Both books (published in fall 2012) sold well and were generally well reviewed, and Little Boy Blue has won several awards. I found both smart, interesting, and ultimately unsatisfactory. Part of my dissatisfaction came from the fact that neither author dug deeply enough, or thought hard enough, about the larger questions raised by their own dogs’ histories and the larger transport movement. The biggest issue, perhaps, is raised by a Pennsylvania activist quoted by Kavin. After pointing out that over 70,000 dogs entered Pennsylvania shelters in 2009 alone, she asks “Why the hell are these rescue groups bringing more into the state?” In other words, is it ethical to transport puppies hundreds of miles to places where thousands of other adoptable dogs are already waiting for homes?
Behind this big question lurk a host of more specific issues, including the fact that transport spreads disease and the fact that the whole movement is largely unregulated, decentralized, and thus ripe for abuse. All of these issues deserve attention (and to her credit, Kavin does address the last issue in some detail). I want to focus here on two questions: one about geography and another about breed.
Regarding geography, both Homans and Kavin take for granted that there is a clear-cut and dramatic clash between northern and southern culture regarding the treatment of dogs, as most other issues. As Homans puts it, “Most fundamentally the dog market is an ongoing transaction between the red states and the blue states, and it’s based on the same basic differences in core values that make our presidential elections so dramatic. The flow of dogs, in general, is from south to north, and from flyover country to the coasts.” Homans’s New York-centric view of the world, including a casual contempt for people who live anywhere but the coasts, is hard to stomach. Both he and Kavin find southerners to be a foreign species, radically different from those in the civilized north in every respect, including their attitudes toward dogs. As Homans summarizes, “In many places in the south and west, a dog’s life just isn’t worth as much as it is on the coasts.”
Homans’s view of the south (based on his visit to Tennessee to see the shelter where his dog Stella came from) is a combination of Mayberry and Southern Gothic. Most importantly, he believes all southerners live on small farms, which is the root of southern attitudes toward dogs: “The dog belongs on the farmyard, and the farm belongs to the farmer, and that’s the way it’s always been.” Homans apparently does not know that a large and growing proportion of southerners live in cities.
Homans's unquestioning embrace of stock images of southerners is a result of a larger sloppiness about sources, data, and the generalizations to be drawn from them. This is evident as well in his attitude about breed. He and Kavin both accept without question the (apparently) common wisdom that first, the vast majority of available dogs in northeastern shelters are pit bulls – or as Homans puts it, in New York, “mutts that aren’t part pit bull are from red states.” Second, both Homans and Kavin assume that these “pit bulls” are not going to be adopted by ordinary people looking for family pets – including themselves.
Here is Homans’s discussion (or dismissal) of the New York Animal Care and Control website of adoptable dogs (or, as he puts it “the condemned animals”): they “are mostly alert, young, healthy-looking pit bulls (at least they look healthy in the pictures), either strays or dogs surrendered by their owners. Most of them peer at the camera with the pit’s distinctive look of confident inquisitiveness – adorable. The pictures were, of course, hard to look at, one reason I didn’t look at them."
Homans never explains why his family did not bother even to visit NYACC but instead chose a puppy imported from Tennessee. His Stella arrives as a young pupy and grows into a large, short-haired, high-energy adult. Charming as Stella appears, nowhere is it clear how she differs radically from the New York-born “condemned animals” he could not bear to view, let alone visit or consider adopting.
(On a side note, the notion that Stella is mostly Labrador Retriever is oddly important to him, although he never mentions having had her DNA tested. He spends a whole chapter on the breed origins of Labradors, even though his faith that Stella is a Labrador appears based only on visual identification – and in terms of behavior, he points out that she does not, in fact, like to retrieve.)
Kavin offers a slightly longer, though no more satisfying, discussion of breed. Pit bulls, she says, “are so difficult to place with families because of stereotypes about the breed.” (This comment comes up in her discussion of the Northeast Animal Shelter in Boston, which she describes as a “utopia,” other than the fact that they refuse to accept dogs they label as “pit bulls.”) Pit bulls, she points out, are often wonderful dogs, victims of unfair stereotypes. Surely this plight is not too different from the earlier plight of mutts and shelter dogs, as she describes it: “Shelter dogs have been unfairly maligned for years as less valuable or less worthy than purebreds, when in fact they are often wonderful dogs like Blue who have simply found themselves in a tragic situation."
The image – and thus the life prospects – of shelter dogs has changed dramatically in recent years. Many dog lovers in the northeast and elsewhere, including affluent professionals like Homans and Kavin, head first to the shelter or a private rescue for their pets. This preference for rescued, usually mixed-breed dogs, is not an accident. It is the result of concerted efforts by animal advocates to change perceptions about shelter dogs and also about the "purebred" dog industry. Most Americans no longer see mixed-breed dogs or shelter dogs as inferior or damaged, and a large percentage of Americans – not just on east and west coasts – head directly to rescue groups or shelters when they are ready to add a dog to their family. (And they are also increasingly willing to adopt adult and even senior dogs, another change from a couple of generations ago.)
Given the successful transformation of attitudes about shelter dogs, the next obvious step would be to take on the destructive stereotype about pit bulls. Many groups have done this directly, and there are countless excellent models for successful campaigns, by nationally known groups such as Animal Farm Foundation, Stubby Dog, and BAD RAP. And perhaps even more effectively, in many places – including southern towns like Gainesville – pit bulls are increasingly seen as ordinary dogs. This shift has happened without much deliberate effort, simply because there are so many of these dogs that almost everyone knows one (or many) and the frightening stereotypes do not survive the reality.
Why, then, do Kavin and Homans take for granted the notion that “most people” will not even consider adopting a dog labeled a pit bull? I asked Kavin about this directly in an email, quoting the Pennsylvania activist in her book who criticized the transport network. In response to my question, Kavin wrote: “She [the Pennsylvania advocate] believes that if only rescues would stop bringing cute beagles, terriers, and Labradors from the shelters in the South, that more people would adopt the pit bulls in the shelters in the North. I just don’t believe that’s true. I don’t think that people want 'any' shelter dog. I think that people want the kind of dog that they want, and that if they can get it from a shelter, fine. If not, then they’ll go to a breeder. Do I think that’s fair to pit bulls? Of course not. But I do think that it’s the present reality.”
Even if it is true that “people” just don’t want pit bulls, the moral response to injustice is not simply to throw up one’s hands in resignation. (Imagine if advocates from other movements, ranging from women’s suffrage to civil rights, had been this sanguine about their "present reality.") However, I don’t believe it’s true that people “want the kind of dog they want.” Or rather, the kind of dog they want can change, when they have accurate information, positive experiences with both dogs and rescue organizations, and plenty of support before, during, and after their adoption. Kavin gives in way too quickly – fortunately for the dogs, many other people don’t.
All of us had trouble embracing the transport movement in any unambivalent way. While we talked about a number of problems (including the spread of disease), in the end what bothered us most about the transport movement was the fact that it creates a de facto caste system, with life or death as the result. Well-intentioned people dedicate truly enormous resources to save certain dogs without even a passing thought at other "condemned animals" much closer to home.
And on the other hand, it's the willingness to challenge injustice that makes many other dog advocates so inspiring.