Pit bull project tries to save more dogs' lives

Abused and abandoned, they live inside 6- by 4-foot concrete enclosures. They get food, water and basic medical care. Once or twice a day, they run in the yard.

Among them are Diva, Chevron and Mary Beth. They wag their tails, play with toys and offer up wet kisses.

Still, people coming to adopt a pet at Hillsborough County Animal Services aren't so sure. According to dogsbite.org, these types of dogs are responsible for more fatal attacks than any other, including the 2010 death of Pasco County infant Thomas J. Carter.

They are pit bulls and Animal Services takes in more than 7,000 each year. Nearly half will be euthanized.

Enter the Shelter Partners for Pit Bulls Project.

In January, Hillsborough was one of four counties in the nation chosen for the program designed to redefine the pit bull image and increase adoption rates. Animal Services, in conjunction with Best Friends Animal Society, received a $240,000 grant from PetSmart Charities to decrease euthanasia by at least 10 percent.

"The idea that they are vicious is a myth," said Connie Johnson, the project's local coordinator. "These dogs are loving companions. They deserve loving homes."

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From the 1900s to 1970s, pit bull terriers reigned as the ideal family pet, historians say. The breed was the all-American poster dog for both World Wars. Obedient and kid friendly, pits popped up in middle and upper class households worldwide.

Then ugly stories started to make the news. Illegal dogfighting. Children maimed.

All pit bulls got lumped into one category and innocent dogs became victims, Johnson said.

In 1987, Sports Illustrated ran a cover photo of a snarling pit with the headline "Beware of this Dog." The article inside compared a pit's bite to a shark attack and posed the question, "Do pit bulls belong in society?"

Neighborhoods banned pit bulls of all types, which includes everything from pit bull terriers to mixed breeds and bull dogs. Ohio passed legislation regulating the dogs.

Only in recent years have advocacy groups such as the Utah-based Best Friends emerged to fight what they say is an unfair stigma.

"Dog aggression is almost always a result of something the owner has done," said Temma Martin, the group's spokeswoman.

•••

In July 2009, Best Friends developed Shelter Partners for Pit Bulls as part of a campaign to "save America's dog."

A start-up effort in Salt Lake City increased the pit bull save rate from 57 to 71 percent. The program expanded across the nation extending to California, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and now Florida.

In Hillsborough, Johnson and volunteers will focus primarily on community outreach.

On June 4, the group will have Pit Bull Day at Rowlett Park in Tampa. The event will include free microchipping and dog-training workshops. Attendees also can browse information booths, shop for pit bull related items and meet adoptable dogs.

"We're bringing these dogs out into the community to show people what they are really like," Johnson said.

There are currently about three dozen pit bull types available at Animal Services. Some came from animal cruelty cases. Others were left tied outside the shelter in the middle of the night.

Adoptable dogs must earn their Canine Good Citizen Certification from the American Kennel Club, meaning they are well-behaved.

"The dogs here need help," Johnson said. "We can only keep them five to 10 days."

•••

Phillip Shurling of Tampa adopted two pit bull puppies this year. Littermates Chum and Ethel, now 6 months old, love to play fetch and get petted behind the ears.

Sometimes they whimper for attention or treats. They come when called, follow commands and are housebroken.

Strangers ask if they bite. Some people see the dogs and cross the street.

"I just ignore it," Shurling said. "I know they're good dogs."

. Fast facts

Want to adopt?

For more information on adoptable dogs and the Shelter Partners for Pit Bulls Project, call Connie Johnson at (813) 363-6300. Hillsborough County Animal Services, 440 N Falkenburg Road, welcomes the public to visit its shelter 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Pit bull project tries to save more dogs' lives 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 3:42pm]

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