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About the book...

When graduate student Jere Alexander began her research on human-animal relationships, she couldn't have foreseen that months later she would find herself embedded in the illegal underground world of professional dogfighting. Follow her harrowing journey from student to "dogwoman" to director of one of the largest animal shelters in the United States, a position that would lead to a battle against public hate and persecution.

This is the diary of one dog-lover's nightmare.

Jere has written a real page turner; I had trouble putting it down. For millenia the relationship between the game animals and humans has been based on admiration. Today, sadly, it’s a mish-mash of everything but admiration for the animals and the gameness. Jere’s journey through the landscape of post gameness dog fighting shows the twisted nature of both animal abuse and “humane” work today. Whether you agree or disagree with her ideas, you will be taken on an honest, unforgettable ride.
— Diane Jessup, author of The Dog Who Spoke with Gods and The Working Pit Bull.

From the Preface:

I fell in love with pit bulls because of my rescue pup, Idgie. She started this whole business. She grew into a pit bull and filled my whole heart. My family always had dogs growing up, but never a pit bull, and I had a lot to learn about this breed.

I was surprised when I read about the history of the pit bull as a fighting dog. I had been an ardent PETA activist in college, and a vegetarian most of my adult life. Over time, the more I read about pit bulls and dogfighting, the more disturbed I became.  I realized that all the media attention around pit bulls masked a complex set of social problems, with scary implications for them and anyone who loved them. 

My girl somehow set me on a path that led from pit bull rescue to graduate school, and then from dogfighting circles to shelter politics. Idgie died in 2013 at the age of 13, and with her passing I feel like an important chapter of my life has ended. Well, almost. I can't speak for the many dogs I met, but I can bear witness.

In 2002, after almost a decade of practicing law, I went back to graduate school in Gender Studies, at first part time. I ended up researching how the prejudice against pit bulls was related to gender, race, class, and culture. My Master’s thesis was called “Let the Dogs Do the Talkin’: Dogfighting and Marginalized Masculinities.” I looked at representations of pit bulls in hip hop media and Southern literature, and argued that racism between certain groups of men was being played out symbolically, and all-too-literally, through these dogs.  At that point, I was hooked on academic study, and so I shifted careers and worked toward becoming a professor.

I went on to Emory University's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts to continue my research. My professors at Emory were not satisfied with me writing about pit bulls in books and the media. They said that to write about dogfighting, I needed to learn from the people who knew what they were talking about: dogfighters. I was incredulous.  I worried I'd hit a dead end, or even end up dead in the trunk of a car. But the more I thought about it, I couldn’t argue with their logic. After a lot of teeth-gnashing, I decided to try.  I studied with an anthropologist adviser to learn how to do ethnographic research, which is “participant-observation” of a culture. It means hanging out with a group of people and trying to understand their norms and views.

In old-school anthropology, this usually meant going to an “exotic” locale, making a lot of so-called objective observations about another culture, and translating them back for an academic audience.  But anthropologists have tried hard to throw off all those old colonial underpinnings.  Now we also do anthropology close to home since there are many different cultures right under our noses, even though most of us live in a bubble, as I certainly did, in the ivory tower.  We also try to pay attention to how our own presence influences and even co-creates the research.

Doing this kind of research came with a lot of red tape. There is an Institutional Review Board that has to pre-approve all research with human subjects, mainly so that people are not exploited.  That meant I had to keep the names of my research participants completely confidential.  Still I wondered, who would be honest with me about their illegal activities? 

I was shocked to find my way into a subculture of "gamedog" fanciers, which included dogfighters, breeders, and also many others who simply revered pit bulls and their history. The people who participated knew about my research and agreed to be part of it. I was not undercover, like some sorts of journalists might be. There were a number of older men who had participated in dogfighting in their younger days, but retired as times changed and risks escalated.  And many people were surprisingly open! They wanted to defend their way of life.

My research consisted of spending time with participants—mainly white men in the rural U.S. South, and their families and dogs. I tried to record everything I saw and learned, and process my thoughts in my research diary. I never wrote down names or identifying info about the people or dogs.

Those aught years were truly pivotal for pit bulls. Ten years ago, they were much less accepted than they are today. The average person in the U.S. was deathly afraid of them. Breed-specific legislation was making its way across the country. During that time, Michael Vick played football, went to prison, and went back to playing football. In doing so he ushered an awareness of dogfighting into the mainstream. Before Vick, dogs seized in dogfighting busts were never re-homed; they were always euthanized. Champion or no, the dogs always lost. Dogfighters were a bit more open before all that, less underground. I don't think it would be possible to do the same research today.

Once I finished the ethnography, I went to work managing a large inner-city animal shelter. I desperately wanted to help animals rather than just write about them. I was able to advise other scholars, animal welfare workers, law and policymakers, and serve as a pit bull guardian. But the shelter work was so disillusioning; pit bulls were under attack from all quarters, and my good intentions put me in the crossfire of conflicting agendas. I had a blog at the time where I wrote about my life and dogs, but with so much outrage, I closed it to the public. A reader wrote about what happened, starting here.

After all that, I didn't have words to finish my dissertation, but the dogs told their stories through me. They poured out in unlikely places, in thread on old linens and scraps of fabric. I was able to find peace tending my brood and woodstove, and wielding a needle and thread. I had adopted a number of dogs during my research and shelter work and they inspired many pieces.  My pit bull embroideries found an audience, and I found communities of art and animal lovers.

I spent far too long in a world that defies the understanding of animal lovers, and sharing my research will bring light to this shadow world. I can only hope that it will help us all question our prejudices, our impulse to demonize all that is Other, and hold in love all the dogs who have been silenced.

There but for the grace of Dog.

Kindle E-BookPaperback, and Autographed Paperback now available!

Cover illustration "God Only Knows" by Allyson Mellberg Taylor.  

The title is an homage to the dramatic poem Et les chiens se taisaient written in 1946 by Aimé Césaire.