Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Vicki Hearne

Revised: November 15, 2015; 18;51 GMT

In June, 1985, Harper's Magazine published an essay by Vicki Hearne with the baffling title Lo, Hear the Gentle Pit Bull!  A title this unusual requires explanation.

Hearne was an avid reader of James Thurber's dog stories, especially his Lo The Gentle Bloodhound!  Thurber borrowed the title from Shakespeare's famous sixain which begins Lo, here the gentle lark. Shakespeare's poem was set to music by Sir Henry Bishop in 1819 as a coloratura soprano aria and is still recorded to this day.

Thurber, as a humorist and satirist, was well aware of the Shakespearean and operatic associations of his title, and adapted it to suit his own needs. Most readers would instantly recognize the Thurberesque humor of associating his moody, melancholic bloodhounds with a Shakespearean lark, tirelessly singing. Hearne seems oblivious to the humor of Thurber's satirical adaptation. She may have believed she was paying homage to Thurber when she adapted his title and applied it straight across to pit bulls. But Hearne's borrowing of Thurber's title is not a true homage, as she fails to understand his humor.

Lo, Hear the Gentle Pit Bull (with the corruption of Shakespeare's here) subsequently appeared in Hearne's 1987 book Adam's Task with the title "Lo the American (Pit) Bull Terrier".

* * * * *

Early in her essay Hearne refers to an article written by an unnamed Chicago journalist, written "in the early seventies."  Hearne admits she did not read the story, which she refers to as the first of the current versions of the horror stories about pit bulls; she heard accounts of this story from friends.

It's doubtful there was such an article recounting pit bull attacks on humans in the early seventies; there were very few pit bulls in public hands at the time, and there is no record of a fatal pit bull attack from 1965 through 1975. Hearne's essay (hereinafter LHGPB) was doubtless written in response to the news accounts of pit bull attacks which appeared with increasing frequency in the early 80s.

* * * * * 

Hearne is a prolific namedropper, especially with the names of philosophers. The first five words of LHGPB give a clear indication of what the reader can expect:
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida  . . .
Derrida, the father of deconstructionism, was the most fashionable philosopher among graduate students during the 1980s.1  Hearne also casually mentions Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Kant, but fails to inform the reader how these philosophers are relevant to pit bulls or to her primary subject: dogfighting.

Hearne may be a namedropper, but she is sometimes coy about naming names. She withholds the source of her own pit bulls, for example, and declines to name her contacts in the dogfighting world. But she respectfully mentions, several times, Richard Stratton, who is known for his repeated claim that dogfighting is not cruel. And she gives a shoutout to Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, the go-to guy for friendly expert testimony on the locking jaws of pit bulls.2

* * * * *

Hearne devotes a number of pages to describing the stigma attached to owners of pit bulls. For example, she describes in detail how she is ostracized by both strangers and colleagues. Hearne offers several troubling examples, including the following:
For months, whenever Frieda's path and mine crossed on campus, Frieda sidled along the wall, as far from Belle as she could get, or ducked into the nearest open doorway until we were safely past. She behaved, in short, like a very guilty woman . . . .
There is an undeniable sense of pride and even glee in the recounting of the fear her pit bulls cause. Hearne obviously relishes the fear she arouses, and then feels stigmatized when those who fear her pit bulls respond normally and recoil from her. But there is another, even more troubling element in these passages: Hearne is disdainful of those who fear her. There is an unmistakable mocking tone in the descriptions of her frightened colleagues.

Hearne does not use the word stigma, which came into popular use among pit bull owners only in the first years of the new millennium.3 But she may have been the first advocate of fighting breeds to describe the phenomenon which later became integral to pit bull ownership.

* * * * * 

Nearly everyone who has loved a dog is guilty of anthropomorphizing their dog's behavior: we can plead guilty and laugh at ourselves for doing so. But when an author attempts to philosophize to the public about pit bulls the anthropomorphizing should be muzzled. Hearne, however, is unable to resist.
(Belle, Hearne's pit bull). . . . has an aristocratic genius for expressing emphatic approval.

I must remind you of the seriousness of mind of this breed.

Indeed, I was taking a walk one day with Belle, which is a very agreeable activity because of her meditative, philosophical bent.

The following story is a clear case of a dog giving himself the moral law.

Belle is sizing people up. Not as bite prospects, but as problems in moral philosophy and metaphysics.
These excesses would be appreciated in humorous accounts, like Thurber's. But Hearne's purpose is not to entertain; she is laying out an argument in behalf of fighting dogs.

Hearne also makes factual errors. She claims that pit bulls have existed for thousands of years. There have been terrier-like dogs and molasser-type dogs and wardogs for thousands of years, but there were no pit bulls before the Elizabethan era. Pit bulls as we know them today did not exist until the nineteenth century.

Hearne also errors in conflating today's bloodhound with the ferocious bloodhound of the nineteenth century American South, a wholly different breed now extinct. The bloodhounds we know today are descendants of dogs bred by St. Hubert, a 7th-century French monk, and are still sometimes referred to as St. Hubert hounds.  Hearne mistakenly claims that Thurber's gentle, melancholic St Hubert bloodhounds, which graced the pages of The New Yorker from the 1930s through the 1960s, are related to the terrifying bloodhounds used in the nineteenth century to chase and dismember escaping convicts and slaves.4

* * * * * 

When Ms Hearne finally abandons her philosophical pretensions and writes openly about dogfighting her writing is transformed; it suddenly becomes transparent and her intentions become clear.
. . . but at the center there is nonetheless awe and admiration in the presence of a beautiful and nearly pure cynosure: when Bull Terriers fight, what we see approaches a Platonic form. We are compelled by dogs and dog fighting . . .

. . . not only is it not cruel to "roll" them; it is cruel to prevent them from fighting.

. . . [to fight dogs] can be called kind because it answers to some energy essential to the creature.

For fighting-dog people . . . the combination of traits called gameness is in fact emblematic of glory, nobility, discipline in the old sense.

All I can do is brood about the intelligence and moral soundness of the fighting breeds and of the people who love them.
Ms. Hearne is revered as an animal trainer, philosopher, and as the first literary advocate of pit bulls. It has been nearly 29 years since her essay was published in Harpers, a period during which there have been at least 294 fatal pit bull attacks on humans.5, 6 There have been thousands of attacks which maimed or caused permanent disfigurement. There have been countless fatal attacks on our more vulnerable animal companions and other domestic animals, including horses and llamas.

Ms Hearne's legacy as a pit bull advocate has been indelible, but after 29 years and 294 fatal pit bull attacks it is time for a reassessment of that legacy. In Lo, Hear the Gentle Pit Bull, her signature article on pit bulls, Ms Hearne's philosophy romanticizes the nobility of dogfighting.

The thousands of individuals who rescue and advocate for pit bulls must realize that the godmother of the pit bull advocacy movement glorified the violent behavior of pit bulls.

* * * * *
1 The list of Derrida's detractors is long. Richard Wolin wrote that Derrida's work inevitably "ends up by threatening to efface many of the essential differences between Nazism and non-Nazism." (Wikipedia)
2 See Locking Jaws and Letter to Dr Brisbin.
3 See Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
4 See Cuban Bloodhounds (Retrieverman, Aug 2, 2011)
5 See the archival record of Fatal Pit Bull Attacks.
6 In 1980 there were 2 fatal pit bull attacks; in 1981 there were 4; 1982, 3; 1983, 7; 1984, 5; in 1985, the year Hearne published her essay in Harpers, there were 5 fatal pit bull attacks. In recent years there has been one fatal pit bull attack on a human nearly every two weeks. If this average holds steady there would be 725 fatal attacks in the next 29 years.

The editors are indebted to Barbara Kay of the National Post. Her essay Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Mysterious and Disturbing World of Pit Bull Advocacy appears in her recent book Acknowledgements (Freedom Press Canada, 2013).

A Note on Thurber's Dogs
   Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, November 1, 2012
   August 27, 2001
   Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1987
 Lo, hear the gentle pit bull!
   Vicki Hearne; Harper's Magazine, June 1985
Lo, the Gentle Bloodhound!
   James Thurber, Holiday, September 1955
Snap-shot of a dog
   James Thurber. The New Yorker, March 9, 1935

Lo, here the gentle lark
    from Venus and Adonis, by William Shakespeare

Lo, here the gentle lark, weary of rest,
From his moist cabinet mounts up on high,
And wakes the morning, from whose silver breast
The sun ariseth in his majesty;
Who doth the world so gloriously behold
That cedar-tops and hills seem burnish'd gold.

Venus salutes him with this fair good-morrow:
'O thou clear god, and patron of all light,
From whom each lamp and shining star doth borrow
The beauteous influence that makes him bright,
There lives a son that suck'd an earthly mother,
May lend thee light, as thou dost lend to other.

Statistics quoted on SRUV are from the nation's authoritative source for current dog attack statistics, the 32+ year, continuously updated Dog attack deaths and maimings, U.S. & Canada.
View or download the current PDF

Dog Bite Studies Index

Today's pit bull attacks
   Google News

This page may also include information from Dogsbite & Fatal Pit Bull Attacks.

SRUV uses the definition of "pit bull" as found in the Omaha Municipal Code Section 6-163. As pit bulls are increasingly crossed with exotic mastiffs, Catahoula Leopard Dogs and other breeds, the vernacular definition of "pit bull" must be made even more inclusive.

Sources cited by news media sometimes refer to "Animal Advocates" or sometimes "Experts." In many cases these words are used to refer to single-purpose pit bull advocates who have never advocated for any other breeds or species of animals. Media would be more accurate to refer to these pit bull advocates as advocates of fighting breeds.

Similarly, in many cases pit bull advocates refer to themselves as "dog lovers" or "canine advocates" and media often accepts this usage. The majority of these pit bull advocates are single-purpose advocates of fighting breeds.