As president of Bully Breed Rescue, Inc. of New Canaan, Heidi Lueders is dedicated to educating people about pit bulls. Yet when she first saw a photo of Lacey, the pit bull she adopted seven years ago, her lack of familiarity with anything about the breed actually worked in her favor.
"I didn't have any apprehension," says the 25-year-old, because she had missed "all the negative media hype" about these oft-maligned dogs. "It (the hype) wasn't big in New Canaan," she explains.
Nor, for that matter, were pit bulls. Lueders can't recall encountering a single pit bull while growing up in the affluent town.
Only after adopting Lacey, part of a backyard litter bred for fighting in the South, did Lueders learn that the breed once loved and lauded as "America's dog" is now widely feared — all because a small subset of American society co-opted these dogs and forced them to become fighters.
Large numbers of rescued dogs are often transported together from Southern states to adoptive homes in New England, and when Lueders picked up Lacey she saw that many of the dogs were pit bulls or pit-bull mixes.
After realizing that the majority of dogs in Connecticut shelters fit the same profile, she founded Bully Breed Rescue in 2007. Since then, by her count she and other volunteers have helped rescue and place more than 300 pit bulls.
Michael Kendig, a 33-year-old veterinarian and Florida native who recently took charge of the Groton-Ledyard Veterinary Hospital, says pit bulls and pit bull mixes are typically the majority in shelters around the country.
Kendig has three dogs: Ginger, a 15-year-old cocker spaniel; Lexi, a 9-year-old shepherd-hound mix, and Trixie, a 6-year-old Brindle pit bull. He also has one cat, Norm, who bosses all the dogs around.
Trixie is his most recent adoption, and because "pit bulls are the ones that usually get euthanized in shelters everywhere," he has vowed only to adopt a pit bull or pit bull mix for the foreseeable future.
Trixie Charms New Owner
Kendig wasn't looking for a pit bull when he found Trixie in 2008 at a shelter in Florida, his home state until last year. He went to the shelter to adopt a German shepherd he had seen on Petfinder.com, but when he arrived that dog was already being loaded into a new owner's car.
On a whim, he then asked to see "the dog least likely to be adopted." They brought out Trixie, then a year old. Her cage chart said her former owner had moved to a residence that didn't allow pit bulls.
"She walked right up to me, put her head in my lap and went to sleep," Kendig recalls. "From that moment on I knew she would be my dog."
Kendig thinks Trixie may have a trace of Lab in her, judging by the thick fur on her haunches. But the gentle, friendly dog is unmistakably a pit bull, the common name for an American Pit Bull Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier.
As soon as Kendig brought her home he ran headlong into the stigma. A friend and neighbor who had sold him his homeowner's insurance warned that Trixie could be a liability. His father, who later adopted a pit bull himself, feared that Trixie would limit his options if he wanted to move.
Before moving to Connecticut, Kendig abandoned the idea of buying an Aurora, Colo., veterinary practice because that city had a pit-bull ban. He bought the practice here in part because it came with an on-site apartment, so he wouldn't risk being rejected for a rental while waiting for his Florida house to sell.
Animal rights activists nationwide are fighting breed-specific legislation and regulations ("BSL") with mixed results.
Raymond Connors, the state of Connecticut's chief animal control officer, says he knows of no town or city here with breed specific legislation on its books. But that doesn't preclude restrictions related to residences or insurance coverage.
According to a 2012 report on Forbes.com, four dog breeds are most apt to cause insurers to deny coverage. Pit bulls and Staffordshire Terriers lead the list, followed by Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, and German shepherds.
A bill to prohibit insurance companies from denying or altering coverage based on breed was introduced at the Connecticut legislature in 2005, but died in committee. Connors says he has heard that a similar bill may be re-introduced.
Educating The Public
If prejudice against pit bulls is at all waning, Kendig credits "Dog Whisperer" and pit bull owner Cesar Millan, television shows like Animal Planet's "Pit Boss," and grassroots advocates like Lueders.
This month, Millan is presenting a "Famous and Heroic Pit Bull Gallery" on his website, Cesar's Way. Featured pups include Helen Keller's therapy dog, Sir Thomas, and Sergeant Stubby, the most decorated dog of World War I. Stubby, whose diverse feats ranged from capturing a German spy to serving as a "comfort dog" for wounded U.S. soldiers, was the first dog ever received by a sitting U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson.
Bully Breed Rescue doesn't have its own facility. Adoptable dogs are housed in foster homes or at Best Friends Pet Care in Norwalk, where Sunday, Feb. 10, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bully Breed volunteers will present their third annual Valentine-themed "Love-a-Bull Adoption Event."
Dogs will be on hand for a meet-and-greet, but no adoption can be finalized without a home visit and references. Most important, if an adoption doesn't work out, the group pledges to take the dog back.
Lueders, who works as a dog trainer, says to her knowledge no dog has ever been returned to them for aggressive behavior. Predictably, the reason most often given is residence regulations or insurance issues.
Experts agree that violence isn't inherently characteristic of pit bulls, once known as "nanny dogs" because they are so good with children. Stories told by Bully Breed volunteers imply that if anything is characteristic of pit bulls, it is the violence that's been done to them.
Take Smooch, so-named because he loves to receive and give kisses. The dog was found with severe bite wounds around his neck, shoulders and face, says Bully Breed volunteer Kellen Freeman.
Smooch was also wearing a muzzle, Freeman says, a sign that "he was used as a bait dog — a defenseless, often submissive and weak dog that (human) fighters often use as practice for their fighting dogs." Mama, another rescued bait dog, was found "absolutely torn apart" and is still healing.
Freeman, a 25-year-old construction estimator, adopted his first pit bull while he was a college student and his second, Ozzy, after fostering the dog.
Ozzy was found as a starving, mangy 46-pound stray, and has since evolved into a 70-pound canine athlete with a beautiful coat, Freeman reports proudly. He looks forward to entering Ozzy in canine sports events this spring.
For more information: http://www.bullybreedrescueinc.org.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times