Josh Shaffer

Pit bull author’s critics are off the leash – Shaffer

For several years now, Bronwen Dickey has sought to rescue the pit bull from its own bad press, tracing the vilified breed’s history from “The Little Rascals” to Michael Vick’s fighting rings, seeking to know how and why the world labeled it a monster.

Four years ago, in a story for “Garden & Gun,” she described choosing her own tan and white pit from a shelter, naming her Nola and assuring her mother that she did not have a death wish.

Then earlier this year, the Durham editor and author published “Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon,” a book The New York Times called “a thoroughly comprehensible tour of genetics and behavioral science,” explaining “why breeding never guarantees an individual dog’s personality, and shouldn’t be used to condemn it.”

Backlash began as soon as the book gained publicity. Pit bull haters threatened to flood Amazon with negative reviews. Dickey’s named turned up on Facebook pages dedicated to disparaging the controversial dogs. All of this is to be expected. Nothing triggers a good Internet trolling quite like an animal story.

But the scorn turned scary and personal last week when Dickey, 35, began promoting her book in the Triangle. A critic at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham grew unruly enough that Durham police came and escorted Dickey out through the back door. I wasn’t there, but to hear Dickey describe it, the heckler positioned himself on the stairs, blocking the way out, and demanded to know how many pit bull attack victims she had interviewed, and when other audience members asked that the conversation move on, he started “ranting and raving and waving fliers,” Dickey said.

Regulator co-owner Tom Campbell said this marks the first time the book store has called police during a reading, though it has kept officers on-hand during appearances by both UNC basketball coaches Dean Smith and Roy Williams – a nod to the proximity of Duke University.

Then this week, an anonymous Facebook group called Pit Bulls and Amputees posted a picture of Dickey’s house online, writing, “What famous author's home do you think this might be? That's right! It's Bronwen Dickey's residence.” Another anonymous message, posted earlier, warned, “We will destroy her.” Dickey filed a harassment report with Durham police.

I’m not here to referee an argument over dog breeds. You can easily check the bite statistics, which pit bulls tend to dominate. And you can just as easily read how biased and misinformed those statistics are, driven by both media reports and cases of mistaken pit bull identity. I’m sure you’ve heard the argument that dogs are the products of their owners and their environments more than their breeding, and you can decide for yourself.

But I am here to call out cowardly and depraved attacks on an author whose only offense is to hold a debatable opinion. I’d also like to suggest that we completely discard Facebook as a forum for civilized discussion. This sort of anonymous venom, spewed out with no purpose other than stirring ruckus, has grown so typical of social media that I wonder what other purpose it serves.

The cretin or cretins who run Pit Bulls and Amputees dragged out James Dickey, Bronwen’s father, who wrote the novel “Deliverance” and won a National Book Award for his poetry. He was also an alcoholic. “Her father would roll over in his grave and grab a fifth of Jack Daniels if he knew what a pile of garbage his daughter was getting to dump into the public domain,” writes the great Facebook wit, who goes on to ridicule and misspell Dickey’s first name.

At various places in this collection of rants, the poster declares that critics don’t need to read any of Dickey’s book before attacking it. They also mount a vigorous defense for their need to stay nameless and avoid harassment at work or at home – a defense that would hold water if they hadn’t drawn their fellow trolls a map to Dickey’s house.

You’re not hearing from the authors of these posts because they responded to my request for comment by blocking me from the page. So I’ll issue this final judgment. Being a bully is one thing. Being a bully who hides his face is another.

I’ve met and written about dog bite victims – pit bull cases and otherwise. My own son has a bite scar from stitches on his lip, left behind by a greyhound. I have owned and adored a pit bull mix. I know how high emotions can run.

Dickey spent seven years researching her book, interviewing 350 people, including bite victims. It’s too thorough – almost academic at times – and too honest in its intentions for anyone to describe it as propaganda. Any writer, including me, invites criticism. But before you go bringing up somebody’s departed father, or directing angry people to somebody’s front door, imagine yourself on the receiving end of that trolling.

And here’s one last ultimatum from a columnist whose soapbox time has expired: If you really want to trash somebody, have the decency to put your name on the trash.