Ana Paun, 11, was walking to a shop near her home in Bordesley Green, Birmingham on 9 September when she noticed a large dog staring at her. Frightened, she began to move away but the dog, which does not seem to have been on a lead, grabbed her arm. A bystander rushed to help and the animal released its grip for a moment before biting Ana again, this time on her shoulder. In footage captured from the top deck of a nearby bus, Ana can be seen being rushed into a nearby shop. Members of the public run in all directions but the dog seems calm, almost playful, as it chases a 20-year-old man across the forecourt of a petrol station and drags him to the ground.
In the two decades from 2001 to 2021, the number of fatal dog attacks in the UK averaged three per year, but since then the risk has tripled. Ten people – four of them children – were killed by dogs in 2022, and five have died already this year. Three quarters of all killings by dogs in the past three years were caused by the same breed that attacked Ana: the American Bully, also known as the XL Bully. A variant of the American pit bull, originally bred by illegal fighting rings in the US, they are powerfully muscled, weighing 60kg or more.
As the footage of the Birmingham attack spread across social media the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, tweeted that she had “commissioned urgent advice” on adding the XL Bully to the list of banned breeds (although it is in fact the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, Thérèse Coffey, who holds this responsibility; Coffey has yet to make a statement on the matter). Keir Starmer agreed that there was a “strong case” for banning the breed. Emily Thornberry went further, telling LBC that the dogs should be “rounded up” and “put down”.
The XL Bully inspires passionate opinion; its form and musculature evoke the predators that dragged our ancestors from their caves in the Hobbesian past. Tens of thousands of years ago we formed an alliance with one of these species (a type of wolf, long since extinct) and in doing so began the process of other domestications, which led to agriculture and civilisation. We still accept a certain amount of violence as inevitable – tens of thousands of people are killed or seriously injured each year by cars – but a dog hunting people in a British city represents something else. It is the violation of a deep taboo, the ancient nightmare of claws and teeth reconstituted from our oldest ally.
At the same time, the XL Bully is something very modern. The most pertinent question we can ask about this dog is not whether it should be banned (any sane society will choose the safety of its children over the right to own a particular breed of pet) but why it has spread so quickly.
The answer to this question is not, as some commentators have suggested, a matter of gang membership or culture; the National Crime Agency told me any connections to organised crime are tenuous or “low-volume”. Instead, it has more to do with technology and economics. The XL Bully is a monster from the internet.
[See also: Algospeak is driving us mad]
In the thousands of American Bully videos that have been uploaded to YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, one of the overriding themes is that owners of these animals do not simply identify as people with pets. They see themselves as “breeders”, running “kennels” (which often amount to little more than a repurposed backyard), and their conversations revolve around developing their dogs’ musculature and ensuring their fertility, and the financial value of their animals. A dog is never described without reference to its “bloodline”; descendants of well-known animals, whose names include “Champion Homicide” and “Muscletones Legend Slayer”, sell at a premium. Some buyers are required to sign agreements to adhere to strict conditions about how many times the dog can be used for breeding, and the names – as part of a brand identity – that can be used.
It is also common for videos to discuss the money to be made from puppies, which can sell for £3,500 or more, or from offering male dogs for stud at around £2,500 per session. Videos from a variety of “kennels” spread the idea that owning a few XL Bullies is a pastime that comes with a six-figure turnover.
This sounds like easy money, but the only way to profit is to persuade other people that they, too, can make large sums of money by buying an XL Bully. The business depends on a supply of what are known in financial markets as “greater fools”: investors who will continue to demand the asset or security purely because that’s what other people are doing.
Like so many of the internet’s get-rich-quick schemes – multi-level marketing, meme stocks, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin – the only way to profit is to use social media to become a public advocate, to persuade other people to buy in.
This is an old pattern: very few of the people who paid enormous sums for tulip bulbs in 17th-century Holland had any real interest in horticulture. What interested them was the momentum of the market. The XL Bully market is a kind of Ponzi scheme, though one that comes with appalling consequences.
This is evident in the accounts of XL Bully owners, most awfully a father whose 17-month-old child was mauled to death by the dog he had bought a week earlier in the hope of turning a quick profit. Many XL Bullies are not even housed by their real owners but “co-owned” by people who take a cut of the proceeds: technology efficiently increases the returns to capital by outsourcing the messy business of accommodating a hugely powerful, dangerous animal to someone with less capital of their own.
The failure to understand the real economy of the XL Bully may explain the political failure to regulate and control the spread of these animals. Charities such as the RSPCA and Dogs Trust campaign against “breed-specific legislation”, which they see as discriminatory (perhaps charities are encouraged in this view because their funding partly depends on the bequests of dog owners). In parliament, the all-party parliamentary Dog Advisory Welfare Group, a cross-party group of MPs chaired by Labour’s Rosie Duffield, has since 2018 invited those campaigning against breed bans into parliament to entrench the view that no dog is born bad.
This is a spurious debate. All that matters is the damage XL Bullies inflict when they decide – for reasons that will remain unknowable and immaterial – to attack humans. Either we remove these animals from society or we accept that around ten people a year will be killed (and many more injured) in circumstances of the most extreme pain and fear. The XL Bully as a political problem is not the creation of nature or nurture, but the point at which a long period of stagnant earnings and poor employment meet the strange economics of the internet.
[See also: The real cause of generational warfare]
This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites