the hunter/butcher could approach safely), you realize the magnificent tenacity these breeds were called to. They live up to our hardest tasks for them.
It is critical to understand, however, that in contrast, up until recently a human-aggressive bully breed dog was considered unacceptable and unwanted by the best breeders. The human-dog bond was expected to be as strong and tenacious as the working skills of the bully breed. That Helen Keller owner a pit bull evidences how once upon a time in America the perception was that the pit bull was a sublimely trustworthy dog. A U.S. World War I propaganda poster adopted an American Pit Bull Terrier as its symbolic mascot with the logo: “I’m neutral BUT not afraid of any of them.” How precisely to point out the pit bull’s capacity to judge appropriate behavior. Its first choice is dependable alert neutrality.
Ignorant dog fighters seek deranged dog equivalents of Jeffrey Dahmer and Lizzie Borden for special breeding, and deliver dangerous monsters. This incompetent breeding is a total denial of the human-dog bond potential.
FQ: Rescue leagues have a difficult time placing mixed breed pits or pit bulls. Why don’t people want to take them? Are they simply a “misunderstood” breed?
I highly recommend Karen Delise’s book, The Pit Bull Placebo and her site: http://nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/ for a thorough examination of the myths surrounding the bully breeds. Her Facebook page quotes Jonathan Swift:
As the vilest writer has his readers, so the greatest liar has his believers; and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it.
Falsehood flies, and Truth comes limping after it; so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late, the jest is over, and the tale has had its effect:
In the 19th century we trusted phrenology, that “science” which charted character and human value according to the shape and protuberances of the skull. This allowed us both slavery and colonialism. In the Victorian Age, we corseted women, then theorized that their fainting spells proved of female weakness. And what deranging McCarthyism? It is not a far stretch that we now trust crazy fallacies about pits. We’re a fallen species.
A bully breed puppy is likely to be quite a handful, a real inventive mischief-maker in need of loving firm discipline. Frankly, I would describe my son exactly the same way. Fearless and adventurous. Not for the faint of heart. Plus, when you bring a pit bull into your life, you will deal with judgment and anger from other dog and non-dog owners. Which is disheartening and tiring, and must be considered before adopting a bully breed. But if we increase the number of bully breed stewards, people who raise their pits forging a mutually meaningful human-dog bond, then others will slowly learn; “Hey, this one’s not bad.” Then these two, then one hundred…? My favorite bumper sticker is: Punish the deed not the breed. Which I’d apply to all animals, human or not.
FQ: You briefly mentioned that this book was seven years in the making. It’s a powerful work ... can you briefly tell us how the novel evolved in your mind?
Because most writers support themselves through another job, few books are a start-to-finish continuity. There are many interruptions. In my case, I realized that if I did not leave my tenured professorship, I would not write another book for a long time, at least not until my children were grown. So I resigned. And teach only part-time at the school of the Art Institute.
Then I began researching pit bulls, including getting our beloved Qalilah, who is now almost eight. I found muyself struck by how many children have an immediate rapport with animals. Kids implicitly trust nonhuman animal sentience and share the language and love of play. My son acted braver with a dog curled next to him, protected and protecting. The Texan writer William Goyen described waiting impatiently to receive (from the sky? The muses?) a sufficiently compelling narrator’s voice; it had to compel. A lonely, troubled, but resilient boy, started talking in my head. I wrote the novel to better hear him. I struggled a long time with Dirk’s flawed father, Russ Seward. Because he had to have, like all of us, some redeeming qualities. I sculpted and rebuild him, again and again. I also danced and tripped and lost my step in and around Pheobe. I wanted her to attract Dirk without having to turn LLAD into a traditional love story. Because the dogs are the love story. I attribute these difficulties to my first impulses toward judgmentalism. I had to gain experience and wisdom, which only come with time. Full characters are faceted, complicated and contradictory. Or so I hope.
Of note, I read about an Illinois felony case in which someone working high-up for the Forest Preserves District used his access rights to stage night-time dog fights. I stole that for my plot.
FQ: Michael Vick was convicted for his role in a dog fighting ring. Why aren’t more people convicted of this heinous crime when, as you stated, there are “twenty-five police districts in Chicago [and] dog fighting has been reported in twenty-two of those districts?”
I had nearly completed LLAD when Michael Vick was arrested. He brought a useful spotlight on dog fighting among elite sports professionals (among others). Previously, basketball and football stars had merely been fined for this activity. But it is a testimony to how secure we are in our right to dominance over other species that – now that he is playing again – people get angry that he was ever barred temporarily from playing. If we don’t believe that being a rapper justifies pedophilia, why do we believe that being football excuses animal cruelty? This is an example of how big business takes it upon itself to override justice. Gandhi, who took a vow of poverty, said; The moral progress of a nation can be judged by how it treats is animals.
There is a devoted volunteer court advocacy group in Chicago called D.A.W.G. (Dog Advisory Work Group). They attend animal abuse and dog fighting court cases, creating public visibility for and records of these cases. Cases are routinely delayed or dismissed; witness don’t show up, warrants are rescinded. Though dog fighting is a felony in Illinois, hardly a handful of cases have resulted in incarceration. The police and judicial systems penalize the crime of dog fighting much more lightly than any sale of pot or pills. Dog fighting has thus increased exponentially into a vibrant national underground economy, graced with the extra glamour, spilling top down, from our very well remunerated sports heroes.
FQ: There are other breeds that people seem to be leery of. In your book you recommend several sites for people to explore that are devoted to “bully breeds.” Perhaps you can explain to us what a bully breed is and why they too, they are difficult to place.
I completely defer to the webpage “History of the Pit Bull” on Diane Jessup’s informative website: http://www.workingpitbull.com/history.htm
You learn how the bully breed has been represented in art and texts since well before the 1700s.
The term “bully breeds” has come about because official dog breeding and conformation registries classify what is colloquially termed “pit bull” as three distinct breeds: 1) the American pit bull terrier, registered by the UKC and the ADBA, 2) the American Staffordshire terrier, registered by the AKC, and 3) the Staffordshire bull terrier, registered by the AKC and the UKC. Sometimes the bull terrier also gets lumped in as a “pit bull.” Because the denomination “pit bull” has been mis-applied to bulldogs, mixed-breeds, presa Canerios, Mastiffs and other dogs, concerned bully breed lovers take care to distinguish their breeds, also to quell mis-identification.
FQ: Many of the scenes in Love Like a Dog are graphic and heartbreaking. Perhaps you can tell us about a scene that was particularly difficult to write about.
I had not realized, until I began to study breed lines, how many dams are force-bred. One imagines a dam in heat and an untouched sire simply go at in a fun rumpus. In fact, females will adamantly reject unwanted male advances. Breeders, for better or worse, become technically invested, and thus forceful, in forwarding desirable physical and/or temperament traits.
In Marc Joseph’s book, the photographic panorama American PitBull, he shows the contraption used for breeding unwilling females. Picture an old-fashioned stock with a hole through which the muzzled bitch’s head is inserted to get the idea. Her head is actually locked into a black metal horseshoe-shaped clamp, while her belly and groin are lifted up by central pole that holds her raised backside for ease of penetration. This breeding scene feels to me like a rape, and was hard to write.
Then I had massive trepidation about writing a dog fight scene because of the awful prurience associated with watching dog fights; people attend for the thrill, the danger, the delicious illegality. If I pandered to that instinct, I would achieve an end opposite to that intended. I struggled with that quandary intensely.