Goodbye to Barky, Who Perhaps Never Knew She Was a Pit Bull

I did not know that Barky was a pit bull when I got her, in the fall of 1998, as I was going -- ignorantly, in so many ways, as it turned out -- into my second year of law school.
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I did not know that Barky was a pit bull when I got her, in the fall of 1998, as I was going -- ignorantly, in so many ways, as it turned out -- into my second year of law school.

The people who'd found Barky in New York's Riverside Park told me she was a Staffordshire terrier. I'd grown up with golden retrievers in the Rhode Island suburbs; I did not have the Internet in my apartment. I brought home the wiggly 10-month-old orange dog with the huge ears.

The guys who kept up the all-night underground pharmaceutical market on my corner whistled when they saw Barky. "Nice pit bull," I kept hearing.

I'd correct them. "She's a Staffordshire terrier."

Finally, I went to the library and looked at dog books. Staffordshire terriers, I learned, are a type of pit bull. Pit bulls, the plodding 1998 Internet told me, when I finally got to it, were likely one day to snap and bite me on the jugular.

But it was too late; I loved Barky already. Over the next years, she went on long walks around New York with me. She was a regular at the law school (my mother later said Barky was Columbia Law School's first pit bull graduate). When my ill-advised boyfriend and I broke up, in the middle of winter, then over and over again during various other seasons over the course of several years, Barky took to sleeping under the covers, with her head on the pillow. I'd never known a dog with funnier ears. My life had problems, to be sure -- I loathed being a lawyer; I was irresistible to terrible men -- but my jugular was fine.

In early 2002, with itchy feet and a deep fear of a terrorist attack on the subway, I took a one-year legal job on a small tropical island near Guam. The island had a four-month quarantine. My parents agreed to take care of Barky while I was away. One year turned into two. Barky's head got used to my parents' pillows; her tummy got used to my parents' home cooked meals. Then she came down with a blood disease the vet said would kill her within months. We were devastated. Barky lived. She was then diagnosed with cancer and was given another death sentence, that she again defied.

"She loves eating chicken too much to die," my mother told me on the phone.

By the time I came home from the island, five and a half years after I'd left New York, I was through being a lawyer and my parents were too attached to the now somewhat grey, still wiggly dog they'd nursed back to life, twice, to give her up. Barky had officially become the sweet, spoiled and beloved family dog, which she has continued to be for going on 98 dog years now -- which might be shocking to the judges of Maryland's Court of Appeals.

This court issued an unprecedented ruling in late April, finding that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, and people who own them are strictly liable for any damage they cause. Owning a pit bull at all, the court ruled, is itself negligent.

This is different from how most dogs are treated under the law. Owners are usually given what's called a "one free bite" -- meaning, that they essentially get a pass the first time their dog hurts someone. (The second time, they're liable, since by then they know their dogs' dangerous propensities.) Maryland's pit bull owners are now supposed to presume their dogs' dangerousness.

Pit bull advocates make a number of arguments for why the Maryland court's ruling makes no sense. They say there is, actually, no such thing as a pit bull; even if there were, pit bulls are in fact no more dangerous than any other breed. (Some advocates like to say that statistically speaking, golden retrievers are more dangerous than pits.)

As both a (former) lawyer and a person who has spent many nights sharing a pillow with a pit bull, I'm inclined to think the advocates are right. For one, even if there is such a thing as a pit bull, and even if they do bite more often than golden retrievers, they still don't bite often. The most alarmist, anti-pit bull statistics show that fewer than 30 people in the United States are killed every year by dogs (and no one is even suggesting that pit bulls are responsible for all of those 30 deaths, even). There are, meanwhile, almost 80 million dogs living in U.S. households.

This doesn't sound like inherent dangerousness to me. Then there's Barky, who hates cats and who has always barked like crazy when other dogs seem to be having too good a time (my dad calls her the police of the dog park). But no one seems to have told her she was supposed to have spent her life being actually dangerous; after a youth of walks, chasing squirrels, law school and barking at neighbors who talk too loudly, she's spent her dotage sitting in my mom's garden, eyeing squirrels, eating chicken and barking at the neighbors.

Barky's even used her legal education, going with my father to his law office, where she begs treats from clients.

That undramatic, chicken-filled life is almost over now, for real this time. On today, my first wedding anniversary to a wonderful man, I am on my way to Rhode Island, so that I can be with Barky as she leaves us, on Tuesday. After surviving blood disease and cancer, Barky is now having heart failure; my parents, my brother and I think it's kinder to ease her out of life with a shot from the vet than subject her to the heart attack or stroke that is otherwise inevitable. We've been very lucky to have all these years with the now almost completely white pit bull whose big ears now look cauliowered like a professional boxer's -- 14 human years, half of which have felt like borrowed time. It's hard to look back over these years and think that keeping Barky as our treasured pet would seem like negligent behavior. It's seemed like a gift.

Of course it's possible Barky simply never realized what she was. Maybe she just spent all these years thinking she was my dog.


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