Pit bulls: Man's best friend or worst enemy?
A look at the vast divide that separates pit bull advocates and the dog breed's detractors.
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Pit bulls are the most abused, reviled, abandoned and euthanized dogs in the United States.
More than 500 cities ban the breed or require sterilization, muzzles in public or insurance. Some regulate the size of fences that keep pit bulls enclosed, or the weight of leashes that keep them restrained.
Even the Army and the Marines ban pit bulls in base housing.
In an Associated Press-Petside.com poll, 53 percent of American pet owners said they believed it was safe to have pit bulls in residential neighborhoods, but 43 percent said the dogs were too dangerous.
Of 60 percent who support breed bans, most put pit bulls at the top of the list, according to the poll conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications.
Only one state, Ohio, has a statewide pit bull law, requiring owners to confine them as "vicious dogs" and carry at least $100,000 in liability insurance.
Is the breed predisposed to be dangerous, or is man to blame? The divide between advocates and detractors is wide.
"Dogs are products of their environment. Dangerous dogs are not born, they are created," said Adam Goldfarb, director of the pets at risk program for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C.
More than 250,000 pit bulls are maimed or killed in dog fights every year, he said. Up to 75 percent of dogs in many shelters are pit bulls.
"When you hear about a dog being set on fire or attacked by an ax, it usually involves a pit bull and it's not their fault. In some communities, there is a perception that pit bulls have less worth than other dogs," Goldfarb said.
Colleen Lynn of Austin, Texas, isn't convinced. She was jogging in Seattle on June 17, 2007, when she was attacked by a pit bull that knocked her to the ground and grabbed her arm. The dog was being walked on a leash and was pulled away, but not before Lynn's arm was broken, she said.
Last year, 33 people were mauled to death and two-thirds of the dogs were pit bulls, Lynn said. California reported the most fatal maulings with seven.
Under most laws covering the dogs, pit bulls are defined as American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, or any dog displaying the physical traits of one of those three.
Lynn, through her DogsBite.org, encourages breed bans. "A ban saves the most human lives by preventing attacks before they occur," she said.
Jennifer Walsh of Los Angeles doesn't consider her 7-year-old pit bull TC a threat.
"I have a dog a lot of people might be really scared of and think he might be ready to attack at any moment. But he's like a little bundle of love. I can pick him up, I can roll him over, I can do anything I want to him and he doesn't care," she said.
A pit bull traditionally loves people, play and attention, Goldfarb said. They are smart and athletic, and owners have to nurture those qualities, he said. "A misbehaving dog might be a dog whose needs are not being met."
Lynn doesn't believe pit bulls are born vicious. "We believe pit bulls are born dangerous. They are born with a dangerous tool set. They can use it or not use it," she said.
In 2007, pit bulls and dogfighting became synonymous with Michael Vick, an NFL quarterback who served 18 months in prison over a dogfighting operation based on his property in Surry County, Va.
Fifteen of the dogs seized in Vick's case are rehabilitating at the Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah, far from the basements where they were chained and forced to fight. Their recoveries have included disease, injuries and skittishness.
Lynn said Vick's dogs hadn't been bred for generations like those in so many illegal fighting rings. But, she said, all fighting dogs should be euthanized because they are too unstable.
Despite temperament tests given by some shelters, Lynn said a dog that has been trained to fight will always be a risk to people and their pets.
"If genetics were as strong a factor as they're suggesting then every dog fighter could easily breed lots of super aggressive dogs. Every dog in every fighter's litter would be unmanageably aggressive and that's just not the case," he said.
Pit bulls bite, hold and shake, ripping your skin like a shark, Lynn said. "They don't let go. They shake back and forth," because that's what owners of fighting dogs want and have bred into the animals, she said.
There is no science supporting a correlation between dog breed and bite style, Goldfarb said.
Across the country, 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs every year, the American Veterinary Medical Association said. Children and seniors are the most common victims.
Municipal breed bans aren't allowed in 10 states, including California, but cities or counties can enact laws short of that. Few people object to spay and neuter legislation but many believe it should apply to all dogs, not just pit bulls.
In New York City, where the vast majority of dogs in shelters are pit bulls, more than 260 healthy pure breed pit bulls or mixes have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and microchipped since July. That's when the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched Operation Pit.
After a 12-year-old boy was killed by his family's pit bulls in June 2005, San Francisco passed a sterilization law.
Comparing the five years before the law went into effect in January 2006 to the five years since: "We have seen approximately 26 percent fewer impounds of pit bulls and pit bull mixes and a decrease in euthanasia by about 40 percent," said Rebecca Katz, director of the Department of Animal Care & Control for the city and county of San Francisco.
The drop is especially notable, she said, because the number of dogs taken in has not changed due to the economy. "We consider this law a measured approach that has been extremely successful both in terms of public safety and in terms of animal welfare."
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