It’s dog No. 377’s dark, weepy eyes that get me. Unlike her neighbors, dog No. 377 isn’t jumping against the fence. She isn’t barking at me or baring her teeth. Instead, she’s sitting pretty, staring patiently at me and clearly trying to contain that full-body wiggle that any dog owner would recognize as a precursor to all-out jubilation.
I find out later that her name is Brenda, but that’s little more than a placeholder. Whatever her former owners called her doesn’t matter to anyone anymore, especially not them; Brenda, I learn, was found tied to a pole in the parking lot of an abandoned school.
She’s presumably a pit bull mix with a sleek, chocolaty brindle coat and dainty white feet. I take her outside to a cement enclosure where prospective adopters “test” possible pets. Brenda spends her precious few minutes with me outdoors bucking around like a foal, stopping only periodically to nuzzle my leg or sniff an unexplored corner.
Hers is one of many sob stories at the Sharonville SPCA. Dog No. 420’s tag proclaims she’s good with dogs and kids; she’s been surrendered by her owner. Pit bull Max, No. 946, is a “cuddler,” his tag reads. Then there’s Bruce, No. 999, the brawny, strapping white pit mix whose meek, docile demeanor often subjects him to pummeling from other shelter dogs, a volunteer says.
I wander through all three dog kennels at the Sharonville SPCA. Perry, Zyr, Rocky, Lance, Goldie, Sage, Sugar, Boomer, Buddy, Macho. Pit bull, pit bull mix, pit bull, pit bull, pit bull, pit bull mix. The list goes on.
The shelter, only miles from the Hamilton County border, is ridden with pits because it’s just outside the Cincinnati city limits, where it’s still illegal to own a dog designated as a pit bull or pit bull mix. Shelters outside city borders are one of the few safe havens near the city for pits; here, they’re no longer fugitives. Each tells a different tale — some turned in by their owners, some starving strays, some victims of organized fighting rings. What they share, though, runs through their veins: the blood of a breed facing a deep-seated, grim history of discrimination, animal cruelty and bad public relations.
Despite the public’s common misconceptions of the breed, recent state legislation removed the automatic designation of “vicious” for pit bulls and pit bull mixes in Ohio. But the legislation doesn’t matter to Cincinnati dog owners, who are still subject to stricter local ordinances that pose problems in both identifying the breed and enforcing punitive action, a contradiction that many local politicians and animal welfare advocates hope to change.
City vs. state
For 25 years, Ohio had been the only state in the nation to automatically declare a dog vicious based solely on breed, without regard to an actual incident or behavioral inspection. For pit owners, the branding has meant costly liability insurance rates, requirements for elaborate fencing structures around their homes or discrimination both publicly and when renting housing. For unwanted shelter pit bulls, the blemish often has marked the difference between life and death.
When Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed Substitute House Bill No. 14 into law in late February, he removed a breed-discriminatory clause that originally declared, by default, all pit bulls vicious, instead tightening the reins on dangerous dog laws, which focus more on doling out punishment for reckless dog owners than outlawing family pets. The legislation warranted nationwide buzz as pit owners and animal advocates rejoiced in what was perceived as a statewide victory in breed equality.
Despite the hype, the win did little for Cincinnati pit bull owners. According to Cincinnati City Ordinance No. 460-1999, any dog “commonly defined as a pit bull” is still considered vicious.
In 2003, that ordinance was amended to completely outlaw ownership of vicious dogs — and, subsequently, pit bulls — anywhere in the Cincinnati city limits, claiming it a necessary provision to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the public. Because Cincinnati is a charter city with the power to make home rules, that code takes precedence over state legislation, rendering HB-14 virtually irrelevant to pit bull owners residing within the Queen City.
The “glitch” in legislation has garnered the attention of local politicians; outcry over the Cincinnati law has become increasingly vocal as advocates encourage the local code to come up to speed with the state’s. Passionate pit bull owners and animal welfare advocates argue that, instead of protecting the community, the law prevents the unity of good dogs and owners and wastes precious taxpayer dollars and police time.
“In the animal welfare community, (the legislation) is a black eye on the city. It’s completely backwards,” says Jim Tomaszewski, who serves on the SPCA Cincinnati board and chaired Cincinnati’s Vicious Dog Legislative Task Force in 2007. Tomaszewski is one of several advocates in Cincinnati lobbying for reversal of its breed-specific legislation. He’s been working to arrange meetings with City Council members in hopes of moving forward with a plan to create a legislative draft. Tomaszewski declined to give details on what kind of progress is being made, but he alludes to recurring positive dialogue with City Council members and other community leaders.
Surmised branding standards
The wording in Cincinnati’s vicious dog ordinance asserts that any veterinarian, zoologist, police officer trained in animal control or dog warden with even an inkling that a dog might be part pit bull has the power to report the dog to the police, who can leverage an investigation or press charges against the owner. During an investigation, the dog will be held at the SPCA pending a judge’s disposition, which can order the dog to be destroyed or permanently seized from its home.
When dogs are branded “pit bulls,” it’s done almost exclusively by examining physical characteristics — any short-haired dog with a broad chest, “blocky” head or defined, muscular physique faces stigmatism. According to Norma Jean-Woolf, president of Ohio Valley Dog Owners Inc., people often mistakenly believe a pit bull is a breed of dog, when it’s actually a type of dog composed of any number of breeds with genetic lines historically bred to fight, including the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, the American Bulldog, the American Pit Bull Terrier and the Boston Terrier.
Ironically, evidence shows pit bull designations are rarely on target: A recent report using DNA testing conducted by The Toledo Blade found that, out of six dogs the Lucas County dog warden branded pits by appearance, only one was predominantly American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier, two breeds dubbed as pit bulls. Two dogs contained small traces of pit bull, while three of the dogs contained no pit at all. A dog like Brenda could very well be incorrectly branded through a superficial visual analysis, coerced outside of city limits and ignored by prejudiced or misinformed adopters in a shelter.
The myth of violence
There’s arguably no breed that’s undergone a more radical transformation in terms of public perception than the pit bull. The breed that was once touted as the “nanny dog” — dubbed so for its gentle, loyal and sheltering demeanor — has now become the gladiator of the canine world. Today, it’s much more likely to see a photo of a seething pit next to a news article or behind bars in a shelter than doting on a child.
Shannon DeBra, president and founder of Recycled Doggies, a local all-foster rescue dedicated to saving dogs from Death Row, says that she’s noticed the overrepresentation of pit bulls in area shelters outside of city limits, such as the Sharonville SPCA.
“They’re bred like crazy,” she says. “There’s money in breeding pits. Go on Craigslist and type in ‘pit bull’ and you’ll come up with all sorts of rare versions — people are trying to make money.”
Why the black market? DeBra says the demographic of people that is drawn to pit bulls includes a high number of irresponsible pet owners. Its long-standing reputation as the “fighting dog” makes the pit bull popular with criminals or gangs looking for a guard dog instead of a happy family pet, she says. “The bad element of society has chosen this as their breed of choice … the breed-specific legislation is only preventing good owners from owning pit bulls. It’s not preventing the bad ones.”
A particularly gruesome surfacing of that “bad element” arose last October when Blue Ash Police discovered a pit bull fighting ring on a homeowner’s property. Thirteen battered, wounded dogs and a puppy were seized from the home. The ones that didn’t die shortly after recovery are in holding at the Sharonville SPCA with Brenda, pending the outcome of their owner’s court case.
Misty Hale, shelter manager at the Sharonville SPCA, recalls helping seize the dogs, many of which she described as emaciated, older dogs covered in gashes and lacerations. “It was heartbreaking — they were so sweet with people, you know? When we found them, they were just so excited to get some human interaction.”
It’s not unusual, she explains, for the most brutal fighting dog to put on its best puppy eyes around humans. That’s because when pits are bred to fight, they’re not bred to fight humans — they’re bred to fight dogs. To a fighting dog, winning a match against another dog means a happy master. Hale says they generally just want to please their owners.
Still, there are undoubtedly cases in which pit bulls are the offenders. Last month, WCPO-TV (Channel 9) released a story headlined, “Price Hill boys survive vicious pit bull attack, but scars remain,” recounting an incident when an unattended pit bull reportedly chased a pair of brothers into their home, sending each to the hospital with injuries. Tomaszewski, who works with the Hamilton County dog warden in his position at the SPCA, says that animal control officers detaining dogs who are the subjects of such headlines often find they’ve been mislabeled by the press — it’s no shock to him that “pit bull” is the first designation that comes to a reporter’s mind when covering a dog attack injury.
Pit bulls are often the focal point of dog violence in the media, but the nips, bites, maulings and fatalities span every breed. In 2009, an Italian woman’s pet poodle bit off her nose; in 2010, a 14-year-old Golden Retriever in New Bedford, Mass., attacked an 81-year-old woman, sending her to the hospital. The list goes on: A 2003 Italy law branded corgis — the pint-sized “dwarves” of the dog community, and favorite of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth — as dangerous and illegal to own.
Legislative changes, it seems, haven’t done much to repair this long-sullied reputation. A McDonald’s advertisement went viral in February after a radio commercial stated, “Trying a new menu item at McDonald’s isn’t risky. You know what’s risky? Petting a stray pit bull.” The statement angered pit bull owners and advocates across the country, which condemned the chain for singling out a breed that already deals with reputation problems. Backlash was so vocalized that McDonald’s issued a formal apology and pulled the ad.
Local support for change
There’s a clear consensus among Cincinnati animal welfare advocates that pit bulls aren’t the problem, and that current legislation isn’t doing anything to solve it. “We’re trying to regulate the existence of a dog instead of the people,” says Tomaszewski. He points to “A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention,” a report from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions, which found that 70 to 76 percent of dog bite incidents involve intact (unneutered) male dogs. Shelters such as the SPCA spay and neuter every animal before releasing them for adoption, but others might give away “vouchers” for the procedure that never end up utilized. Irresponsible adopters or breeders that don’t correctly train and manage male dogs could end up with a vicious dog on their hands — pit bull or not.
Animal welfare advocates seeking to reduce violence caused by dogs express frustration with how cities manage dog law enforcement, including breeding regulations, in the first place: In tough economic times, dog law enforcement ranks low on the budgetary totem pole. Woolf shares Tomaszewski’s sentiment that regulation is being asserted in the wrong areas. “Some things that can help are better efforts at getting people to buy a license for their dogs, better enforcement of leash and nuisance laws, a willingness of the courts to require owners of neighborhood nuisance dogs to enroll in a training class if they are convicted of a violation and community-sponsored events that highlight owner responsibility and the pleasures of owning a well-behaved dog,” she suggests.
Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls says breed-specific legislation is simply “not based upon fact.”
“The Cincinnati legislation is not working,” Qualls says. “There are no facilities to take in the dogs identified as pit bulls, the police don’t have the capacity to handle them and the SPCA doesn’t have the facilities to keep the dogs — even though they’re strongly against breed-specific legislation anyway.”
Qualls, who strongly favors reversing the breed-specific legislation and instead instituting harsher punishments for irresponsible owners — similar to Kasich’s new state laws — says she’s urged for repeal advocates to talk to other members of City Council.
Harold Dates, president and CEO of the SPCA and Hamilton County’s dog warden, has joined forces with Tomaszewski and other local animal welfare advocates in hopes of reversing the city’s legislation. He’s passionate that a “bad” or vicious dog is the result of an irresponsible owner.
“If you buy a 16-year-old that just got his license a six-cylinder Mustang with lots of horsepower, you better watch out. It’s an accident waiting to happen. It’s the same with pit bulls. … Responsible breeding will bring out the best in the breed. You don’t ever intentionally breed a pit bull that is vicious,” Dates says. “Owners need to understand that, ‘Hey, if my judgment is poor, then I will face a penalty, and as an irresponsible owner I deserve to be penalized’ … you have to respect the community.”
I watch a volunteer strap a leash onto Brenda and lead her back to Kennel 1. She’s too excited from her brief human contact and the joy of a trip outside to realize she’s being taken back into confinement. I watch those same eyes disappear behind her fence as she retreats to the back of her cage.
I’d like to take her home, but I can’t. I’m moving to Cincinnati in a few weeks.
The ATTS Temperament Test
uses 10 subtests to rate a dog’s temperament, which measures unprovoked aggression, avoidance and panic tendencies. The test is intended to give pet owners and breeders a means for evaluating and predicting a dog’s behavior. Scores indicate the percentages of a given breed that passed the temperament test. The overall number of each breed tested were not necessarily equal.
Percentages of common breeds that passed the ATTS test in 2011: