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

Todd Holland and his son, Wyatt, 6, play with their pit bulls in the back yard of their Biloxi home on Friday Nov. 18, 2016.
Todd Holland and his son, Wyatt, 6, play with their pit bulls in the back yard of their Biloxi home on Friday Nov. 18, 2016. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

In the 11 years Donna Velez has operated Hearts of Gold Pit Rescue, she’s 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 I’ve never had an incident, surely someone that’s half responsible can live with one or two,” Velez said.

It’s 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 such as Animal Planet’s “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A 2013 bill in Tennessee was proposed but later withdrawn that would have required owners of vicious dogs to obtain $25,000 in liability insurance.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 pit bull named A.C. from Velez four years ago.

“He’s my first pit,” said Sutton, 70. “If I’d known what wonderful dogs they were, I’d have had them all along. He’s just a jewel.”

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

“You can’t 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, she said.

Memphis does not ban pit bulls, although in 2010 a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance for pits was considered. That discussion resulted in the city’s 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, though breed restrictions are a “hot-button issue,” Rogers said, “It’s not the animal that’s a problem, it’s the person that owns the animal.”

Nevertheless, the dogs’ foes complain 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 pit bulls are a volatile breed driven by genetics 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, Wisconsin, 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 son’s dead because of a lie, because of a myth. My life will never be the same.”

This story originally published in 2014.