On the morning of Jan. 3, a 24-year-old California woman named Alexandria Griffin-Heady left her 9-year-old half brother, Tyler Trammell-Huston, and her three pet dogs in her trailer home and went to work her morning shift as a security guard. Tyler was in the foster care system, and Sacramento County Child Protective Services had sanctioned overnight stays with his older sister, who was trying to adopt him. When Griffin-Heady returned several hours later, she found Tyler unresponsive and covered in blood, mauled by at least two of the dogs. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Here was an unambiguous tragedy: The young woman who’d wanted to “protect [Tyler], and...give him an amazing life,” as she told the media earlier this month, instead found herself culpable in the little boy’s death. If Tyler had been left unattended to fall into a pool, or out of a window — even if he had found a gun in an unlocked cabinet and shot himself — what unfolded after Griffin-Heady left the house that morning would have likely remained just that: a sad end to a short life, an anonymous family’s private grief.
But Tyler’s death wasn’t like any other fatal childhood accident, and it didn’t pass quietly or stay private. Instead, the brother and the sister and her dogs have already been dragged into another, bigger, and in some ways, even more brutal story, one that takes place largely online.
That's because the dogs that killed Tyler were pit bulls. And when the people who care about pit bulls on the internet grab a hold of something, they don’t let go.
Scroll to the bottom of any article about a pit bull on the internet with a reasonably active comment thread — say, a news story about Alexandria Griffin-Heady posted to Facebook. (Or about Talen West, a 7-year-old North Carolina boy killed on Sunday by a pit bull.) There, you’re almost certain to find a few things: 1) a person who owns or rescues pit bulls and who swears that the breed is as sweet as pie and incapable of violence, 2) a person who has had a bad experience with a pit bull and swears that they’re an inherent menace, 3) a person with no direct connection to the breed who nevertheless has extremely strong feelings about them, and 4) these people flaming each other as if their lives depended on it.
You see, pit bulls are up there (down there?) with ethics in games journalism among the most toxic, most hopelessly partisan topics of discussion in the blathersphere. Every news story related to these dogs, every morsel of information about their being and their behavior, drips through a filter of pure ideology before being splattered back onto social media and a constellation of special interest sites. There is no middle ground.
On one side is a collection of animals rights activists, no-kill advocates, pit bull owners, pit bull fans, and assorted bleeding hearts who’ve aligned to fight so-called “BSL”: breed-specific legislation, laws that restrict or prohibit the ownership of certain breeds, or call for their sterilization or elimination altogether. For this group, the mantra is “punish the deed, not the breed,” and there is nothing special, or specially bad, about pit bulls. (Indeed, they maintain that pit bulls aren’t a "breed" at all, but a group of fluid physical characteristics describing many dogs, including mixes.) Violent and even fatal behavior by the dogs can usually be explained by a host of external — that is, human — factors, primarily abuse, neglect, and backyard breeding.
On the other side are the anti–pit bull, pro-BSL advocates. This smaller group is largely led by victims, or the family members of victims, of pit bull attacks. Their argument: Every pit bull has inbred characteristics that make it capable of sudden and deadly violence, with no warning or precedent. Every pit bull attack is received as confirmation of this basic fact. And for the anti–pit bull advocates, the only real solution is some form of breed ban.
In dozens of similar Facebook groups with names like American Pit Bull Terriers (Pit Bulls) & the TRUTH ! (13,402 members) and DogsBite (4,752 people like this), the two sides congregate. Though the groups mostly require approval to join, they are also, crucially, mostly public-facing, all the better for trolling the opposition. Every day, the anti-BSL advocates post dozens of stories and memes and high-octane feel-good content about the heroism and sweetness of the breed. And the pro-BSL advocates post dozens of stories and memes about pit bull attacks and their gory aftermath. Each side takes time out from this deluge only to mock and point out the obvious wrongness of their antagonists. In both camps, there is a ferocious appetite for fresh meat.
Indeed, they made quick work of Alexandria Griffin-Heady. Tyler died on Jan. 3; on Jan. 4, a post appeared on DogsBite.org, the slick website of “a national dog bite victims' group dedicated to reducing serious dog attacks,” asserting that “Tyler is dead because like many young people, Alexandria believes the false myths about pit bulls, primarily pushed by the Pit Bull Propaganda Machine, that deny the breed's purpose bred heritage of bull-baiting and dogfighting. Who cares if Alexandria now finally recognizes the truth? Tyler is already dead.”
Two days later, a post entitled “Who Failed Tyler” appeared on a pro–pit bull website called Zombies and Dogs. It blamed county services (“Tyler would still be alive if CPS had done their job) and Griffin-Heady (“she should absolutely be tried, convicted and sitting in jail”) for the boy’s death.
To be sure, more genteel groups are also involved in the issue, on and offline, prominently among them PETA, which supports BSL, and Bad Rap, a Bay Area nonprofit that would not participate in this story because, according to its co-founder Donna Reynolds, “We're just not a two-sides kind of organization.” (Multiple people involved in one way or another with anti-BSL efforts declined to participate in this story because they were concerned with the reaction online.) But it is on the social web where the pit bull wars are being fought most vociferously, and with all the internet’s argumentative weaponry: ad hominem screeds, conspiracy theorizing, industrial-scale meme deployment, anonymous threatening emails, impersonation, doxxing.
It is here that the fight over a breed of dogs that kills far fewer people each year than accidental poisonings and unintentional falls has become bitter and mean and personal. It is here that the fight about pit bulls, like most fights over our pets, has become almost totally about the humans.
On a warm evening in June 2007, a Seattle web designer named Colleen Lynn was attacked by a pit bull while out for a jog. The dog clamped down on Lynn’s right arm, which she had raised to protect herself, and began to drag her as its owner screamed for it to let go. After the paramedics took Lynn to the hospital, the extent of her injuries became clear: a fractured right arm and five puncture wounds. As she recovered, Lynn began to research pit bulls, about which she had known almost nothing.
“What I found was an overwhelming number of propaganda websites saying things like pit bulls are nanny dogs,” she told BuzzFeed News, referring to the widely disseminated (and widely discredited) notion that in previous, less biased times, parents trusted the dogs to watch over their children. But Lynn read up on anti–pit bull legislation, including the major BSL successes in the U.S.: a pit bull ban in Denver, and mandatory sterilization in San Francisco. By the fall, Lynn had drafted a 20-page white paper and submitted it to the Seattle city government, which didn’t do anything. So in October 2007, she started DogsBite.org, anonymously, and posted the paper there.
The site quickly drew the notice of pit bull advocates, who, Lynn said, immediately began trying to figure out her identity. From an anonymous DogsBite email, she traded missives with a victims’ rights attorney who convinced her to disclose her name — and then, Lynn said, he gave it out to people who posted it widely across pit bull forums.
Soon after, the harassment started. First, it was angry emails. Then, she heard from clients of her web design business that they had received emails telling them not to work with her. And finally, she was threatened with a lawsuit by an animal rights advocate.
“I’m what you call a real animal lover fighting for the right agenda,” reads a January 2008 email to Lynn. “You on the other hand are demented and let me tell you with no B.S. if you do not take your website down by 1-26-08 I will personally file a tort of outrage lawsuit against you in the Washington court system.”
But no one sued, and DogsBite continued to grow, even as anti-BSL advocates online began to cast doubt on Lynn and spin conspiracy theories about her attack. A remarkably robust anonymously published website, Who Is Colleen Lynn?, sprang up, featuring articles with headlines like “DogsBite.org: Support Group or Ambulance Chasers?” and comments such as “i have a pit bull and would fight for her like i would my country.” A website called “Pit Bulletin Legal News” ran a skeptical thousand-odd-word analysis of the Seattle Animal Control Records on Lynn’s attack. It concluded that Lynn was to blame for not jogging correctly: “This was a preventable accident. Ms. Lynn could have done the most logical thing and passed the dogwalker on the left. She did not do that.”
In December 2010, Lynn made a DogsBite Facebook page. It quickly grew a following, though Lynn noticed the number of likes the page received would often go up and then down in suspiciously identical increments, as if people were being pressured to "unlike" the page. In 2012, Lynn discovered a network of secret Facebook groups where victims of pit bull attacks gathered to talk and plan away from the angry debates that invariably broke out in public forums.
It was in one of these groups that Lynn met Jeff Borchardt. And that’s when things really got nasty.
In March 2013, Jeff Borchardt’s 14-month-old son, Daxton, was fatally mauled by two pit bulls. In the days after Daxton’s death, Borchardt did what many people do in moments of crisis: He took his grief and anger to the 21st-century bulletin board/support group, Facebook.
“Once your pit bull is dead like my son, you can be sure I will do everything in my power to make sure this breed is bred out of existence,” he wrote, in part, in a status update a few days after his son was killed.
Borchardt was a popular local DJ in southern Wisconsin, with several thousand followers on the social network. For that reason, his post attracted notice from pro–pit bull accounts, which responded with comments and direct messages extolling the virtues of the breed, followed by skeptical, pro–pit bull analyses of the police incident report on Daxton Borchardt’s death.
“Before we even decided what to do with my son’s body, we were being harassed,” Borchardt told BuzzFeed News.
These early experiences with anti-BSL advocates pushed Borchardt toward the secret anti–pit bull Facebook groups, where he became a highly active member. Here, Borchardt and others organized support for engagement with pro–pit bull advocates in public groups. And Borchardt did not shrink from engagement.
Pit Bulletin Legal News and Who Is Colleen Lynn?
“Jeff has this really intense masculinity,” Lynn said. “And he fights with the pit bull owners.”
In late 2013, the members of one of the secret groups discovered that anti-BSL advocates had posed as pit bull attack victims to gain access, then screenshot intemperate messages and administrative details and shared them in their own, pro–pit bull groups. “Mole hunts” ensued, according to Borchardt and Lynn. This led Borchardt to create a public group, The Pit Bull Propaganda Machine Revealed, which today is ground zero for explicitly anti–pit bull news, commentary, and meme-making on the internet. The page contains story after story about pit bull attacks, broken up only by feel-good pit bull content that is roundly mocked and decried. Image macros featuring snarling pit bulls and injured children abound. Borchardt frequently posts the worst comments and emails he receives, including one this week from an anonymous commenter who promised to “stop and piss on your son’s grave.”
In the beginning of 2014, Borchardt started Daxton’s Friends for Canine Education & Awareness, a pro-BSL nonprofit. By this point, Borchardt and his wife, unable to live in the house with Daxton’s crayon markings on the wall, had moved to another town in Wisconsin. There, Borchardt encountered on the street a neighbor and his large, off-leash pit bull. Livid, he took to Facebook:
“After what happened to Dax, I have declared a zero tolerance to living next to a pit bull...if one moves in next door I WILL kill it...no if ands or buts about it...get some anti-freeze, put it in a bowl and let the land shark drink away…”
To the anti-BSL crowd, that post was proof that scratching any pro-BSL activist reveals a euthanasia-mad “foamer” — the pro–pit bull internet’s derisive nickname for its enemies. Borchardt says that’s not true, and that he simply wants the CDC to update its 2000 study on dog bites by breed and to stay current on dog bite deaths.
“I hope I don’t have to do this for the rest of my life,” he said.
In June 2011, Kimberly Stojakovic took a picture of her 6-year-old daughter Harley lying on the floor with an arm around the family pit bull, Daisy. She posted it to Facebook and forgot about it. More than two years later, in October 2013, she noticed that the picture had been shared in a group she had never heard of, The Pit Bull Propaganda Machine Revealed. Then she read the comments.
“I thought, Who are these people? This is crazy,” Stojakovic said. “They were saying my dog is going to eat my kid. They were saying my dog is a hellhound demon.”
Stojakovic’s experience is common to the pit bull internet: Both the pro– and anti–pit bull groups post public Facebook information in order to ridicule and harass the opposition. Furious at the commenters for their vitriol and at herself for not making the photograph private, Stojakovic started to click around pit bull Facebook. From the den of her Phoenix house, a room decorated with Harley’s paintings, Stojakovic discovered dozens of people whose images were being posted in Borchardt’s group and mocked in the same way.
She decided to start a website. She called it Zombies and Dogs, because, she said, she likes zombies and dogs. On it, she writes web comics such as “Foamer Logic” and “How to Debate a Foamer Successfully,” and shares videos she has cut like “The Reality of Breed Specific Legislation,” in which images of dozens of euthanized dogs float by, as Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” plays. She also writes blog posts, like “Who Failed Tyler?,” which recommends jail time for Alexandria Griffin-Heady.
After Stojakovic started Zombies and Dogs, abuse continued to pour in: Anonymous emails and messages taunted her for her weight and suggested she was sexually attracted to pit bulls.
Stojakovic was undaunted. In late 2014, she excoriated Borchardt publicly for posting images of children he didn’t know on Facebook. Borchardt decided Stojakovic had a point — so he crudely pasted images of Stojakovic’s face over the faces of dozens of children whose images had been posted in the group.
“I apologize Bozo,” Borchardt wrote in a Facebook message to Stojakovic, alongside one of the altered images.
Each accuses the other of stalking, harassment, and doxxing — and has an endless reservoir of screenshots to prove it. Except, each also accuses the other of doctoring screenshots. What is undeniably true is that Jeff Borchardt and Kimberly Stojakovic have become obsessed with each other.
“I don’t have a personal vendetta against Jeff,” Stojakovic said. “I understand he went through a horrible tragedy. But I don’t think it gives him the free rein to attack other people.”
Still, for a person who was not involved in the internet pit bull debate before the picture of her daughter was mocked on Facebook, and whose pit bull has now died (of natural causes), Stojakovic remains totally locked into the fight. In addition to Zombies and Dogs, she hosts a Tumblr dedicated to the foibles of pro-BSL advocates called “Foamer Talk.” She has posted a dozen self-made videos to YouTube, 10 of which are about pro-BSL advocates and two of which are about pit bulls. And in 2014 she launched a Kickstarter for a nonfiction book entitled The Foamers Diaries. (Teaser text: “There is a war going on and Facebook is the battle ground. Enter the world of the Pro BSL/Anti Bully breed Facebook extremist community.”) It fell short of its $1,500 funding goal by $1,500.
And at this point, the conflict between Borchardt and Stojakovic rarely concerns pit bulls, per se. Instead, it has become a kind of metadispute in which the conduct and methods of the fight have become the subject of the fight itself — a pure internet fight. They accuse each other of bad-faith blocking, stalking, and “butthurt.” They call each other names. They really, really, really don’t like each other.
“It’s not just about dogs,” Stojakovic said. “It’s such a personal fight. Everyone has a bone in it.”
Alexandria Griffin-Heady posted endlessly about pit bulls on her Facebook page, which she sometimes updated dozens of times a day. Her profile is public, and the posts are all still there: hundreds of images documenting nights cuddling with the dogs in bed, days taking the dogs to the park and the beach, and the pregnancy of Cocoa, whom Griffin-Heady calls her “ride or die.” She frequently writes that the dogs are her family. There are grisly ironies to be found, if you’re looking for them: One photo shows the puppies who would later get big and kill Tyler in their metal crate, in “jail” for “real bad crimes.”
In the DogsBite.org write-up of the mauling, Colleen Lynn zeroed in on a single post from October 2014 in which Griffin-Heady shared a saccharine pro-pit video with the comment “Too all pit haters, or people who dislike the bread due to being violent., here is a fun fact. Anybody know what they were originally bread for? Anybody? The nanny... to look over and protect the babies. #Lovemypit” The section header in Lynn’s article is “When Pit Bull Advocacy Kills.”
In fact, aside from that post, there is almost nothing in Griffin-Heady’s Facebook to suggest that she's engaged at all with the pit bull advocacy internet at large. In the past two years, there are no are any posts about BSL, or pit bull rescues, or memes about anti–pit bull myths. There are simply Griffin-Heady’s dogs, and over the past few months, Tyler. What emerges from reading Griffin-Heady’s Facebook is an image of a lonely young woman who sought companionship from her dogs, and who seems to have given over much of her life to them.
Griffin-Heady and Tyler’s mother died, homeless, of a drug overdose in 2011 in Sacramento. Anti-BSL advocates have seized on the details of Griffin-Heady’s ragged life — the broken home, the trailer with no bathroom — as if they make the dog’s actions less tragic. At Tyler’s funeral, the boy’s foster mother spoke. At some point during her address, she looked directly at Griffin-Heady and said, “God have mercy on you.”
In a popular post on The Pit Bull Propaganda Machine Revealed, pro-BSL advocates debated whether to condemn Griffin-Heady for her naive love of pit bulls or embrace her as a victim. One poster suggested the latter: “At the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil... We need to be that soft place for her to fall. The nutters are already turning against their own just like their nasty dogs do. Let's be different from them.” Another poster pointed out that Griffin-Heady had been taken to task by anti-BSL types in the comments on her YouTube videos. A third poster sighed: “Makes me want to throw in the towel. Seriously... I despise what the internet turns ppl into... monsters.”