I’ve been a fan of This American Life since 1996, when it first came to our NPR stations in Boston. Ira Glass has become part of my generation’s family – the bright younger brother with so much to say, and with so many fascinating points of view to juggle. I don’t exactly look for the program. It’s on WGBH and WBUR so often enough that parts of it seem to float into my brain when I’m either in the kitchen cooking or in the car driving around. I often half-hear the program, and look for it later online. That’s what happened last week when I heard Ira Glass oh so tentatively and carefully answer questions about his Pit Bull named Piney.
After I listened to Glass, I read the many blog and personal responses to the broadcast. Of course they varied wildly. When he’s not being named the sexiest man alive for taking a shelter Pit Bull into his home, Ira Glass is being roundly condemned for keeping a “walking time bomb” alive and well. I was most affected by Glass himself when he spoke about his dog and the way he loves him. I heard in his voice the tightly controlled weariness that marks the lover of a difficult and complicated animal. How could he not be worn out? He and his partner Anaheed have not had a single guest visit their apartment in many years. Nobody for dinner or for coffee or for drinks. This is hard for me, Glass admits. How could it not be? Who on the air seems more gregarious than our friend Ira? Everybody would like to have dinner with him.
The couple cannot receive guests because Piney has bitten several people, including two children, and must wear a muzzle when he walks out of the front door of their fifth-floor apartment. Back home, Piney can and will go after Ira if he dares to enter Piney’s domain when Anaheed is sleeping. You see, Piney is protecting her, keeping her safe from his own ardent protector.
Glass would be the first to admit that it is kind of crazy to defend a dog for protecting his mistress from his master, especially such a gentle master. But Glass takes his dog’s ambivalence very seriously and tries hard to understand his dog’s fearful biting. And believe me, when you find yourself “feeling” sad for the neuroses of an aggressive animal, you’re in for the whole count. I know. I’ve been there.
Not with a pit-bull, but with a border collie: the world’s smartest dog. When Ben, for that is his name, displayed aggressive tendencies, I worked all the harder to please him. Even after he bit me. You can read about our struggles in The Animals. At best, you could call our adventures mock-heroic. My husband David and I devised complicated strategies to curb the dominating nature of a dog too smart for us. After two years of extensive training with dog trainers, therapists and handlers, after trying every known device and exercise, we finally gave him away to a wonderful woman who lived on a farm. The experience was one that I will never get over.
I still sometimes dream of making the right move, saying the perfect command, of teaching Ben and me, mostly me, how to behave.
One of the best stories about a Pit Bull comes from James Thurber. In 1935, Thurber wrote eloquently and with great generosity about the life and death of his boyhood dog, Rex. His Pit Bull was “a tremendous fighter, but he never started fights. I don’t believe he liked to get into them, despite the fact that he came from a line of fighters. He never went for a dog’s throat but for one of its ears (that teaches a dog a lesson), and he would get his grip, close his eyes, and hold on. He could hold on for hours.” Thurber exults in his dog’s “Homeric” exploits, but then he writes his story the same year that Jimmy Braddock, The Cinderella Man, wore down Max Baer after fifteen battering rounds to become Heavy Weight Champion of the World. I wouldn’t argue that our culture is less bloodthirsty now, but we more often seem to prefer our violence to be “virtual.” Homeric dogs clamping down on their bloody enemies for hours, like Homeric Boxers, priding themselves on never letting go, are rare. In the 21st century, writers who defend pit-bulls tend to celebrate the breed’s gentleness. It’s the writers who fight hard, going fifteen rounds and more over conflicting statistics about pit-bull bites and their outcomes.
It’s rare that dog defenders are honest about how much their animal costs. I love dog owners, and see them on a daily basis in the Arnold Arboretum where I used to walk Ben. They usually seem to adore their dogs, no matter how much time and energy and money that their animals extract from them. I salute Ira Glass for being honest about the price he pays for love. And for making us think about the consequences of devoting ourselves to the care of animals who, given the chance, just might bite us.