Pit pendulum swings: Attitudes, laws soften on much-maligned breed

March 31, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tenn. ó In the 11 years that Donna Velez has operated Hearts of Gold Pit Rescue, sheís never had a problem.

With hundreds of pit bulldogs in and out of her home over the years, not once, she said, have her neighbors reported her to Memphis Animal Services or have any of her dogs run loose.

"If I can live with 300 or 400 pit bulls and Iíve never had an incident, surely someone thatís half responsible can live with one or two," Velez said.

Itís good news to her and for the breed that communities across the country are backing away from ordinances that ban pit bulls, and states are making those bans illegal.

Attitudes have softened considerably as animal activists and television shows like Animal Planetís "Pit Bulls and Parolees" cast the dogs in a more positive light.

And it illustrates the power and persistence of dog-advocacy groups that have worked to fend off pit bull restrictions.

"Lawmakers are realizing that targeting dogs based on their breed or what they look like is not a solution to dealing with dangerous dogs," said Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club.

Seventeen states now have laws that prohibit communities from adopting breed-specific bans. Lawmakers in six more states are considering similar measures, and some cities are reviewing local policies that classify pit bulls as dangerous animals.

A 2013 bill in Tennessee was proposed and later withdrawn that would have required owners of vicious dogs to obtain $25,000 in liability insurance. It was amended to include pit bulls.

The changing attitudes, Velez believes, also come in part from the kinds of people who own pit bulls: doctors, lawyers, teachers and grandmothers like Judy Sutton, who adopted A.C. from Velez four years ago.

"Heís my first pit," said Sutton, 70. "If Iíd known what wonderful dogs they were, Iíd have had them all along. Heís just a jewel."

Pit bulls are intelligent, high energy dogs that require a certain type of owner, Velez said.

"You canít open the door and let these dogs run loose, she said. "It requires a different level of responsibility."

And no dog, regardless of breed, should be left alone with babies and children, Velez said,

Memphis does not ban pit bulls, although in 2010 a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance for pits was considered. That discussion resulted in the cityís spay/neuter ordinance for all dogs.

Memphis Animal Services requires criminal background checks and fence inspections before pit bulls can be adopted from the shelter, said James Rogers, MAS director.

And, while breed restrictions are a "hot button issue," Rogers said, "Itís not the animal thatís a problem, itís the person that owns the animal."

Nevertheless, the dogsí foes complain that their message is being drowned out by a well-funded, well-organized lobbying effort in state capitols. The debate puts millions of pit bull owners up against a relatively small number of people who have been victimized by the dogs.

Ron Hicks, who sponsored a bill in the Missouri House to forbid breed-specific legislation, said he was surprised when nobody spoke against his proposal last month at a committee hearing.

"I figured a few parents would be there who would bring tears to my eyes," the Republican said. "Would it have changed my opinion or what I believe in? No."

Still, some contend that pit bulls are a volatile breed whose genetics drive them to kill more than two dozen people in the U.S. each year, many of them young children.

"Everything is telling us these animals are safe if you raise them right," said Jeff Borchardt, an East Troy, Wis., man whose 14-month-old son was mauled to death a year ago by two pit bulls that tore the child from the arms of their owner, who was baby-sitting. "My sonís dead because of a lie, because of a myth. My life will never be the same."





 


Associated Press