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Rebooting a Scorned Breed

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— February 15, 2018

Rebooting a Scorned Breed

  • Long maligned as dangerous, pit bulls are making a comeback.
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All the neighborhood children come around when Jennifer Garcia of Patchogue, New York, walks her pit bulls.

“When you walk with a pack like that, the kids tend to gravitate towards you,” says Garcia, 42, who owns a dog grooming shop. Her posse: only boy Enzo, the senior dog at five years of age, and his “sisters” Serafina, age four, and one-year-old Neve.

Each of Garcia’s dogs has a unique personality. “Enzo is a goofball—he’s happy all the time. He talks, he requires a lot of walking and running. Serafina is a love bug. She would cuddle with me all day if we let her.”

Neve came into Garcia’s life after having been abused and abandoned. “The other dogs helped me put her back together again,” Garcia says. “She drew all her confidence from them; it was really, really nice to see.”

them; it was really, really nice to see.” Thousands of pit bulls have backstories like Neve’s but with darker endings: They are among the estimated 670,000 dogs euthanized in shelters each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. A combination of forces led pits into a cruel cycle of overbreeding and mistreatment—and a reputation for viciousness they are starting to overcome.

As John Votta of the New York Bully Crew, the group Garcia got her dogs from, puts it, pits are “not this mean-spirited, dangerous, angry breed—it’s completely the opposite.”

Building Towards Tragedy

The confusion over what a pit bull is—the term covers everything from registered breeds such as the American Staffordshire to any short-haired, muscular dog with a blocky head—reflects its rough-and-ready origins as a rat killer and dog-fighter. Eventually, pit bulls bred more for the show ring than the dog pit would come to be seen as America’s own canine, brave and loyal. In the 1960s, as crime rates soared, the pit bull became the poor man’s guard dog.

In the 1980s, efforts to eliminate dog-fighting, while well-intentioned, “demonized the dogs. It equated all pit bull terriers with dogfighting, which wasn’t the case,” says Ledy VanKavage of Best Friends Animal Society (bestfriends.org). In time, pit bulls would become associated with drug dealers and urban streets.

Demand from people who wanted dogs with that kind of an edge led casual breeders to produce pit bulls in large numbers with no regard to proper breeding or socialization practices. “All these unscrupulous people crank them out because the dogs are money to them,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, chief science officer of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org).

The issue came to a head after several highly publicized attacks by pit bulls, some fatal, on people. Although pits weren’t the only dogs implicated in bite-related deaths—and while serious dog bites by any breed represent a tiny fraction of the threat to life and limb posed by, say, cars—“the media’s caricature of the pit bull made it a perfect folk devil,” writes Bronwen Dickey in Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon (Vintage): an uncontrollable, widespread menace.

Many localities responded with breed-specific legislation (BSL), laws meant to greatly restrict, or outright ban, ownership of pit bulls and other dogs deemed dangerous. Some homeowners couldn’t get insurance; apartment dwellers would be turned away by landlords. In addition, many pits are mistreated: neglected, with little human contact, or abused. Votta says, “The position that these dogs have been put in, a lot of the damage has been done.”

The Tide Turns

Eventually, two events started turning fortune the pit bull’s way. First, in 2005, shelters set up for people trying to escape Hurricane Katrina wouldn’t accept dogs, leading some people to risk dangerous conditions rather than abandon their animals. But many pit bulls and their owners did become separated, never to see each other again. According to Dickey, that led to the formation of pit-focused rescue groups.

Two years later, investigators searching property in Virginia owned by then-NFL quarterback Michael Vick found more than 70 pit bulls, some injured. Vick would go to federal prison for dogfighting, and it emerged that he and others at his Bad Newz Kennels had killed dogs that didn’t perform well.

“For the first time, fighting pit bulls were seen as victims of a terrible crime, not as co-conspirators in it,” Dickey writes. The publicity surrounding the case helped launch several reality shows, one of which, Animal Planet’s “Pit Bulls and Parolees,” is still on the air.

Changing views of pit bulls has also led to the reconsideration of breed bans, which have been rejected or repealed in some localities. Kevin O’Neill, vice president of state affairs for the ASPCA, says “there is no evidence” such laws improve public safety. He adds that the ASPCA supports “a combination of breed-neutral laws that hold dog guardians accountable for their dogs’ behavior,” such as laws that require dogs to be kept under control at all times without being constantly chained up in a yard.

Pit bulls are strong, energetic dogs. They are “not for someone who’s really green” as a dog owner, Dodman says. And both he and Votta point out that because of the dog’s strength, a pit bull bite can be more serious than bites from some other breeds. As Votta puts it, “A Chihuahua that’s been mistreated, he might bite you 10 times and it’ll break your skin and you’ll put a bandage on it. A pit bull is stronger, but is that the pit bull’s fault?”

Actually, the problem lies with those who misuse pit bulls, either willfully or out of ignorance. “All dogs, including pit bulls, are individuals,” says Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA’s Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. “Providing dogs with the care, training, and supervision they require, and judging them by their actions, and not by their DNA or their appearance, is the best way to ensure that dogs and people can continue to share safe and happy lives.”

New York Bully Crew is one of the best groups I’ve ever come across. When you adopt from them, they always reach out to you. —Jennifer Garcia

Bully Crew founder Craig Fields cruising with some buds.

“People want a pit bull because it’s in vogue, and then they’re not willing to exercise it properly so it tears things up in the house.” And it’s crucial that any dog is properly introduced to kids. That involves teaching the child how to behave towards the dog—no tail pulling, sticking fingers in the dog’s eyes or ears, etc.—and always supervising interactions between dogs and children, especially toddlers. For new parents, it means not focusing so much on the baby to such an extent that the dog feels left out.

The Bully Crew carefully screens potential pit parents with an extensive approval process. “If we have a questionable app, we deny that app because we would rather sleep at night than give a dog to someone who isn’t worthy of receiving a dog from us,” Votta says. Garcia gives the group high marks, saying, “Bully Crew is amazing. They don’t just give a dog to anybody.”

That focus on the dogs drives Votta and his Bully Crew-mates. “You just grow so attached to the dogs,” he says. “Everybody on our staff, they devote their lives to this. People come in on their days off to shred paper for the puppies, to walk puppies.”

Looking for a pit bull? Votta advises letting a friend who has one “show the true nature of the dog—how loving, how smart they are.” New York Bully Crew is one of the best groups I’ve ever come across. When you adopt from them, they always reach out to you. —Jennifer Garcia D

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