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A recent piece at CNN stated that animal shelters are having more and more trouble placing big dogs. They call the problem "big black dog syndrome":

Nobody tracks the problem nationally, and local shelters often keep only limited data on the sizes, breeds and colors of the dogs that are adopted or put down, according to the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"But anecdotally," said Stephen Musso, executive vice president of the ASPCA, "that's what we hear from shelter after shelter: Big, black dogs just don't get adopted."

While this would seem to be a trendy issue (tiny dogs are all the thing these days for the celebrities) there is a literary component that can not be discounted:

Then there's the reputation. The idea of a big, black dog unleashing destruction is a common theme in books, movies and folklore as diverse as "The Hound of the Baskervilles," the "Harry Potter" series and "The Omen."

Even the common sign "Beware of Dog" depicts a big, black dog, teeth bared and gums dripping. The notion that the animals are menacing is so pervasive that Winston Churchill famously called depression "the black dog."

It was oddly coincidental that this article would appear right after I posted about the effect of fairy tales on historic and modern treatment of wolves. Terri Windling at Endicott also recently had a post up on those very same fairy tales as she looked at variations on the Red Riding Hood story told in poetry. She offers links to several poems including one written from the wolf's perspective by Agha Shahid Ali. Here's a bit of "The Wolf's Postscript to "Little Red Riding Hood":

First, grant me my sense of history:
I did it for posterity,
for kindergarten teachers
and a clear moral:
Little girls shouldn't wander off
in search of strange flowers,
and they mustn't speak to strangers.

In an older article Terri wrote on the history of Red Riding Hood, she traces the story back to fears of werewolves in older versions. The more common story most of us are familiar with, written by Charles Perrault in the 17th century, came about after werewolf tales were widely discounted. Perrault was using the wolf as a metaphor as he explained at the end:

"Now there are real wolves, with hair pelts and enormous teeth," he writes, "but also wolves who seem perfectly charming, sweet-natured and obliging, who pursue young girls in the street and pay them the most flattering attention. Unfortunately, these smooth-tongued, smooth-pelted wolves are the most dangerous of all."

While folklorists will embrace Perrault's use of the metaphor as a warning against dangerous men, biologists see a disturbing correlation between the story and the continued fear of wolves - a fear that far outstripped that of other animals such as bears, members of the panther family and even elk or moose (who have Bullwinkle to thank for an opposite problem - people don't realize they can be dangerous if provoked).

Coupled with the Riding Hood story was the infamous "Three Little Pigs" and the Seven Imps with Adrienne Furness highlighted the blood thirsty nature of that tale in a post a few days ago. In both cases the wolf takes advantage of unsuspecting and foolish or naive victims. In the end though he gets what he deserves and this continued fear that wolves will take advantage if given a chance continues to permeate our interactions with them in terms of wildlife management.

The irony is that wolves are hunted for being wolves - and yet people can still do outrageous things such as bait bears with donuts in order to gain their trophies more easily. And don't even get me started on trapping wolves that stray out of national parks. I'm sure the sight of escaped wolves with snares hanging from their necks is going to really enhance the wilderness experience for tourists at Denali this summer. Hopefully the biologists will get to them in time to save a few. At what point did we decide that maimed wolves were good for the wilderness experience - or that it was still okay to torture this particular animal?

Shades of the noble woodsmen yet again.

How this prickly path leads back to Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds is not so easily explained and yet the modern myth of pit bulls and other large dogs bred solely for purposes of fighting is a story that bears some looking into. Paging through Donna Long's photography title, The Best Dog in the World, shows many pictures at the turn of the 20th century of very young children with bull terriers - the dogs, praised for their loyalty, were often employed as "canine babysitters". It was only after German Shepherds and Dobermans and then Rottweilers were all feared as fighting or aggressive dogs that Pit Bulls ascended to the top of the list of feared canines. This dates back to twenty years ago when Sports Illustrated put a pit bull on the cover under the headline "Beware of This Dog". The irony is that the picture and accompanying article is widely credited with turning the pit bull into the fighting animal of choice among young men looking for excitement.

The fact that fear of pit bulls has now bled over into fear of big dogs (and big black dogs in particular) is disturbing to say the least. The Best Friends organization is currently embarking on a ground breaking study to determine if fighting dogs can be rehabilitated. As the recipient of 22 of Michael Vick's former pit bulls, they are uniquely positioned to learn just what happens to dogs who are forced to fight for sport and if they can have meaningful and safe lives after rescue. The study will continue for the length of the dogs' lives and should impart an enormous amount of research on not only the specific breed but the emotional wellbeing of fighting dogs.

It will show just what happens when the fighting finally stops.

As to what any of this will do to for the reputation of pit bulls or other large dogs is anyone's guess. Wolves have suffered from a bad reputation for hundreds of years purely through the use of powerful stories and it shows no signs of abating.


Most ranchers despise wolves because of the threats they pose to livestock—24 cattle and 173 sheep have been killed by wolves in Idaho in 2006. On the flip side, 42 wolves have been killed for preying on livestock in Idaho this year. An additional 19 have been killed for other reasons.

Several hunting groups are also eager to see the wolf population thinned because they claim the predator has decimated elk and deer populations.

Ron Gillett, chairman of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, is determined to rid the state of wolves. Last spring, he attempted but failed to place the issue on the November 2006 ballot.

A former river outfitter who lives in Stanley and owns the Triangle C Ranch lodge, Gillett believes wolves are the "most cruel, vicious predators in North America."

The Gray Wolf was recently delisted from the Endangered Species Act; since then four wolves have been killed in Wyoming; hunting will resume in Montana and Idaho this fall.

[Post pic: the fellow at the top is up for adoption in the DC area; the pit bull was one of Michael Vick's dogs - you can sponsor Halle or other dogs like her. You can also "adopt" a wolf via Wolf Haven.]

comments

Bernie Powers Author Profile Page

I read up your earlier post - interesting that in England, the encouragement of wolf hunting began with the expansion of the wool industry, but though the economic reasons have faded, the myth still survives!

"Gillett believes wolves are the "most cruel, vicious predators in North America.""

This was funny - how we fail to know ourselves? How we like to project our unacknowledged, unrecognised flaws onto others.

Is there an animal motif for the kind of witlessness this person shows? - I fear it is but a human trait.

I really thought that Alexandra Day's Carl books had made Rottweilers appear friendly to kids--the reverse of the image they had while I was growing up. And, after all, the big black dog in HP turns out to be a good guy, right? I take your point about wolves, though, absolutely.

Libby - I also felt that the "Carl" books had done a lot to make the Rottweiler a loveable image. I was more surprised to see Labs included on that list...isn't the Black Lab the ultimate American dog?

I think it is just that big dogs are used (whether they turn out to be friendly later or not) as initially fearsome creatures. I've always had big dogs and lately it seems that every child we encounter is terrified at first - I have no idea why but it is noticeable.

Bernie - I did not know about that historic twist on wolves and sheep. Very interesting and it makes perfect sense. The problem with a myth though is that once it is out there, you can't bring it back.

The best take on the humans/wolves/sheep triangle that I know of is Rosemary Sutcliffe's Warrior Scarlet, set in Bronze Age England. The other large predators were perhaps less terrifying because they stayed away, but the wolf was just outside the light of the campfire...

Terry Author Profile Page

Thanks for bringing attention to this important issue. I have always had black dogs and I think they are just wonderful. Stereotyping of any kind is a bad idea; you really need to look beyond the surface and focus on a being's core substance. Black dog lovers will enjoy Pam Townsend's book Black is Beautiful, available through www.pgspca.org (all proceeds benefit her local SPCA).

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