/ 22 October 2010

No bull, life’s the pits in the ‘burbs

No Bull

A while ago, in the company of a friend, I saw a young man walking a dog — a Rottweiler. Dogs, especially the vicious ones, the friend told me, have become the measure of cool for trendy youth, something of a hip-hop accessory.

A few calls later I made contact with mechanical engineering student Sheldon du Plessis (21), a pit bull owner and resident of Kensington, Jo’burg. When we visited him for an interview last Saturday, he had invited his fellow pit bull-owning friends.

We found his friend Karl-Heinz Weber standing outside Sheldon’s family home, with a pit bull named “Killa” on a leash.

Karl-Heinz (20) is slight and has boyish looks; he wears spectacles and speaks in measured, professorial tones.

There’s a rather simple reason he prefers pit bulls, he says: “I don’t like hairy dogs.” He got his pit bull as a present in February this year. “Killa” isn’t the only pet he owns, there’s another, a “mixed breed”, that answers to the name of “Rambo”.

He’s out of a job now after working in the retail sector for two years. He wants to study chemical engineering, but first he has to work on his matric. About his time as a sales person in a luggage shop, Karl-Heinz says: “I never liked working there. We worked long hours and I couldn’t look after my dog.”

Later that same day Sheldon’s brother, Ashwin, joined us. Ashwin (19) is doing his matric and has an interest in studying photography.

A little later we were joined by their friend, Sean Cross. Sean is also doing matric and wants to study hotel management. On arrival, he was literally being dragged around by his powerful pit bull, “Trigger”.

Sheldon is solidly built, like a boxer, and is prone to long silences that are lit up by brash comments. For instance, he tells me: “I don’t lock my gate. No one will ever break into your home if you have a pit bull,” adding that if he ever felt like it, he would walk through Hillbrow in the company of his dog, “Sly”, at 3am in the morning. “The [thugs] will make way for you.”

Parallels between dogs and their owners
The afternoon was instructive on canine matters. When you have been with your dog long enough, you acquire some of its traits, Karl-Heinz says, trying to draw parallels between the dogs and their owners.

I glanced at the boys, their dogs and at the boys again and I confess I did find a few similarities.

Six people, five of them men, walking around with pit bulls. It could have been a take from a dog-fighting movie. Curious people in cars turned to take in the testosterone-fuelled sight and a certain man in a convertible slowed down and, with a sly look and in conspiratorial tones, said he was willing to wager to see the dogs fight.

That was a cue to wade into the cruelty and illegalities of the dog underworld. All were forthright in their condemnation of dog fighting, yet I got the sense that it’s something they have witnessed.

“If you have a bet and your dog dies in the fight, the owner of the winning dog will give you a puppy or something,” Ashwin says. Sean says dog fighting is quite common among adolescents: “It’s 14-year-olds who do that.”

Those who rear fighting dogs, Sheldon says, crop their ears so that they are not torn off during duels, “but it’s also done for image. The dog looks better if its ears are cropped.” But this isn’t something you can have done at your local vet. “It’s illegal, it’s underground. I can’t tell you who does it,” says Sheldon, whose dog’s ears are, indeed, cropped.

Pit bull community
Something resembling community has developed among these four youngsters. For example, Sean got his pit bull, just less than two years old, from the Du Plessis siblings when their parents complained that soon their family home would resemble a pit bull farm.

You get the sense that the dogs occupy these youngsters in the same way celebrities or girlfriends may do for others. Ashwin’s phone, for instance, is clogged with pictures of pit bulls. He even has a tattoo of his beloved pit bull, now dead, emblazoned on his right leg.

Karl-Heinz says there could be about 500 pit bulls in Bez Valley and Kensington. One imagines that if ever the two suburbs were to be renamed, the name Pittsburg would be high on the list.

In this pit bull district no one seems to celebrate the phenomenon of the pit bull in the way these four friends do. Confident, (arrogant some would say), they strut about contentedly without a care, mirroring the personalities of their pets.

They obsessively love everything about their dogs, following dog culture even on television. “Watch The Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic channel,” Sheldon advises.

The afternoon was a primer on the canine of the pit bull variety. “Pit bulls don’t like small kids; they like to get all the attention. Killa is very jealous,” Ashwin says.

A dogs world
It pricked my interest and I researched the breed further on Wikipedia. The pit bull’s forebears are the bulldog and various terrier breeds. In the United States the majority of canine fights involve pit bulls.

According to myth, the pit bull has a jaw-locking mechanism, a fact dismissed by science, but the dog does show “bite, hold and shake” behaviour. It won’t release its victim when biting.

As we walked around Kensington that afternoon, I saw the appeal of the dog. It has a street credibility that you don’t get when you walk with an Alsatian, for example. (American heavyweight boxer George Foreman alienated Zaireans by pitching up in Kinshasa for his fight with Muhammad Ali with an Alsatian, a dog that had been used by King Leopold’s police officers.)

I imagine they thought walking an Alsatian would make them look like police reservists. Scrounging around for easy metaphors, Karl-Heinz says the pit bull is the equivalent of driving around in the latest BMW.

“There are people with Alsatians, but we don’t hang out with them. You will find Alsatians in normal homes,” he says, pointing out: “I’ve never liked Alsatians.”

Karl-Heinz speaks disparagingly of mongrels, “pavement specials, crap dogs, whose parents you don’t know”.

All of them listen to hip-hop and they have a bias for the underground variety. Sean says his favourite rapper is Eminem, “that crazy white man”. I was rather disappointed that none of them said they liked the American rapper, Pitbull.

Later on, as we sat at a restaurant at a nearby mall, exhausted, Ashwin was showing me some pictures on his phone. There was a logo that said: “If it ain’t pit, it ain’t shit.”