By Cary McMullen
Published: Friday, May 14, 2010 at 11:02 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 at 11:02 p.m.
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LAKELAND | About two years ago, Lisa Moehring visited the Polk County Animal Control shelter looking for dogs that could be rescued from euthanization. Her eyes fell on two burly American Staffordshire Terriers, a breed closely related to the American Pit Bull Terrier, and she knew she had to save them.
Meet Grady and Judd, two 70-pound bundles of brown-coated muscle. Moehring eventually got the dogs to a pit bull rescue organization, the first pit bulls to be rescued out of the Polk shelter, she said. As a gesture of thanks to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, whose office runs the shelter, she named them after him. Today, they are owned by a woman in Clearwater named Margaret, who didn't want her full name used.
Recently, Margaret brought Grady and Judd over to Moehring's house for a visit, where they romped and lazed in the sun and jumped in friendly greeting to a couple of visitors.
"I have not had one negative reaction. Once people get past the fact they're pit bulls, they say, 'Oh, they're beautiful.' I take them to Starbucks and people take pictures with their camera phones," Margaret said.
In the wake of a recent incident in Pasco County in which a family's pit bull attacked and killed a week-old infant while the child's mother slept, controversy about pit bulls has resurfaced.
Is the breed inherently dangerous, or has it been given a bad reputation by owners who use the dogs for fighting or mistreat them in order to have a big, mean dog?
Dog advocacy groups say that at one time, American Pit Bull Terriers were considered all-American dogs. One was used in a World War I propaganda poster, Moehring said. Pete, the dog in the "Little Rascals" comedy films, and Tighe, the dog in the Buster Brown shoe advertisements, were pit bulls.
Dr. Mary McDaniel, a veterinarian at the Lake Alfred Animal Hospital and an American Kennel Club judge who owns and shows Glen of Imaal Terriers, said the American Pit Bull is not a distinctive breed - the AKC recognizes the Staffordshire but not the pit bull - and a lot of dogs labeled pit bulls are really boxers or hounds. But terriers, including pit bulls, do have predatory characteristics, she said.
"Terriers are hunting dogs. They're bred to grab and kill. They're not aggressive per se, but they're tenacious. It's hard to get them to back off," she said.
In Polk County, pit bulls and pit bull mixes accounted for the highest percentage of bites against humans last year. Of 1,025 cases of dog bites in 2009, 191 - or 18.6 percent - were caused by pit bulls or pit bull mixes, said Lt. Craig Burke, director of Polk County Animal Control. The second-highest ranking breed was the Labrador retriever, which accounted for 10 percent of dog-bite incidents.
national bite statisticsHowever, those numbers are out of line with a national survey, and it is not clear whether the local statistics reflect a larger-than-average number of pit bulls, a higher proportion of aggressive or mistreated dogs, or some other cause.
A 2008 study at the University of Pennsylvania found that the top three breeds most likely to bite are dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pit bulls and "pit bull-type" dogs accounted for about 32 percent of the 238 dog bite-related fatalities in the United States between 1979 and 1998.
In the most recent incident in Polk County, a 2-year-old girl was bitten on the face by the family pit bull April 21, requiring about 20 stitches, Burke said. The girl's father shot and killed the dog, which tested negative for rabies.
At least one Web site devoted to the victims of dog attacks labels the breed "dangerous." DogsBite.org was founded and run by Colleen Lynn, who was the victim of a pit bull attack that left her with a fractured arm.
"The manner of the bite causes severe injuries," Lynn said by phone from her home in Texas. "Plenty of pit bulls are not going to go off, but if they do, it's going to be really bad. As members of the public, we don't know if your dog is going to go off or not."
Pit bull advocates insist the dogs are no more dangerous than any other breed. Moehring, founder of Save Our Homeless Pets, a mostly one-woman volunteer organization that tries to encourage adoptions of animals from the county shelter, owns a pit bull and two pit bull mixes and insists that if owners are responsible, the dogs make good pets.
"They're loyal. They're people-pleasers. That's why they can be misused," she said.
Grady and Judd were discovered by Polk County sheriff's deputies in a crate on top of a pile of stolen goods and impounded, Moehring said. The owner tried to get them back but eventually gave up custody. The shelter will not let the public adopt impounded pit bulls or three other breeds - Akitas, Rottweilers and chows - and most are euthanized, a fate that easily could have befallen Grady and Judd.
"We don't adopt them to the public because we don't have the resources to conduct health and temperament tests," Burke said. "It's a business decision we made, not because the breed itself has a propensity to bite, but when they do it's the significance of the bite. Because of their mass, it's more severe and requires more medical attention."
But the shelter will allow registered dog rescue organizations to take pit bulls, and a determined Moehring got Grady and Judd to Florida Big Dog Rescue, where they were evaluated, neutered and trained.
Margaret said she was looking for a new pet after her golden retriever died and spotted an ad on Craigslist for Staffordshire terriers. Pictures of Grady and Judd popped up.
"I was not a pit bull person. Like everyone else, all I heard was how vicious they were. But when I saw them on Craigslist, I thought, 'I think I want them,'" Margaret said. "I've completely changed my attitude. ... They're physically affectionate, almost too much. They want to sit with me, be petted and scratched. They follow me wherever I go."
political spotlightPerhaps no other breed has been the subject of as much political attention. Two attacks attributed to pit bulls in Polk County in August and September 1989 - one against a Lake Wales woman and her 2-year-old grandson, the other against a 33-year-old truck driver that left him severely injured - resulted in Polk County's first "vicious dog" ordinance that allowed law enforcement to impound and euthanize dogs that attack or injure people.
More recently, well-publicized incidents such as the infant death in Pasco County, to say nothing of the dog fighting scandal that landed pro football player Michael Vick in prison, have contributed to increased public mistrust of pit bulls, and politicians have taken note. Some communities have passed "breed-specific legislation" that prohibits some breeds, almost always including pit bulls.
The city of Denver passed an ordinance banning pit bulls in 1989, and some families were forced to give away their pets, have them euthanized or move. The state of Ohio requires pit bull owners to carry liability insurance, fence the dogs and leash them when off-property.
In Florida, state law forbids local communities from passing breed-specific laws, but an ordinance in Miami-Dade County was grandfathered in, and it remains the only municipality in the state that bans pit bulls. County officials said the dogs posed a greater threat than other breeds.
Whether the legislation prevents dog bites is disputed. The Toronto Star reported last month that a five-year ban on pit bulls in the Province of Ontario has not significantly reduced the number of dog bites on humans, and Moehring said Miami-Dade has seen similar results. Italy and the Netherlands have rescinded bans on pit bulls, although they do place restrictions on owners.
Colleen Lynn, of DogsBite.org, advocates banning pit bulls as a way of saving lives.
"Pit bull laws aren't designed to stop all dog bites. They're designed to stop catastrophic pit bull maulings," she said.
Not surprisingly, dog advocacy groups are opposed to breed-specific legislation. The American Humane Society states on its Web site that such laws can be difficult to enforce, "can unnecessarily discriminate against dogs that are not dangerous, and does little to protect the community from dog bite incidents."
McDaniel said "bad owners" are the problem behind aggressive pit bulls.
"I just don't think it's fair to blame the dogs. ... The majority of the ones I see are lovely dogs. I don't have reservations about them being around children as long as they're supervised. I'd never leave a baby around any dog," she said.
Moehring said "myths" associated with pit bulls have attracted people to use the dogs for the wrong reasons.
"Do citizens have something to fear? Yes, from owners who maintain them outside homes for purposes other than as family pets - for guarding, fighting, intimidation or status," she said.
Moehring pointed to the shift in the pit bull's image, from Buster Brown's Tighe to Michael Vick's fighting dogs.
"The dogs haven't changed. We've changed," she said.
[ Cary McMullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7509. ]
This is a great article and the original can be found at this page.
I applaud Margaret, the woman who adopted the two pit bulls, for taking a chance on them and allowing them to show her how loyal, loving, and affectionate these dogs really are. Ignorance and misinformation has marred the reputation of pit bull type dogs forever. Incredibly, less than a hundred years ago the APBT was a beloved war hero and family dog. Moehring is absolutely correct in saying that, "The dogs haven't changed. We've changed." Cowards, thugs, drug dealers, and such fell in love with the APBT and tried to turn it into something the breed very well is not: a guard dog. Thus began the transformation of the agile medium sized pit bull into bulky macho muscle dogs bred for looks and intimidation- not conformation. Additionally, those types of dogs you see on the internet costing thousands of dollars are not a true APBT. They are hybrids, many of which have had Mastiff bred into the line somewhere to make their heads and bodies so massive.
I digress, but I do want to say that before you make your decision about whether or not you like or dislike pit bulls, please do your own research. Don't take someone else's- or mine for that matter- word or opinion and make a decision solely on that. Irresponsible owners have contributed heavily to the public's automatic dislike of pit bull type dogs thus giving responsible owners with great dogs a bad name. Judge the deed not the breed.