RILEY has had trouble sleeping ever since he was left in this pen, its gate locked, its concrete floor hosed off every morning. He hates the constant barking either side of him, that deep ruff-ruff bark, deep as a dungeon. He's enticed by dozens of familiar and strange smells emanating from the drain. He's confused by passers-by who peek in, murmur an apology, and don't yell at him. For them, Riley curls his backside into view: nice tight skin, nice silky coat. Then he turns, brings his pant front-and-center for an even better display: cropped ears, massive chest, wide mouth, viselike jaw, sledgehammer head, lodgepole neck. And his disposition (let's not get too carried away).
Riley's handler (I'll call him Reggie) used to praise his three-year-old, praise Riley can still hear -- You're just the best or You got game, boy, you got it, you little monster. The gashes on Riley's face and neck are still not healed. They'll be scars. And because of them, most visitors who peer in and lock eyes with Riley will turn away in fear, not get to know the real pit bull. One thing Riley can smell is fear, and fear means something worse is coming. But if you look close you can also see wonder in his green eyes: How long am I in here for? Where's Reggie?
(I'll tell you, Riley: he's moved on to bewitch another best friend.)
Riley was dumped by Reggie in a creek bed near a construction site in North County. Neighbors reported Riley and another dog running loose at the site; one construction crew tried to approach them, but the dogs were frightened and growled. Starving, Riley and his pal would creep toward the lunch wagon, unable to resist the smell of burgers on the grill. But the dogs balked at food offered from a human hand. Eventually the workers called the animal shelter, who set up a Have-a-Heart cage. Riley went in for the bait, and a door clanged shut behind him. He was wearing a brown, studded collar. No name was on it, so the shelter gave him one.
If the histories of other abandoned pit bulls (which the North County shelter sees all the time) are a guide, then Riley was probably trained by Reggie for a year to become a fighter. Such training commonly consists of both discipline and torture. It's safe to assume that Riley was short-chained to an engine block, run for hours on a treadmill at tongue-flapping speeds, and forced to sniff gunpowder, which drove him berserk as he tried to get rid of the fire. One day, after several early battles against weaker foes, Riley was put against a big pit bull (I'll call him Hurricane), 65 pounds and a lot meaner than Riley. During the prefight, refereed ritual, both dogs were washed and dried to remove the possibility of poison. They drank from a water bottle but not before the ref had each man drink the water himself.
The ref called the dogs and handlers to the wooden pit. "Face your dogs," the ref said, and Hurricane and Riley were set at their scratch lines, 14 feet apart, each dog's head and shoulders held between his handler's legs. At "Scratch!" the dogs were let go. They charged; each went for his opponent's neck, each used his front paws and chest to climb the other's maw into the snarling air. Riley fought on and bled; Hurricane fought on and bled. Neither quit. Reggie kept yelling, C'mon, Riley, get him, tear that son of a bitch to pieces. Hurricane's handler did the same. The match roared on, 15, 20, 30 minutes. Periodically, the fight was stopped and a new scratch called. Each time, the dogs raced at each other with locomotive speed. Gashed about the face and neck, Riley was weakening fast, needing sutures to staunch the blood. But he'd never quit, because that never quit is in him -- in the push of his paws, the bite of his maw, the pop of his head against the other dog's head. At 45 minutes, Reggie picked Riley up. Game over. Winner: Hurricane.
For Riley, it had all been about pleasing his master, returning to Reggie the loyalty that Reggie had bestowed on him. After all, Reggie often cuddled him and fed him raw meat for supper. And during the fight, Reggie pulled him from the pit just when he started gagging on his own blood. Now, in the pen, Riley is sniffing near his scrotum and he finds a trace of unlicked blood. Ah, the scent reminds him of how he got into this predicament -- doing what Reggie wanted him to do. But Riley also got into this because he didn't do what Reggie wanted him to do -- lay waste to every foe.
How did Riley end up afraid, angry, and allied with Reggie? Is it something in Riley or something in Reggie that's responsible for the pit bull's nature? Natured or nurtured, this dog's exploits are the stuff of legend. When bad dogs -- those who fight and maul and, on rare occasion, kill -- get into the papers, the coverage suggests that all pit bulls are a menace; of those who attack, they may kill without mercy.
In Westchester County, New York, a two-year-old pit bull named Mr. B, who had recently been abandoned, placed in an animal shelter, and adopted by a woman, "jumped off her lap, ran into the kitchen and attacked Mrs. Page [a tenant and friend of the woman's], biting her in the face.... She bled to death as she was being rushed" to a hospital. The dog had "no history of behavior problems. There was no growling, no barking. The dog jumped up and suddenly began attacking her for no reason. The dog just went nuts."
In Dallas, "American Airlines banned aggressive dogs from its planes after a pit bull escaped from its cage in the cargo hold of a Boeing 757 and...gnawed a hole in the bulkhead, damaged the cargo hold door and chewed through garden-size electrical cables." (The meal of wires did not bring the plane down.) In King City, California, "Three pit bulls were shot and killed by police after they went on a rampage, attacking and trapping a frightened woman inside her truck for nearly half an hour. No one was hurt, but the animals caused about $400 in damages to the truck and a police car, puncturing tires on both vehicles and damaging the body of the truck."