Vicious or vilified? Debate rages over pit bulls

Vicious or vilified? Debate rages over pit bulls
To some people they're great pets. To others - they invoke fear.

The controversy has led to a real "dog fight" over a breed of dog - the thickly muscled mass of contradiction known as the pit bull.

Supporters say they are sweet, cuddly, loving ... vilified and misunderstood ... a treasure of a dog.

But to others they are vicious, aggressive, dangerous ... a ticking time bomb ... a menace to society.

The numbers say this:

• In 2009, dogs killed 32 people in the United States, and 44 percent of those attacks were by pit bulls.

• Of the reported serial dog attacks on humans over the course of several years, pit bulls (together with Rottweillers) were responsible for 65 percent of them.

• Of the reported rampage attacks - that is, attacks on two or more people or dogs - 58 percent of them were pit bulls.

And yet, lovers of the dog take to the streets to fight what they see as the unfair targeting of a breed.

Katie Olson is one who has seen the nature of the pit bull up close. She works at the Seattle Humane Society, where pit bulls are certainly not the loudest dogs.

"Pit bulls are supposed to be amazing with humans - really are supposed to be loyal, friendly, loving and adoring," she says.

She tests dogs to make sure they're safe to adopt out.

"What I'm looking for in a number of cases is, I want her to have a happy demeanor. ... I want her to stay loose, wiggly, allow me to trade the toys interchangeably without having any type of a negative response," Olson says.

"They're not all these vicious animals that we see in the media and different avenues," she adds.

Jeannette Cunningham has seen the nature of the pit bull up close, too. It almost killed her.

"Basically I thought I was going to die right then because there was so much blood," she says. "I thought - this is it."

A dog attacked her in Burien, ripping off her lower lip. She says she'll never get over it.

"I think I'll be scared of them for the rest of my life," Cunningham says.

Supporters say it's not the breed, it's the deed - that the pit bull has become the dog of choice for thugs looking to intimidate. And because of that, the entire breed has a bad name.

Bottom line, they say: it's not the dog's fault.

"But my response to that is, 'Who cares?'" says Chris Davis, who literally wrote the book on dog bites.

"There's a human being that's been significantly harmed," Davis says. "It doesn't do me any good, or the person that's been hurt, to debate - was it the dog who did it? Or a trait associated with the dog? Or was it the owner? My response is, 'Who cares?'"

"Let's protect human beings," Davis says. "Let's not put the rights of dogs over human beings."

Legend has it that pit bulls were bred thousands of years ago by the Romans to fight bulls.

But one man disputes that. He is Dr. Jim Ha, an animal behaviourist at the University of Washington.

He says that of the most inherently aggressive dogs, pit bulls are not at the top - but they are in the neighborhood.

He says mastiffs, chows, German shepherds, Rottweillers and Dobermans are all more genetically aggressive than pit bulls. On the question of nature versus nurture, he puts more weight on nurture.

"The reason we're focusing just on pit bulls is that we hear so much about them, and that is not because of the breed difference, the genetic difference - that's because of the way they've been raised," says Dr. Ha.

But he doesn't deny that behavior is partly due to nature. When pressed, he'll even put a number to it.

"Very roughly, based on the research that has been done, based on the research in other species, the weight I put on that information, what breed it is, I would say that it's around 20 to 30 percent - something like that."

The dog fight surrounding pit bulls almost takes on the feel of a human race argument.

"Because we want to make sure that everybody is created equal - people as well as dogs - we want to make sure that we're treating everybody the same," says Olson.

But who says all dogs are created equal? Certainly not Chris Davis.

"There are many who believe that certain breeds are discriminated against. Well, you can only discriminate legally against people - not dogs," Davis says.

Numbers don't lie - but they can deceive. Chihuahuas are statistically more likely to bite than pit bulls. But chihuahuas can't dismember a human being. Ask Huong Le.

"I was screaming, 'Help me, help me, anybody help!'" she remembers.

Her ears were ripped off, and her arm was crushed. Her son has seen enough.

"Is a breed ban unfair? Yes. Is it extreme? Yes. Is it necessary to protect public safety? I think so, yes," says Eric Makus.

Maybe this strong, proud breed known as the pit bull is caught up in a volatile equation - built-in genetic aggression, plus owner abuse and mistreatment, plus the physical ability to inflict unthinkable harm to humans.

Does it add up to a menace? A breed ban? The dog fight rages on.

Some places have banned pit bulls - in England it's against the law to own one. Pit bulls also are banned in Ontario, Canada; Denver, Colo.; and closer to home, Enumclaw and Yakima.

Seattle has talked in the past of a breed ban involving pit bulls, but it didn't get very far.

And while there's much debate about whether or not breed bans actually work, nobody disputes that they're tough to enforce.

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