“The emotional trauma of being hunted by a vicious animal can last for generations.”
I stood upon the fence until the dogs had reached the cotton press. In an instant more, their long, savage yells announced they were on my track . . . Every few moments I could hear the yelping of the dogs. They were gaining on me. Every howl was nearer and nearer. Each moment I expected they would spring upon my backexpected to feel their long teeth sinking into my flesh. There were so many of them, I knew they would tear me to pieces. Twelve Years a Slave, 1853
The dog ward is quiet in the early afternoons, its charges stunned into silence after four chaotic hours of morning kennel cleaning. In the animal shelter, which is housed in a windowless former bread factory, time is marked by sound and smell. As the sun rises and sets over New Lots, a half-neighborhood, half-wasteland nestled in the outer reaches of eastern Brooklyn, the acrid chemicals of early morning give way to the smell of ripe excrement. The fluorescent lights flicker and eventually dim, and the cavernous halls fill with the staccato cries of dogs realizing they won’t leave their kennels until the following morning.
The early afternoon offers a rare window of silence and rest for the dogs, who sprawl out on fresh blankets and doze. When I key into the new intake ward, the steel door swings open and the silence erupts into cacophony, cage doors rattling with the tantrums of two dozen pit bulls. In the back of the ward, at the end of a row of kennels filled with strays and yard dogs and police intakes belonging to men who were stopped and frisked on the streets of New York, I find my charge for the early afternoon: a big, loping Cane Corso named Disel.
Disel is in lockup for biting. It’s unclear to me exactly how bad the bite was, or whether it happened at all—police officers are known to exaggerate, swaggering up to the intake desk with embellished tales about the half-eaten corpse of the intake’s deceased owner. Disel is a “repeat offender,” brought in as a stray five months ago and later reclaimed after a lengthy dispute with his owner, a drug trafficker, about the dog’s legally mandated neuter surgery.
We stroll lazily back and forth across the stark concrete yard in the bleary August sun. As our time together nears its end, I bend over to pick up my leash from the bench. Disel presses his wet nose against my ankle. “You smell something, big guy?” I coo as his sniffing intensifies.
Some dogs hate the prospect of going back to their kennels and throw accompanying fits. As I slowly shift my foot away from Disel to prepare for my usual tantrum-prevention routine—which involves tossing a trail of treats on our way into the building, or skipping and singing a little song—I suddenly feel his jaws clutch my ankle.
My eyes flash red. He stands between me and the leash on the bench. I scream as loud as I can for help, knowing that my screams are unlikely to penetrate the thick metal door.
In 2013, a lifelong obsession with all creatures great and small led me to what I believed was a dream job in the budding behavior department at the city’s animal control center. Referred to by employees as “Dog Rikers,” the facility serves all five boroughs and fields an average of thirty-five thousand strays and homeless animals every year, funneled in twenty-four hours a day by police, city bureaucrats, landlords, and the steady flow of families being priced and booted out of Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx.
On my first day, I walked into the break room beaming at the sea of Black and Brown faces. After nearly a decade of working in doggy daycares and humane societies, where “diversity” was limited to the occasional redhead, I was enthusiastic to be working alongside colleagues who reflected the community I had left behind in my hometown of Oakland. A few of my new coworkers sat listlessly in the break room, crowding around the sole charger strip and mainlining fresh air through the slit-like windows. I introduced myself to each person in a show of California friendliness. “Hi, I’m Kelly! I work in behavior! I used to clean kennels, too!”
“Girl, they gon’ wipe that smile off your face!” hollered an old-timer. The roomful of men erupted with low chuckles. My smile faded as I realized the narrow windows did nothing to ventilate the shelter stink.
That afternoon, the shelter manager issued me a small rectangular device with a bright yellow button. “I almost forgot to give you a panic alarm,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ll never need to use it.”
But rumors had already reached me, suggesting otherwise: There was the former volunteer with a punctured skull and traumatic brain injury from an unpredictable St. Bernard; a kennel worker who had been bitten on his “walking” arm so many times in his quest to be known as a good handler that he could no longer recall an exact number. I begged the old-timers to teach me a leash technique that would throw a makeshift muzzle onto a fractious dog in one fluid sweep of the arm. I became obsessed with my dog-handling skills, lazily lassoing the toe of my own sneaker as I browsed intake records on the decrepit office computer. I know what I’m doing, I found myself thinking as I cracked open the kennel doors of growling dogs and hissing cats. Soon I was muttering it aloud as I shuffled through the murky corridors on my daily rounds.
After a debridement surgery that leaves me with less tendon, bone, and skin than I started with, I wake up in a county hospital hooked up to a lattice of IVs. A concentric ring of rust-colored bursts adorns my sheets like tie-dye. My fingertips are raw and red. My mind shifts from the hospital room to the eternity I spent dragging myself along the concrete, getting up as Disel released his grip before being pulled back down.
I know that the incident lasted ten minutes. The images that remain are snatches of memory, increasingly obscured by my nightmares. Sometimes they appear in black and white, flickering with static, a rendition of the low-grade surveillance footage my coworkers refused to share with me.
In my hospital bed, I dig back into the moments before and during the mauling. I recall that Disel’s tail was wagging, a playful glint in his eyes. After the shelter porter’s attempts to beat him off with a broom, his tail kept wagging, though he whimpered in confusion as he strengthened his bite. “Did he think we were playing?” I wonder.
The memories flicker between my own perspective on the ground, looking up at the grim faces of witnesses, and that of the surveillance camera mounted high above. For some reason a VHS film aesthetic begins to mimic, then superimpose, footage from the beating of Rodney King, images long etched in my memory. I picture King lurching his bloody body up to feebly crawl away before the crack of another stroke falls on his spine. As I fade away to my own morphine drip, I hear the voice of my coworker screaming.
“Can’t somebody just kill the goddamn dog already?”
The day after I am released from the hospital, reports begin to roll of Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of Ferguson police. My waking hours are spent flashing in and out of the present, pain and waking dreams so debilitating that all I can do is lie prone on the couch, watching British reality shows and refreshing Twitter for updates from Ferguson’s brewing uprising.
In brief moments of full consciousness, the question still nags at me: Why didn’t Disel let go? Was his behavior an anomaly, or is this more common than I’ve been willing to admit? I pore over the animal psychology textbooks I’ve relied on since I first started working with dogs, and when I don’t find answers I blow my meager worker’s compensation allowance on more books. B. F. Skinner hints that aggression in animals is a learned response to punishment; Dr. Temple Grandin points to elevated testosterone levels; Dr. Sophia Yin advocates the importance of preempting aggression with low-stress handling techniques. Yet these experts give no explanation for a sustained attack like Disel’s. Science can’t fill in the gaps this time.
In my couch-bound universe, I descend into internet rabbit holes, watching amateur documentaries about the O. J. Simpson trial. I watch Rodney King trying to stand up over and over again, his impotent crawl indistinguishable from my own. Why, I wonder, does he keep getting up?
In the meantime, concerned friends and relatives forward cute animal videos to me on Facebook Messenger. “Check out this big baby!” reads one message, along with a YouTube link to a video called “WORLD’S BIGGEST PIT BULL!” I click the link out of habit, but am immediately drawn to the thumbnail of a related video—a diminutive Black man in a marshmallow suit goading a 100+-pound dog lunging at the end of a chain, gently whacking the top of his thrashing blocky head with a bamboo stick. “Controlled aggression,” reads the description. “Most reliable protection dogs available.”
I realize the video is not only an ad for a trainer, but a trainer who raises and trains trap dogs like Disel to maul trespassers. For days I binge on the trainer’s videos, watching him stoke aggression through play in his dogs as early as eight weeks. I comb the internet for any and all protection dog training videos, stopping only to sleep in feverish, nightmare-addled bursts. Police dog trainer videos begin to overlap with amateur guard dog trainers and I realize they all socialize in the same circles, show up to the same competitions, and play by similar rules. The only difference is that police dog standards are far more ruthless.
After a few months I’m encouraged by loved ones to go outside. As I learn to walk again, each slow step reignites the burning pain in my tendon and bone. Yet I begin to regain strength as I cane through the streets of New York to march (slowly) for Black Lives. I scream, “Hands up, don’t shoot” until my voice is hoarse again, for the first time since I screamed for my life in the yard.
One day I make it all the way to the train and ride from Brooklyn to Harlem, where I collapse, exhausted, at a research terminal in the Schomberg. I search for the word “dog” in the vast archive of independent Black newspapers. To my surprise, the search yields hundreds of results in Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star, including a column in which Douglass warns of their alacrity, aggregating and reprinting ads, including one from 1848 by slave trackers and kennels in local broadsheets: “There is no creature more faithful and true than a good dog, and yet bad dogs are sometimes very cruel and bloodthirsty. But the worst of it is, men are often worse than dogs, for they teach dogs to be worse than they would otherwise be.”
Though Douglass owned a loyal pet mastiff that closely resembled the one who mauled me, he drew a clear distinction between those who were used for work or companionship, and those who were trained by people to harm other people. As I read accounts of bloodhound survival in slave narratives, I realize the sensation of being hunted by an animal is a human experience like no other. Remembering my own experience of being dragged along the ground by a dog, the sensation of teeth sinking into bone, I feel as if the genetic memories embedded within me are also unleashed: I’m flooded with the sense of being hunted down by vicious bloodhounds while fleeing slavery, attacked by German Shepherds for demanding civil rights. It all seems related: my desire to get back up and drag myself to safety, my fierce will to live, my compulsion to try and problem-solve my near-death experience, my fixation with the natural world. I am part of a legacy of suffering and resistance, a path that could never have been forged without attempts to understand the behavior of nonhuman animals.
I wake up and reach over to grab my phone. It’s four in the morning, and there is a new message from my mom: “Check out this weird post from your cousin.” Attached is a screenshot of a Facebook post—a selfie of my cousin with a smiling pit bull, captioned with a boast that her son tried to train a trap dog. “I got love for the both of them,” my cousin proclaims. I shudder, yet I am filled with a strange sense of affirmation because someone else in my family is as passionate about training dogs as I am.
I begin to rethink Disel’s life, his owner’s motivations. In the face of police violence, mass incarceration, and the absence of economic opportunities, I see how training a trap dog might become an act of resistance for some. After all, the police come for us with their own dogs.
I slide my phone away and roll over, ankle aching, eyes burning. It has been two years since the attack. For the 730th night in a row, I pray in vain for a full night of sleep.
The way I live and move in the world is different since the incident. I exist in a shifted reality, one I share with thousands of others who have been hunted down and attacked by law enforcement, military, border patrol, or drug enforcement K9s. It would be so much easier if I were suddenly wiped clean of my obsession, if I came to hate dogs altogether. But I still crane my neck out of car windows to watch pit bulls trot across the street, gasping with delight. The dogspotting is different when I’m on foot—if any dog gets within three feet of my leg, my scar begins to throb, my body tenses up, and I involuntarily jump to safety, sometimes bursting into tears. After centuries of control over our surrounding flora and fauna, people have drifted from the kind of hyper-vigilance that characterized our days as prey. But once you’ve faced the trauma of being eaten alive, it does something to reignite that ancestral fear, the impulse to constantly check over your shoulder.
In September, news breaks that attack dogs were deployed on nonviolent protesters at Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota. I want to shout that I am not surprised; I want to have already warned them. Thanks to my training and my own private research, I know that nearly every law enforcement body and private security force in America employs weaponized dogs to quell crowds, track down unknowns, and threaten trespassers. I know that, in contrast with other forms of “nonlethal force,” using dogs to professionally maul people inhabits a legal grey area, because this unique form of violence distances order-giver from perpetrator. I know that clarity about the role these dogs inhabit within law enforcement is further blurred after decades of K9s being used as fuzzy public-relations props—it’s impossible for most laypeople to distinguish a heroic search-and-rescue dog from a patrol dog.
I imagine how water protectors at Standing Rock must have felt, being hunted by vicious animals. It’s an experience no one should endure, and I know that the emotional trauma can last for generations. Given my ancestry and my own experiences as a Black woman in America, I am intimately acquainted with the feeling of being hunted—in a surveillance state, in the wake of mass incarceration, and in the military-style police occupations of Black neighborhoods.
After a months-long trial, it was decided that Disel was unable to be rehabilitated. But his being put to sleep hasn’t freed me from this feeling of being hunted. How many other Disels come through the shelter on a daily basis? How many more are embedded in American police forces?
Healing will not come with the euthanasia of a single dog, nor will liberation follow after staving off one dog, one handler, or one department. True freedom comes from being a part of something bigger, a tradition that dates back hundreds of years, a movement bringing people together to liberate themselves from the hunt.
I’m writing this from a motel in Idaho, a pit stop on a road trip to North Dakota, where I will visit Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to share nonviolent self-defense skills I have gleaned from professionals accustomed to encountering dogs—from former police dog handlers to wizened mail carriers well-versed in martial arts. I’ve returned to my longer-term plans to run a dog attack self-defense workshop and write a handbook, projects I have been building toward for years. It is my duty to do my part to prevent others from enduring the kind of trauma, chronic pain, and unending nightmares that have come to comprise my own life. Perhaps it is by inhabiting this space as a survivor, harnessing my experiences to help others resist this form of violence humans inflict on dogs and on each other, that I will continue to heal myself—and, someday, somehow, find a night when I will sleep for eight hours straight.
Kelly is a former dog wrangler who writes on our society's complicated relationship with animals, and its inexorable connections to race and class. Her work has appeared in The Awl, The Toast, Motherboard, and elsewhere.
She loves all dogs unconditionally (and some cats, too).