Pit bull makeover

Shedding new light on the most feared breed in America

A pair of pretty faces: Pit bull advocate Jessica Stout and Billie, star of the upcoming <i>Pits and Fash</i> show.

A pair of pretty faces: Pit bull advocate Jessica Stout and Billie, star of the upcoming Pits and Fash show.

Photo By larry dalton

A pit bull lives down the block from me; usually I see him—at least 70 pounds with a rough salt-and-pepper coat—leashed and lumbering down the street with his owner. But occasionally I see him wandering a few houses down, off-leash, untethered and, suddenly, menacing.

So far, that’s where the encounter always ends, as the dog, summoned by a whistle, trots happily back home, and I feel more than a little bit silly and guilty for even that tiny bit of worry.

Then again, such fear isn’t completely irrational. The dogs, often mistreated, neglected and exploited, get a bad rap and have a nasty rep.

Pits have been in the news a lot in recent years. In 2005, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom tried to ban the breed after a dog fatally mauled a Bay Area sixth grader. In 2007, NFL quarterback Michael Vick made headlines after being convicted for, among other infractions, running the Bad Newz Kennels dogfighting ring on his Virginia estate. The verdict earned Vick an 18-month prison sentence and cost the player his position with the Atlanta Falcons. But Vick, although found guilty of abusing the pit bulls used in his ring, is now back at work, earning big cash as a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Go ahead, tune into Sunday’s Eagles game against Kansas City and you’ll likely see Vick playing as if nothing ever happened.

Vick, who blamed his actions on cultural ignorance, paid his debt to society, so what’s the fuss, right? That’s debatable, but perhaps the bigger uproar should center on the fact that while the public was outraged by the player’s actions, there’s still a huge stigma surrounding pit bulls. With or without Vick at the helm of a dogfighting ring, the breed suffers for it.

Jessica Stout realizes many people harbor pit bull anxiety. Whether that fear is fleeting or deep-seated and lingering, the longtime pit bull advocate is making it her mission to dispel misconceptions about the dog.

She founded www.animaladvocating.com and is also the organizer behind the October 10 Pits and Fash, a pit bull fashion trunk show that benefits the Beyond the Myth documentary. (FYI: Humans will model the clothes while the dogs remain au naturel). The film, set for release later this year, explores attempts to pass breed specific legislation as well the affliction of pit bulls forced into fighting.

Now, on a recent warm afternoon she’s sitting at a coffee shop patio in Midtown, a sleek gray, 2-year-old pit bull sleeping beneath the table at her feet. Billie, brought into a Merced animal shelter earlier this year, is the “face” of the Pits and Fash show, but she almost didn’t make it to the runway. With her clipped ears and pugnacious, square face, her look epitomizes the pit bull stereotype: aggressive, vicious, ready for a fight.

“Even just walking down the street with a pit bull, I’ll get stopped by people who tell me, ‘That dog should be dead; that breed should be exterminated.’”

Dogfighting dates back more than 200 years, and pit bulls, a cross between bulldogs and terriers, were bred specifically for that purpose. The “sport,” once legal in the United States, has gradually been outlawed in all 50 states. Still, underground matches continue, and outside the ring—or pit—the breed is popular with gang members and thugs attracted to the dog’s tough image.

“Pit bulls are a very big status symbol among young male wannabe gangsters,” says Nicole Barnett-Christensen, who, in her job as an animal-care technician for the Sacramento animal shelter, sees upwards of several hundred pit bulls a month. “When you’ve got famous football player and rappers who [own] the dogs, then you get guys who, once they turn old enough to buy [a pet], run out and grab a pit.”

This much is true: Pit bulls are a popular breed among dogfighters—a chilling 2005 documentary Off the Chain documents one self-proclaimed gamer’s “love” for the dog.

“Anyone who says [dogfighting] is cruel or barbaric … has never seen how a professional dogfighter takes care of his dog,” he says, appearing on camera in a hood and mask to conceal his identity.

“They don’t see the blood and sweat that goes into taking care of a dog since it’s 2 months old; they just think the sport is for assholes and losers.”

Stout knows it won’t be easy changing public perception about the dogs. Pit bull misconceptions, she says, are rampant.

“I’ve heard the craziest myths, [such as] they have locking jaws; it’s just absurd if you put any logic into it,” she says.

Stout blames the media for perpetuating the dogs’ image problem.

“Pit bulls have been demonized in the media,” she says, pointing to news reports that sensationalize pit misdeeds.

“There was a situation recently where a Pomeranian mauled a 4-month-old and another incident where a dog bit the genitals off a 6-month-old baby,” Stout says. “You never hear about [those cases], you only hear about the pit bulls … and it creates mass hysteria.”

Stout made a special effort to find Billie a home after the Merced shelter was unable to place the dog. Billie only escaped euthanization when a foster parent stepped in to take her.

Little is known about Billie’s past but, says foster mom Jennifer Tomich, the dog’s goofy, docile personality belies a belligerent appearance.

“She’s really typical of a pit bull—really dorky,” says Tomich, who’s worked as a doggie foster mom for the last 15 years. “She’d be sitting around watching football and drinking beer if she were a human.”

Billie is also needy and craves social interaction, Tomich says. Most pit bulls require constant attention, human or otherwise.

“She’s very friendly—almost overly friendly. It’s not too bad, but she gets very excited around other dogs.”

Tomich fosters between 10 to 12 dogs a year, but it’s difficult to keep up with the shelters’ seemingly never-ending intake of new pit bull cases.

At the Sacramento City Animal Shelter, the dogs arrive in varying conditions; many are clearly abused—wounded, emaciated and/or behaviorally troubled. Some dogs are dropped off by owners who plead hard-luck financials, some are strays dropped off by Animal Care and Control officers and others are brought in by police, rounded up during various drug raids, domestic-violence complaints, et al. Those dogs, the shelter’s Barnett-Christensen says, are often found tied up in the backyard, mistreated or neglected, often hungry and frightened.

Once at the shelter the dogs are separated into three groups: There’s a general holding area where the friendliest pits are allowed to cohabit as well as an “Isolation” ward for sick, injured or difficult dogs undergoing social “rehab.” The shelter’s hardest cases end up in “Quarantine,” a long row of individual cells reserved for the most aggressive or distressed dogs. There are at least three dozen pit bulls among these three sections including a litter of seven puppies that arrived painfully skinny and covered in sores. There’s also a behemoth-sized pit/mastiff mix, weighing in at 100 pounds and a smaller, tan-and-white mix that arrived with bites to his neck and leg. Still bandaged, the dog is skittish and slowly recovering from his wounds.

Animal Care and Control officer Clinton Nelms says it’s difficult to estimate how many of the shelter’s pit bulls have been used in fighting matches, arranged or otherwise.

“We don’t see a lot of organized dogfighting in Sacramento,” he says. “We’re more likely to get two young adult males who run into each other on the street and make their pit bulls fight each other.”

Regardless of their background, the dogs are often difficult to place.

While owners reclaim approximately 30-50 percent of the shelter’s pit bull population, the rest are adopted out, placed in foster care or euthanized.

That’s why Barnett-Christensen says many pit bull owners don’t realize the work that goes into caring for a dog that that is at once inherently aggressive and emotionally needy. That’s why she advises all potential pit bull owners to reconsider their choice of pet.

“People come in here, dead set on getting a pit bull, and I tell them to go home and to seriously do some homework,” she says. “Most of the time, if they go home and do that and learn just how much goes into owning one, those people don’t come back.

“Not all pit bulls are mean,” she adds. “But then again, not all of them aren’t.”

Later that day, back at my house, I think of her words when I hear a menacing, low-pitched growl. I look outside the window and there he is on the sidewalk, that salt-and-pepper pit bull, tugging anxiously at his leash. The man at the other end of the restraint catches me looking out at the window and gives a curt nod of acknowledgement before letting the dog pull him down the street.

Here inside my house, I realize I’m safe from any dangers, real or imaginary.

I just wish I could, for sure, say the same for that dog.