It has not been a good summer for the 30 or so members of the Potomac Pit Bull Owners Association.
For example, Capitol Hill resident Annetta Cheek said she cannot walk her two pet pit bulls at Great Falls anymore because she is afraid someone will hurt them.
A counselor at a District group home for retarded adults plans to quit his job because his two pit bulls have been banned there, although they have not attacked anyone during the three years he has worked and lived at the home.
For some of the association's members, the evening ritual of walking their dogs around the block has turned into confrontations with angry strangers demanding to know why the animals are not muzzled. Nearly all have encountered the puzzled glances that seem to ask, "Why would you want to own that thing?"
Members of the Potomac club and pit bull owners around the region have spent the summer trying to answer that question as a wave of negative publicity --
fueled by seven fatal attacks nationwide this year by pit bulls with bone-crushing jaws -- has turned their pet of choice into a national obsession.
Pit bulls are known for their powerful jaws and fighting tenacity. They are said to fight without provocation and keep attacking even after their opponent surrenders. They bite repeatedly and can rip and tear flesh as well as chain-link fences, animal experts said.
But local pit bull owners said this description does not characterize their pets.
They have spent the dog days of August collecting copies of proposed "vicious animal" laws -- such as one considered by the Howard County Council -- to make sure they didn't include any breed-specific references that would have made it illegal or impossibly expensive to own the pets that many people have come to fear.
(At a work session of the Howard council last night, three of the five council members indicated they probably will vote to kill or table the measure next week and initiate further study before taking up the matter again.)
Although some pit bull owners raise their dogs to fight or attack upon command, others -- and they are the vast majority, according to animal experts -- choose that breed of dog for the same reasons that some dog lovers select a collie or basset hound, and resent the slurs against their pets such as "Rambo of the dog world," and "canine crocodiles."
Andy Johnson, manager of breed field operations for The United Kennel Club, which registers between 20,000 and 30,000 pure-breed American Pit Bull Terriers annually, says that pit bulls are among the 10 most popular dogs in the country.
"They usually say, give me a dog that is medium size, easy to train, has short hair and a pleasant disposition. The pit bull fits all those requirements," Johnson said.
"They are very quiet dogs; they're easy to groom," said Vince Romanauskas of Riverdale, who bought 3-year-old Lady Sapphire as a "cute and friendly" puppy for his daughters. "All they want to do is love you to death."
"I wanted a dog that was strong, athletic and playful," said District resident Tony Gunter, the owner of two pit bulls, 1-year-old Blue Diamond and 3-year-old Red Baron. Handing Blue Diamond's leash over to his 4-year-old son, Jonathan, Gunter asked, "If I thought these dogs were capable of hurting my boy, do you think I'd have them around?"
Loyalty is another characteristic that pit bull owners say attracted them to the breed whose reputation as aggressive fighters has been well-documented these last few months. Cheek, an archeologist with the Interior Department, says she bought her dog Cory six years ago after a rash of robberies in her neighborhood. When Cory had puppies 16 months ago, she kept one.
Although the dogs' guarding abilities have never been tested, Cheek says "it would be all over" if someone tried to break into her town house. But given the breed's unusual temperament, which reportedly includes a failure to give any warning of an impending attack, doesn't Cheek fear that her dogs could one day turn on her, something that happened to a District woman while she was driving two weeks ago?
"I have no question in my mind that won't happen," Cheek said as her dog Baroness applied a dripping tongue to a visitor's face, then joked, "You better watch out; she'll kill you with licks."
If the Potomac pit bull owners are any example, it would seem that the devotion extends both ways. At a recent meeting held at the D.C. Police Dog Training Center, some members sported T-shirts with slogans such as "I Own a Pit Bull and I'm Proud" and "American Pit Bull Terrier: Mistreated, Misunderstood."
When presented with detailed accounts of actual pit bull attacks, the club's members question most of the common beliefs about pit bulls, particularly the notion that they will charge without provocation.
What about the time two years ago when a 57-year-old Baltimore County bar owner was mauled to death by her two pit bulls?
"I heard that she had been starving them," said Kelly Patrick, the club's president. "If someone wasn't feeding me I might get kind of grumpy, too."
What is the explanation for the case of a Howard County boy who four years ago had 80 percent of his scalp torn off by a pack of three pit bulls?
"If you were a little kid who had been attacked and someone asked you, 'Did you do something like poke the dog or pull its tail,' do you think you would tell the truth?" Patrick said. "Besides, those dogs should never have been off their leashes in the first place. Even the most passive dogs act crazy when they roam in packs."
And the District woman who was bitten by her pit bull 35 times before she drove the animal out of her car with a wooden club?
"The police said that her dog never gave any warning before the attack. I know my dogs, and I would be able to tell in their body language if something was going on," Patrick said.
Pit bull owners have spent a large part of the summer speaking out in defense of their pets, at public hearings and in the columns of local newspapers. They have been accused of being fanatics who value animal rights more than human life.
"It's almost like that saying of the American Rifle Association -- 'When they outlaw guns, only outlaws will have them.' What we're finding is that a lot of the responsible dog owners are taking their family pets -- much to their chagrin -- to the local animal control facility and saying, 'Destroy him, I can't take the pressure,' or 'I can't get homeowner's insurance because I have this dog.'
"What that does is leave the owners who don't care, who don't own a house and have the sort of macho life style that condones fighting dogs. If they outlawed pit bulls tomorrow, these people would just go out and find something else," Johnson said.
The pit bull owners do not, however, attempt to deny statistics that show that pit bulls are overrepresented in fatal attacks on people, accounting for 14 of the 21 dog-related deaths in the United States during the last two years. Instead, they point to earlier numbers, say, from a decade ago, when pit bulls were not responsible for any human deaths.
"If the problem were really the dogs, which have been around for hundreds of years, don't you think they would have shown up before now?" said Kathy Bauch, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States. "You can't reduce it to, 'Is it dogs or is it people?' Unfortunately, it's some of both."