I Traveled Across the U.S. for the Love of Pit Bulls
When I tell people that my new book, I'm a Good Dog, is all about Pit Bulls, the reaction falls into two possible camps. First there are the people who say, brimming with enthusiasm: “Really?! That’s fantastic. They deserve it.” Often these are Pit Bull owners or friends of Pit Bull owners. The other group says, with confusion, “Really? Are there a lot of people who read that kind of thing?”
(A third group rests comfortably in the middle, asking, puzzled, “Is there some big deal about Pit Bulls?”)
Of course, when I set about to write it, I already knew that there were Pit Bull lovers across the entire country. I was convinced of that back in 2006, when my memoir The Dogs Who Found Me was published with a portrait of my dog Sula on the cover.
The first printing was fewer than 2,000 copies, a minuscule number that reflected my publisher’s lack of confidence in the title. And then a funny thing happened: They had to do a reprint the first week it was on sale. In the end it was reprinted 14 times, with larger quantities in each order.
As I visited bookstores to promote it, I found crowds of strangers waiting for me, only because the dog on the cover -- a Pit Bull -- looked like their dog, and they’d never seen their dog on the cover of a book before. By the time I appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air, I had decided already that my next book would be all about Pit Bulls. But getting it done wasn’t so easy, because in the publishing world, people were still “afraid” of Pit Bulls.
Six years later, I was on the road again, with I’m a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America’s Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet. Combining history, science, and anecdotes with full color photos throughout, it's a book no one wanted to print six years ago. Times have changed, and publishers have realized what the rest of us have always known: Pit Bull owners love their dogs, too.
This time, my travels started in Las Vegas on October 25 and covered most of the country before Christmas. I traveled up and down the West Coast, visited the Midwest, and managed to hit Boston for a Nor’easter and New York City while it was still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. Touring to promote a book can be draining, but when there are dogs waiting to greet you at each stop, it helps an awful lot.
Denver has a ban on all Pit Bull-type dogs, which means that any dog who might look like a Pit Bull can be euthanized. Because of the zigzagging boundaries of Denver's city limits, it is possible for the people across the street to be able to keep their dog, while you may not.
Given all of this, I wasn't sure it made sense to go to Denver, yet I also felt that in spite of this, it didn't make sense to avoid it. On Tuesday morning, I handwrote notes to each of Denver's city council members and then set out to deliver a copy of I'm a Good Dog to each of them. It was a bit of a scavenger hunt. I also stopped by the city's lavish but strangely empty animal shelter.
The event, at the Tattered Cover, was a huge success, with exiled Denver residents attending accompanied by photos of their outlawed pets. Westword, the weekly newspaper, posted three stories on the book and my appearance. My favorite of these is the last of them, which features a gallery of photos, which includes photos of dogs who could not attend.
In Chicago, I met, for the first time, Karen Morgan, the wonderful photographer whose work fills the book. The packager who designed the book found her through her work doing portraits of people and their animals; in particular, people and their Pit Bulls. A Pit Bull owner herself, she fell in love with the breed after her first dog passed away and she went to the shelter to find someone who might fill the whole that was left in her heart. She hadn’t planned on adopting a Pit Bull, but that’s what she drove away with.
“I took him outside to sit in the sun with me,” she told me. “He was skin and bones, mange, missing hair, and couldn't walk upright from being in the crate so long. Lenny stretched out on his back and put his arm around my legs. He was coming home. I remember thinking on the way home, wow, my parents are going to be surprised when I tell them I adopted a Pit Bull!”
One of the last pieces I worked on for I'm a Good Dog was the story of Hamsa, the jazz-singing Pit Bull in an East Village bar. I was in NYC last winter, putting the frantic finishing touches on the manuscript, when I walked past Louis 649 and saw the photo of Hamsa perched behind the bar with a welcoming paw gesturing to the camera. I decided he had to be in the book.
Hamsa sang at our publication party in November, just hours after the bar's electricity was restored from flooding during Hurricane Sandy. He signed, or pawtographed, every book that was offered. And just before Christmas, he passed away. He was a good dog. You can watch him sing a tune here:
I’m a Good Dog is a celebration of Pit Bulls. Their friendship, their lessons, and their love stay long after they have gone, just like any good dog.
Ken Foster lives in New Orleans with his dogs Brando, Douglas, Paul, and Bananas. In 2008, he founded The Sula Foundation, which promotes responsible Pit Bull ownership through low-cost training, vaccination clinics, and spay/neuter. He is also the author of a collection of stories, The Kind I’m Likely to Get, which will be reissued in a special digital edition this spring.
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