I happen to be reading Evil Angels at the moment, John Bryson’s brilliant account of the case of Lindy Chamberlain and the death, in 1980, of her infant daughter, Azaria. It is a story, largely, about a miscarriage of justice, but it is also, of course, a story about a dog. A few days before Azaria Chamberlain was snatched by a dingo from the family’s tent near Uluru, a 12-year-old girl was attacked in similar fashion at the same campsite, and survived. “It had her about the elbow,” writes Bryson. “The grip was commanding, painful, and she couldn’t shake it off. The vapour of arrogance in its eyes was unmistakable and terrifying. She screamed for her mother.”
Dingos aren’t domestic dogs, but at the time of Azaria’s death and her mother’s subsequent arrest for her murder, they weren’t imagined to pose much risk to humans. I thought of this scene, and about the decades-long power of the Chamberlain story more generally, while reading this week about the attack by an American bully XL crossbreed dog on an 11-year-old girl in Birmingham. The child survived, with lacerations to her arms and injuries to the several people who intervened to help her. Two years ago, an American bully XL mauled and killed a 10-year-old boy in Wales, and earlier this year, a woman was killed by her own bully XL in Surrey. While campaigners called for the breed to be banned and the home secretary described it as “a clear and lethal danger”, the Royal Kennel Club doesn’t even recognise the bully XL – a combination of an American pitbull terrier, and American and English bulldogs – as a distinct breed.
Opponents of the ban focus on people, not dogs, broadly arguing that irresponsible owners can turn any number of dogs into weapons, and while we’re at it, why not ban cars because of drunk drivers? There is no question, however, that a dog as powerful as the bully XL, which is described by the American Bully Kennel Club as giving “the impression of great strength for its size” can be dangerous when mishandled. As an enthusiast of the breed told the Guardian earlier this year, “you get snappy jack russells or you get snappy chihuahuas, but if one of them bites or nips you, you are not actually going to be in trouble. If one of these gets hold of you, you’re going to be in trouble.” A breed that can weigh twice as much as a labrador – or as the dog owner put it, “68kg of solid muscle” – is a force that, once unleashed, “no man on this earth could hold”.
There is an unmistakable note of admiration in these descriptions, a wolf-whistle vested in the thrill of taming an animal with a capacity for savagery. A dog with power to unleash a force no man can hold might, hypothetically, appeal to a person fully at ease with their own station in life. Equally, it offers a very obvious proxy for those suffering from feelings of powerlessness. In these circumstances, owning a bully XL is less, I imagine, about appearing threatening to others than about the satisfaction of dominating a formidable animal. The juxtaposition of sweetness and “68kg of solid muscle” delivers a recognisable pay-off, like those clips of lions reuniting with the humans who raised them years after being released into the wild. In every one of these reunions, there is a stomach-clenching moment when, as the animal jogs up to the human, onlookers wonder if he is going to lick him or bite off his head.
Given the number of mistreated dogs in animal shelters, it is clearly the case that people are more harmful to dogs than vice versa. Still, our perception of dog attacks as an unnatural breach overlooks the latent potential for wildness, and is what makes dog attacks so horrifying and enduringly fascinating. In the weeks and months running up to Azaria Chamberlain’s death, people had been seen to feed, nurture and attempt to tame the dingo population near Uluru. If this is a natural instinct, given the ancient affinity between dogs and humans, it is also, perhaps, one with limitations we aren’t always willing or able to recognise.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist