The in Arlington filled up with white-haired women and tattooed young men – and many people in between – last night to celebrate and advocate for a breed of dog they feel is maligned: the American pit bull. The occasion was the local premiere of Libby Sherrill’s documentary, Beyond the Myth, exploring breed-specific legislation and what Sherrill says is uncalled for discrimination against pit bull-type dogs.
The event was co-hosted by JP's (better known as MSPCA-Angell) and PittieLove Rescue, a volunteer organization that rescues and fosters pit-type breeds. PittieLove chooses to foster rather than shelter – they don’t even own a facility to shelter – because pit bull breeds can often go “kennel crazy."
Unfortunately, the need for adopters vastly outreaches the volunteers at organizations like MSPCA and PittieLove. According to MSCPA-Angell’s Amanda Kennedy, director of the animal care and adoption center, “In Boston and other communities that have breed-specific legislation, we have great difficulty in finding homes for pit bulls. Currently the majority of the dogs in the Boston adoption center are adolescent pit bulls, where a landlord or insurance company has said the owners can not have them in the city limits.”
In Boston, pit bulls must wear muzzles when outside and their owners must comply with other regulations.
These volunteer groups echo many of the same attitudes Sherrill presents in the documentary. “We work with a lot of pit bull-type dogs at our facilities,” says Kara Holmquist, the director of advocacy at the MSPCA, “and we are quite aware of the reputation – and we think it’s not an appropriate reputation – that they have so a lot of what we do is try to change the perception about what a pit bull is. A lot of people’s perception is what they have seem in the media but that does not reflect all the pit bull-type dogs that live with happy familes. These are stories that need to be told as well.”
One of the first things Beyond the Myth attempts to clarify is that there is no breed known as the “pit bull.” Rather, there is one specific breed known as the American Pit Bull Terrier, as well as several other breeds with similar characteristics that all get incorrectly lumped together under the name pit bull.
Beyond the Myth travels from San Francisco to Denver to Cincinnati to Miami-Dade county, stopping in New Jersey, Nashville and more along the way. The laws differ by state, county and city – some require dog and owner registration (leading to one of the scenes that elicited the most laughs, when a particularly mild-looking woman explained she is now registered at her local police station as a “vicious dog harborer”), while other cities mandate spaying and neutering of the dogs and still others have ordered that all pit bull dogs must be relocated out of the city.
The most emotional story is in Denver, where a ban on pit bull-type dogs has been in effect since 1989. There, the government and police have been very active in enforcing the legislation, leading to the death of over 4,000 dogs since the ban began, according to research cited in the film.
The film is exhaustive with such statistics, often sandwiching emotional scenes with titlecards explaining relevant details. In addition, broadcast news stories and newspaper headlines or clippings play a big role in advancing Sherrill’s argument.
In fact, the media receives possibly the heaviest criticism from the film, which accuses media outlets of agenda setting, or influencing the public by habitually showing one side to a story over another. According to statistics quoted in the film, newspaper headlines are nine times more likely to mention the “pit bull” in a headline about a dog attack than any other breed.
The final message of the film urges viewers to consider the circumstances of individual dogs – particularly the treatment they receive at the hands of their owners – rather than focusing on breeds. Several interviewees suggest that local governments take the money being spent enforcing the bans and put it toward cracking down on irresponsible ownership and education about proper dog treatment. “Educate, not legislate,” is the message du jour.
Despite the turnout for the film, the director and host organizations agree that in some ways, they are “preaching to the choir,” Sherrill says. Most of those in attendance are already proponents of pit bull breeds, and many came decked out in t-shirts supporting their beloved breed.
“The unfortunate thing,” explains Sarah Habershaw, vice president of PittieLove, “is that the ones that are here are the ones that already know about it.”
One effect that Sherrill has been surprised by, however, is the passion the film has reignited in those that already fight against pit bull stereotypes and breed-specific legislation.
Josh Sellers, clad in a leather vest emblazoned with “Ask me about my pits,” is one of these reinvigorated pit lovers. “I saw the film in Connecticut,” he says. “And the next day I bought this vest and started rescuing. It’s just two guys and four dogs right now, but we hope to expand. I watched the movie and it lit a fire inside me.”