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Pit bulls get second chance, and new home, under Hillsborough program

TAMPA — Pebbles' short brown tail beat like a windshield wiper in a Florida downpour.

Her body wiggled excitedly as her handler, Christina Seghi, stroked the 2-year-old pit bull's short fur.

"She's a smiler," cooed Seghi, a veterinarian technician with Hillsborough County Animal Services.

But will she turn vicious at a moment's notice? That's what the trained pit bull assessor was trying to determine.

Seghi blew in the dog's eyes, put a finger in her mouth, waved a fake arm in front of her face, stole her food and introduced her to two other dogs.

The dog's tail kept thumping, her body relaxed. Maybe even a little flirty, Seghi noted. Good.

After about 20 minutes. she gave the pit bull the okay.

Pebbles, once part of a suspected Plant City dog-fighting ring, is ready for a second chance.

• • •

Many see pit bulls as brutal killing machines — two rows of teeth attached to a bad attitude.

They cite statistics.

Pit bull mixes are responsible for 12 of 18 fatal dog bites nationally so far this year, according to dogsbite.org, a group that seeks to reduce dog attacks through legislation. In three years, they killed 59 people in the United States, about 60 percent of all fatal dog bites in that period, the group says.

They cite dramatic headlines.

"Pit bull mix blamed for death of 7-day-old New Port Richey infant."

That's a headline from April after Thomas James Carter Jr. was found dead on his mother's bed. His tiny body had more than 50 puncture wounds. A 45-pound pit bull mix named Sidon was the culprit.

Yet, animal workers and pit bull owners swear by the breed and lash out against misrepresentations.

Experts say the number of pit bulls involved in attacks, fatal or not, is overstated because many dogs assumed to be pit bulls are not. A St. Petersburg Times review published in April found that breed was not a common factor in the 10 fatal dog attacks that occurred over five years in Florida.

"Hold on. Hold on. Hold on," said Marti Ryan, a spokeswoman with Hillsborough County Animal Services. "These dogs would lick you to death first."

It's the owners who aren't handling this high-maintenance breed properly, who have bred them for decades to fight and who have done irreparable damage to many, she says.

"We know that the person on the other end of the leash is ultimately responsible," Ryan said.

• • •

They want pit bulls to get good homes.

That's the mission of Hillsborough County Animal Services, a local and regional expert on pit bull assessment.

Since 2007, the service has given about 500 pit bulls new homes through its Pit Bull Ambassador program. It's the only one of its kind in the Tampa Bay area.

"In many cases, they would have been put down," Ryan said. "We would not have had the confidence and the information to allow them into these new families."

The program separates aggressive pit bulls from friendly ones, determining if the dogs are safe for adoption. Those that make it become "ambassadors" for the breed. Those that don't will likely be euthanized.

Many pit bulls don't pass the test.

Four adult males recovered alongside Pebbles were too aggressive to be adopted and were put down. Two of the dogs were too young — under 2 years old — to become ambassadors and were shipped to rescue groups.

Animal services officials say that they never have been sued for one of their program's pit bulls injuring someone and that the program is constantly improving. Through improved assessment, marketing and more volunteers, it is growing. Ultimately, this means more pit bulls are finding homes.

Pinellas County Animal Services doesn't have a specific pit bull assessment program, though it gives all animals a general health and assessment test before putting them up for adoption, spokesman Greg Andrews said.

"I wouldn't want to put one breed in a spotlight over another," he said. "We want to spotlight them all."

Donna Reynolds, the executive director of the California-based nonprofit BAD RAP, which trained Hillsborough's pit bull assessors, said pit bulls need emphasis because the public likes that level of reassurance.

"We might call it an affirmative-action program for a breed that's suffered a lot of unnecessary condemnation," she said in an e-mail.

• • •

A few weeks ago, things didn't look so promising for Pebbles.

She was one of eight pit bulls retrieved by animal services in late July from a man now facing 22 dog-fighting-related charges.

The shed the dogs once fought in had three layers of carpet, each soaked with blood. The walls, too, were tainted red.

One of the other dogs was missing its entire upper lip. Others were missing teeth and were scarred, or suffered from apparent neurological damage that caused their heads to bob and weave. None had a name.

Investigators said Pebbles' owners likely would have forced her to breed had she stayed. But she didn't.

Now she's waiting for a new home.

Pit bulls get second chance, and new home, under Hillsborough program 08/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 7:04am]
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