Pauline Houliaras surveyed her troops one last time.
“Please be aware,” she advised the 70 or so pit bull owners gathered around her, “dogs we encounter along the way are not all as well-mannered as ours are.”
Tails wagging, the dogs set out with their owners from Rash Field in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and fanned out, cutting a path through the friendly and the fearful.
The event was Pit Bulls on Parade. Houliaras’s group, B-More Dogs, has organized such events monthly for more than a year to improve public perceptions of pit bulls. But this week’s promenade drew twice as many pit bull owners because of a recent Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that declared the dogs “inherently dangerous.”
“We got so tired of the negative images,” Houliaras, 44, said, referring to the stereotype of the animals being vicious, fighting machines. “We want to show [people] what the majority of pit bull owners look like.”
The high court ruling, which stemmed from a 2007 attack on a child in Towson, changed state law by singling out pit bulls. Previously, dogs of all breeds lived by what trial lawyers sometimes call “the one-free-bite rule.” If a dog bites someone and has no history of similar attacks, the owner is not automatically held responsible.
Under the recent ruling, an owner and an owner’s landlord can be held legally responsible for a pit bull bite even if the pit bull has never bitten anyone before.
The ruling could have wide-reaching effects beyond dog-bite cases. Depending on how a lease is written, a landlord can evict a tenant who has a pit bull, and some landlords have already put tenants on notice.
Enforcement can be tricky. The term pit bull actually refers to a number of breeds, but often any dog with a square-shaped head and short fur gets lumped in.
The ruling has galvanized animal rights supporters and pit bull owners in Maryland, who in the past few years have become increasingly more organized, forming coalitions using Facebook and Twitter.
Just a few days before the parade, a couple hundred people attended a rally in Annapolis while the state legislature was holding a special session focused on the budget. Pit bull advocates, some meeting in person for the first time, wanted lawmakers to take up an emergency bill to counteract the impact of the court decision. Many advocates want to abolish the one-free-bite rule and impose the same liability on all dog owners.
Vanessa Lee, 38, of Baltimore, who attended the parade with her pit bull, Mr. Crocodile, said she has been afraid to discuss the ruling with her landlord. She said she had a hard enough time finding a suitable apartment because Mr. Crocodile, who is 131 / 2, has arthritis and can’t climb stairs.
Lee pushes him around in a covered bike trailer that she jokingly has dubbed “The Chariot.”
As Mr. Crocodile stands by her side, the need for the chariot becomes apparent as his hind legs begin to wobble. Lee pays for laser therapy to treat his arthritis.
“If my landlord changes the lease, I don’t know what I am going to do because I’m certainly not going to get rid of him,” she said.
Pit bull advocates failed to get on the legislature’s agenda, but some lawmakers took note that the rally drew a larger crowd than an anti-tax-increase event. Several advocates, including Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery), have written legislation to make state law breed-neutral.
“The fact that we have to scream this loud to get on the special agenda shows legislators are still on a learning curve,” said Carolyn Kilborn, founder of Maryland Votes for Animals, a political action committee she helped form three years ago. In the past two years, the group has successfully lobbied for animal-protection legislation, including the creation of a puppy mill registry and a pet protective order, which helps pets who get caught up in domestic violence cases.
Kilborn said the number of volunteers for the group’s annual lobby day visits to lawmakers in Annapolis has grown from 10 to 126.
Last year, Charles County officials who were considering a ban on pit bulls found themselves outnumbered at public forums as scores of pit bull advocates from across the Washington region descended on the county. The proposal was dropped.
Critics of “breed-specific” restrictions argue that such policies don’t stop dog biting incidents and wrongly blame animals instead of irresponsible owners. They have so far been unsuccessful in overturning the pit bull ban in Prince George’s County, which has been in place for more than a decade. Recent battles on the city and county levels have helped pit bull advocates organize.
Houliaras started B-More Dogs in response to a 2007 effort to institute a ban in Baltimore County. That effort failed.
Kilborn, 53, said Maryland Votes for Animals took off quickly because animal advocates have begun to embrace lobbying as something nearly as critical as rescue work.
Pit bull owner Kelli Parker, 37, formed another local advocacy group, The Pretty Chic with The Pits, because of the Charles County battle. She said she wants to separate pit bull advocacy from the blood-throwing stereotype attached to some animal activists. “We wanted to be more professional,” she said. “You don’t want to come off pushy.”
The parading pit bulls in Baltimore offered one gauge of public opinion. The canines drew a largely sympathetic response.
“I’m fine as long as it doesn’t pee on my leg,” said a police officer as a dog sniffed at him. Passersby snapped photos and boat tour workers kneeled down to pet the dogs as they brushed past.
But not everyone was feeling the love, even for this particularly obedient and well-behaved group.
A man pushing his grandson in a stroller who only gave his first name, Nick, steered clear. Nodding his head in the direction of a dog on a pink leash, he said, “I wouldn’t want to get near that dog.”
The parade petered out in a field not far from the aquarium. As owners and dogs lolled in the grass. Houliaras chatted with other owners. At her feet lay her docile 4-year-old pit bull, Ruby. When Ruby, a therapy dog, gets this way, which is often, Houliaras looks at her and says, “so much for an inherently dangerous dog.”