Cujo's bite is worse than his bark

The main pleasure in owning a pit bull is in detonating a sense of fear in your neighbors

Published November 20, 1997 10:21AM (EST)

We were walking along a few days ago, me and my dog Sadie, who looks
like a black Irish setter. She's a great dog, as feminine and dignified and
gentle as a deer; a little co-dependent, a tracker by trade. It was a
strange day, because the sun was shining through the drizzle. "Must be a
monkey's birthday somewhere," a man from my youth used to say when the sun
shone through the rain.

We passed the slightly creepy house that we pass every day on our way to
town, a house where a dog barks behind the fence off and on all day. A
second dog barks every so often, but mostly you hear just the one. There is
something a little disconcerting about the whole feel of the house, and I
don't think it's just that every time you pass it, you get barked at by an
invisible dog and watched by a silent one. It's that you never have a sense
of human life being lived there. Sometimes there are lights on at night,
sometimes not. I don't think I've ever seen actual people there, neighbors
you might wave to, people taking out the trash or bringing in the morning

One very foggy spring night when we first moved to this neighborhood, we were walking
with a 16-year-old friend from Hawaii. We passed
the house and saw the shadows of a man and the two dogs on the porch. And
our friend from Hawaii whispered, "I think it's a Nightmarcher."

This is the story she told us that night, one that I've associated with
this house ever since: On the big island of Hawaii, there's an isolated
piece of land between the two volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. There's one
rough crummy road that runs through the land, with lava fields on both sides.
There's always mist along the ground, like smoke. And once a month, on the
first night of the new moon, when there's no light in the sky except for the
stars, spirits walk the island roads. Most are not bad unless they're
interfered with on their march by ignorant or foolhardly people. They're
just spirits who walk to the sea once a month, who may need to pass through
your house on the way. So on that one night every month, people leave two
doors of the house open for them to walk through, the mauka and makai
doors -- mountain-side door and sea-side door.

But besides these good spirits, Nightmarchers pass through, too.

"What did they look like?" Sam asked.

She claimed not to know because it was too scary, but told me later,
privately, that they had red eyes and soft footsteps. They were big, dark
spaces, darker than the night. People-shaped patches of darkness that moved
things around like little winds.

So yesterday Sadie and I were walking briskly along, across the street
from the house, when I looked over and saw a pit bull standing out on the
sidewalk. It was white with black spots and longish legs and that weirdly sweet
look they have when they're not attacking you. I said to Sadie, like a
priggish mother, "Just keep walking," and then as impossibly swift as
swallows changing direction in the sky, he glided over to us and sank his
fangs into Sadie's neck.

Sadie yelped and howled and I screamed and screamed and the pit bull
made the evil guttural growl of a dog who is entirely in alligator brain. He
did not let go, he stayed locked in the death grip I have read about, and I
screamed for help and started kicking at him, which seemed to annoy him about
as much as a horsefly might. I jerked on the leash and kept yelling,
"Please someone, help us, help us," really afraid that it was going to turn on
me and tear my leg off. I wasn't brave at all. I was frantic and too afraid
to try to pull him off with my bare hands and Sadie was yelping with agony
and the pit bull hung like a jagged vise, snarling in one long, long bite.

I saw a blur and terror really kicked in -- I thought it was another dog --
but a tall man with long hair and delicate features rushed over and started
yanking at the pit bull's collar. Then a uniformed woman stepped forward, an
Airborne Express delivery person holding a large cardboard box, who brought
one corner of it crashing down on the pit bull's head. And finally the dog
just let go.

I bent over Sadie, who was frantic, whining, trembling, panting. And I
was panting too. I ran my hands through her fur looking for blood, but there
was only a thick Jurassic coating of saliva on her neck and back. The
long-haired man sat 10 feet away, holding down the dog, who could not have
looked sweeter, his head cocked with curiosity, like what were we going to
play next? Kill the kitty?

All of us were panting -- the street heroes, both dogs and me. The pit
bull was not wearing any tags, and none of us knew what to do. I thought
about Sam, imagined him trying to pull the dog off Sadie, which he would have
tried to do. I shuddered. Then we all started talking about pit bulls.

Pit bull owners always explain how really docile the breed is; how 99 percent
of them make wonderful family pets. Well, a lot of us -- 99 percent of us -- don't
actually consider them to be pets. They're not even watchdogs -- they don't
bark. They just kill things. So here's what I want to know: Why do you need
to own one of these weird unpredictable raptor jump-dogs? Have you ever
heard of a golden lab that chewed through a fence to get at a toddler? I am
going to get letters from pit bull owners whining about what great animals
pits are, and this in advance is my response: Thank you so much for
sharing. Why didn't you get a dog that's nice? Why did you go and
buy Cujo? What kind of person brings a pit bull into a neighborhood where
every other house has kids living there? Why, if you want a pet, would you
pick one who mostly behaves itself but can have one fluky little bad
day, and on that bad day kill a child? Let me tell you what happens when
Sadie has a bad day: She sneaks up on my bed when I go out, and she
sheds. Bad dog, Sadie!

After a while, the delivery woman had to go -- I suppose she had to deliver
the box she'd conked the dog on the head with. Finally the long-haired man
and I tied the dog up outside his house, and I took Sadie home. She was
still shivering and her eyes were terrorized.

At my house, I wrote a note to the dog's owner -- I assumed he had one,
because he had a fancy collar on. I included my name and number, and put it
in a plastic sandwich bag, and walked back to where the dog was tied up. He
was very glad to see me. I was no longer afraid of him. For some reason, I
just assumed he was no longer in attack mode. He licked my hand as I taped
the sandwich bag to his collar. I went back home, called Sadie's vet and
made an appointment to bring her in. Then I called the Humane Society and
told them that my dog had been attacked by a pit bull, who was now tied up
just down the street. They said they'd sent someone to pick him up.

Sadie spent the day being treated for shock, and one badly abraded patch
of skin. I spent the afternoon trying to decide whether or not we should
move. There are actually two pit bulls in the neighborhood, because Sam is
friends with the boy who owns one of them. The boy keeps explaining how
sweet their dog is, how sweet most pit bulls are, and I've always let Sam play
there before, because he and the boy do their homework together, and I like
this kid's family. But now I feel more anxious. What I am going to say next
time he wants to go over? "Here honey, don't forget your binder paper -- and
the pepper spray."

I'm very angry with pit bull owners. You have 100 great breeds of dog to
choose from, and you pick the one bred to kill? "OK kids, time to
decide -- I say we go with the beagle. No, wait, never mind -- let's get the pit
bull." You get a pit bull only because you want to detonate a sense of fear
in others, and you do: When we see your dog, we take our children to the
other side of the street, we take them out of the park. And I think it's
a chickenshit thing to do, to get other people to feel your fear for you.

Anyway. Later that day a woman from my neighborhood came up to me at
the market and told me she'd heard the commotion out in the street. Then
she told me two things: that the pit bull lived in the Nightmarcher house,
and that when the animal control people came to take the dog away, a cop had
shown up too.

Then I got really afraid. I wished I had not left the dog's
owner or owners a note with my name and phone number on it. I knew
intellectually that the dog's owners are probably perfectly good people, but
by then I was really spooked. I started to imagine answering the doorbell
one night, but finding only a tall dark space, darker than the night; a
people-shaped patch of darkness, moving things around on my porch like a
little wind.

However, the owners haven't called. When I got up the next morning,
Sadie still seemed depressed and skittish, but I figured she'd be her old
groveling geisha self in a few days. I figured we could stay in, chill out
until then. But then my friend John Kaye called to see how she was doing. He
calls her Said-ele. He seemed to be having a little vicarious guilt about
the attack. When he was 12, his family lived down the street from Peter
Lorre in L.A. and one awful day, John heard that cringey Germanic purr on the
phone. Peter Lorre wanted to speak to John's father, because their German
Shepherd had killed Peter Lorre's little Yorkie. The Yorkie wandered into
the Kayes' front yard one night, and the Shepherd apparently had a
little ... confusion. "Ate him right up," John told me once, but he said it

"Look," he said over the phone, "that pit bull's not going to get out
again for a long time. You've never seen him before, right? And you've got
to take Sadie for a walk this morning. You've got to put her back on
the horse that threw her. However, by the same token," he added, "I would
not go by that house without a tire iron."

So I took Sadie for a walk, right past the house where the pit bull
lives. What else was I going to do -- get her a treadmill? No, she's a tracker.
She lives to walk along sniffing things. And, anyway, you just can't stay
holed up. You've only got this one mongrel life, and you don't want to spend
it hiding indoors; pretty soon the menace is everywhere and you're left
worrying about what's going to rise up out of the basement. You have to wear
down the fear. You can't kite yourself up over the places you wish did not
exist. You have to suit up, show up, move on through. The good news is that
the joy is on the other side of the dark stretch of sidewalk. Also, you can ask
someone to walk along with you, someone or something you trust. So I decided
to be that person for Sadie and help her take back her joy in the street.

I brought along my metal tennis racket. I felt a little foolish,
because it was drizzling, but I did it anyway. It must have been some other
monkey's birthday that day, because a slanted ray of light shone through the
murky clouds. Sadie began pulling on the leash in panic as we approached the
house where the pit bull lived. For the first time in ages, no one barked at
us. Things were perfectly quiet at the dark house. Sadie tugged me along,
tense as a rat. I felt a little helpless and scared, but I told her what a
brave dog she was, and how soon this trouble would pass. I had her leash in
my left hand, the racket in my right, and I walked along practicing overhead
smashes, just in case. I really got into it, finally, into these very bouncy
balletic Maria Buena overheads. Maybe it was a version of whistling past the
graveyard. Maybe it was what someone once said, that as long as you're
walking on thin ice, you might as well dance. But at any rate, half a block
past the house, Sadie finally slowed down to her usual doggy pace, and when
we'd gone a few feet more, she raised that sweet black head and joyfully
began to sniff the morning air.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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