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Bad rap: Pit bull stereotyping

Pit bulls polarize people. Folks either love them or go out of their way to avoid them and it seems everyone has a strong opinion.

In the last 20 years, pit bulls have been increasingly thrust into the spotlight, their strength and fighting ability tailor-made for news headlines.

They have also come to be associated with a thug or crime culture that specializes in illegal dog fighting while using the pit bull as fashion statement and status symbol.



And because of this, many would-be dog owners would probably never consider bringing a pit bull into their home.

Cheryl Wicks, the current director of the Nevada County Animal Shelter and a proud pit bull owner, knows well how difficult it can be to place pit bulls into good homes. Her career at the shelter began in 2001 as a volunteer dog walker; she founded Sammie’s Friends in 2004 and the organization began running the shelter in July of this year.




What Wicks calls a “pivotal moment” came in 2002 when she remembers arriving at the shelter to discover a baby pit bull (later named Fred) had been brought in with a broken leg.

“I like pit bulls, but not everyone does, and they are harder to find homes for than other dogs because of all the negative press and media about them,” Wicks said. “With the broken leg, I thought there was not a prayer this dog was going to be adopted. I called one of the local vets and got his leg fixed and found a foster home for him, and eventually he was adopted by a family in San Jose. The last time I saw Fred was in a video that the family sent me. It showed him swinging in a hammock and running on the beach. I thought that was the best 700 bucks I ever spent in my life; the dog was happy and had a good home.”

Wicks believes that pit bulls have been excessively stereotyped, with media coverage playing the largest role in shaping the public’s misconceptions. She doesn’t deny that an out-of-control pit bull is capable of inflicting great damage to other animals and sometimes humans, but believes that the very small percentage of dogs involved in attacks should not be used to generalize the breed as a whole.

She cites statistics showing people are at greater risk for injury or death due to falling, drowning or spousal abuse than they are from dog attacks.

According to Wicks, there are on average 32 total deaths each year in the U.S. attributed to dog attacks. Compare that to the 25,000 people who die each year from drunk-driving related accidents, and you can begin to understand her frustration.

“Children are 800 times more likely to be killed by their own adult caretaker than they are from a pit bull,” she said.

Nevada County Animal Control Officer Bruce Baggett doesn’t discount Wicks’ assertion that pit bulls can make good pets, but warns there is the potential for problems around other animals.

“We had the opportunity last year to go through some specialized pit-bull training, where we were able to find out their exact origins and learned that they were specifically bred to kill other dogs, but also specifically bred to be friendly around humans,” Baggett said. “They are usually good around humans, but not other animals. They are hard-wired that way, you can’t train it out of them, you have to manage it. Pit bull activists will tell you that I’m wrong, but I know what we deal with.”

The recent rise in the pit bull population has presented a special challenge for people like Baggett, who are employed to help protect the public and its property.

“For a while we were getting calls about pit bulls versus everything under the sun every day for months,” Baggett said. “It’s finally easing up now, but we’ve had problems with them killing livestock of all sorts and going after other dogs. If they bite someone, it’s usually because they have gotten in the middle of a dog fight. Pit bulls are basically a muscle with a brain and are intensely strong.”

Knowing a breed’s tendencies can help in managing a dog and possibly avoiding an ugly situation.

“Many pit bulls live with other dogs and get along with them just great, but they are more likely to get into a dog fight than, say, a Labrador retriever or border collie or many other breeds,” Wicks said. “You have to remember that, but at the same time you should not assume that every pit bull fights with other dogs.”

The struggle to place pit bulls from the animal shelter into good homes continues. Wicks believes that at least half of the people who come into the shelter have already bought into the pit bull stereotype and are not interested in taking one home for a pet.

And of the half open to pit bull adoption, a large percentage appear to be members of a subculture that wants a macho-looking dog that they can put a spike collar on and parade around town.

“Basically it’s a small number of people who come into the shelter who are responsible and don’t want the dog for perhaps the wrong reasons,” she said.

Any lengthy discussion of pit bulls will usually invoke the name of a famous NFL quarterback who spent time in prison due to activities around a dog-fighting ring that he was bankrolling.

Photos of the dogs involved helped paint a gruesome picture of what their lives had been like, fighting for sport. But Wicks believes it’s the follow-up story to that sad episode that is most instructive.

“Remember Michael Vick? Initially they were just going to put all of his pit bulls down, but then the humane society got involved along with Bad Rap, which is a pit bull organization and pit bull rescue central,” Wicks said.

“There were 50 dogs and one was euthanized because it was physically shredded and another because it was so out of control, but of the other 48, a large percentage of them now live in homes with other dogs that they do not fight with. Sure, it took some rehabilitation, but quite a few of them are now able to live with other dogs. Isn’t that shocking?”

To get more information about pit bulls and their suitability as family pets, go to http://www.badrap.org or http://www.pbrc.net.

Tom Kellar is a freelance writer living in Cedar Ridge.


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