The Rap on Pit Bulls Revisited

This pit bull was euthanized at the Loudoun County Animal Shelter under a policy that does not allow pit bull adoptions. But Loudoun is considering changing the policy. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Brubaker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007

The black puppies were cute, cuddly and just a day old. But their hours at the Loudoun County Animal Shelter were numbered.

If only they had been a different breed, their fate might have been different. But they were pit bulls -- a much vilified animal associated with dogfights, drug raids and vicious bites. And under a decades-old policy, Loudoun bans pit bull adoptions at the county-run shelter.

"It was awful, really awful," shelter manager Inga Fricke said of the afternoon last summer when she tranquilized the two puppies, wrapped them in blankets and injected them with a solution called Fatal Plus. "It was awful because they were puppies. I mean, they had just been born here. Their mom had come in stray and pregnant."

Loudoun isn't the only jurisdiction that has singled out the pit bull as the bete noire of its animal adoption facility. But a wave of new policies and proposals is sweeping the Washington region as shelters acknowledge a fact of life that many jurisdictions have long ignored: Not all pit bulls are dangerous.

Policies allowing pit bulls to be adopted after they have been evaluated and cleared by animal-behavior specialists have been implemented in Montgomery and Prince William counties and approved in Arlington County. Meanwhile, Loudoun and Alexandria are considering rule changes that would enable them to join the District, Fairfax County and other jurisdictions that allow pit bulls to be adopted.

More than 160 pit bulls have been adopted at Montgomery's shelter in the 15 months since its policy went into effect. "And not one has been returned," said J.C. Crist, chief executive of the Montgomery County Humane Society, which runs the shelter. "Before, we euthanized every pit bull that was older than 6 months and did not have a history. Now, we make an investment in every dog that walks through our shelter -- because it's the right thing to do."

The Northern Virginia counties were nudged into action by Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R), who issued a nonbinding opinion in October that publicly funded shelters should not euthanize dogs based solely on their breed.

Not taking any chances, a group of shelter directors in Northern Virginia has been meeting to draw up a regional policy. "We want to make it very clear that none of us is discriminating by breed and that we are evaluating dogs based on their own merit," said Karen Diviney, who heads the Fairfax shelter.

In Loudoun, many residents agree it is time for a change. A recent survey by the county shelter in rural Waterford found that residents favored abolishing the current policy -- euthanizing all unclaimed full-blooded and mixed-breed pit bulls after a 10-day waiting period -- 718 to 359.

One self-described 51-year-old grandmother, responding to the survey, wrote: "I have found that my pit bulls have been the most lovable and obedient dogs I have ever owned. They give so much love and I cannot imagine my life without them."

The dogs known as pit bulls originally were bred and trained for sport in early 19th-century Britain. They were tossed into a pit to taunt and do battle with bulls; that's how they got their name -- and perhaps their temperament. Most were trained not to show aggression toward their handlers, so they became an ideal family pet.

But after nearly two centuries of breeding and crossbreeding -- and of mistreatment and even torture by humans -- pit bulls have become an enigma. Some are devoted and trustworthy pets; others are vicious and dangerous. It depends on the dog.

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