How does dog-bite lawyer Kenneth M. Phillips feel about pit bulls?

“To sum up how I feel about pit bulls: If the pit bull were a toy imported from China, we would all be up in arms. We would say, ‘This is clearly defective. Don’t let it into the country. Send it back because there’s something wrong with it.’”

On the danger of pit bulls, Phillips, who handles only dog-bite cases, is unequivocal. “This ain’t man’s best friend,” he says. “This is a terrorist living among us, pretending to be one of us.”

If comparing a dog to a terrorist sleeper cell seems extreme, listen to what the other side has to say about how pit bulls are treated in this country:

“It’s discrimination. It’s pretty bad. You feel like a black person in the ’50s in Georgia. I see what those people went through. It’s very disheartening and it’s very hurtful.”

That’s Marthina McClay, founder of Our Pack, a pit bull rescue and education organization based out of San Jose. McClay says the last 20 or so years have brought with them an onslaught of myths, rumors and antagonism toward a breed of dog that was once known affectionately as “America’s dog,” circa 1900. As a result, shelters across the country are overflowing with pit bulls, and certain cities outright ban them, allowing officials to seize and euthanize any pit bulls living undercover, even if they have no history of violent behavior. 

Lydia Graecyn, a Santa Cruz resident and the proud owner of a blue-nosed pit bull, has done a lot of research on the aftermath of pit-bull-based Breed Specific Legislation (BSL for short).

“There are some really horrible pictures that look eerily like the Holocaust,” Graecyn says. “There are pictures where there are just rows and rows and rows [of dead pit bulls].”

The views on both sides are heated, for sure. Anti-pit-bull propaganda has even popularized the idea that the breed has a locking jaw (untrue, no mammals do). But it’s the debate itself that is perhaps the most jaw-dropping thing of all.


Ban the Breed?

Due to high rates of reported human fatalities from pit bull bites in the last few decades, numerous cities and counties across the country have passed restrictions on the breed. But McClay notes that some states have more recently begun to repeal pit bull bans, finding them ineffective in decreasing the number of bites.

“They say, ‘We banned all the dangerous dogs.’ It’s the stupidest thing, because all dogs bite. They think that no other dog can be dangerous, when in fact any dog can be dangerous,” says McClay.

California has no statewide BSL and no ban on pit bulls, but local animal control authorities have some jurisdiction when it comes to minor restrictions. For example, Sonoma County as well as the cities of Barstow, Highland, Hollister, Manteca, San Francisco, Ventura and Yucaipa require mandatory spay/neutering of pit bulls. San Bernardino County passed an ordinance this summer that requires all pit bulls to be registered.

Bans notwithstanding, pit bulls’ bad rap has caused an influx of the breed in shelters nationwide.

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter General Manager Melanie Sobel says that of all the dogs in the animal shelter here, 15 percent were pit bulls as of 2011. “It’s difficult to find homes for them, because people are afraid,” she says.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that dogs bite at least 4.7 million people each year, and half of the victims are children. In 2000, the CDC released a report that looked at 20 years of human dog bite fatalities. It determined simply, “Fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers).”

The report says Rottweilers and pit bull-type dogs accounted for 67 percent of human dog bite-related fatalities in the United States between 1997 and 1998, and concludes it’s “extremely unlikely that they accounted for anywhere near 60% of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities.”

In Santa Cruz County in 2011, pit bulls accounted for 14.7 percent of the total reported dog bites. But Sobel says that, when it comes to pit bulls, numbers can lie.

“All dogs can bite. All dogs have the propensity to bite. In fact, smaller dogs bite more frequently, but larger dogs can inflict more harm, so those are the ones you tend to hear about in the media,” she says. She also claims a “hysteria” of anti-pit-bull thinking leads police officers and emergency room doctors to incorrectly report a dog as a pit bull, when really it was a mix or a different breed altogether.

For a dog to be classified as a pit bull according to the United Kennel Club, only one breed qualifies: The American Pit Bull Terrier.  The American Kennel Club also includes the American Staffordshire Terrier or a Staffordshire Bull Terrier under the umbrella of “pit bull.” According to the pit bull advocacy website Understand-A-Bull (tag line: “Punish the deed, not the breed!”), there are over 20 other breeds of dogs commonly misidentified as pit bulls.

Our Pack director of marketing and certified dog trainer Stephanie Lam says the term “pit bull” is all too often used to describe any dog with a blocky head and muscular body. In a presentation she regularly gives at animal shelters around the Bay called “Pit Bulls 101,” she projects a slide of a brown and white spotted horse with a word bubble coming out of its mouth that says, “Woof! Woof!” and jokes that by most people’s definition, a horse could qualify as a pit bull.

Attorney Phillips says that in his practice he defines a pit bull more generally. He says he looks for a triangular head, broad chest and small eyes. “It’s not a breed, it is a collection of characteristics of a dog,” he says. “You can call it what you want, you can call it the ‘American Southern Bulldog Special’— I don’t care what you call it, it’s a pit bull.” 


A Dog’s Life

Graecyn, the Santa Cruz pit bull owner, says there is no mistaking that her dog, Selkie, is definitely a pit bull. Because of that, she has to be cautious both of the negative and positive associations with the breed.

“She’s a really beautiful dog…I don’t take her to the beach in the summer because just walking around Santa Cruz it’s very common for some strange person to stop or yell at me from their car and say, ‘Hey, can I buy your dog?’ or ‘Can I breed your dog?’ And it’s like, this is my friend,” she says.

Graecyn keeps a folder of vintage pit bull photos on her computer, which she uses to supplement the informative fliers she creates about pit bulls and brings with her on walks with Selkie. When someone expresses either interest in or disdain for her dog, Graecyn hands them a flyer featuring statements such as, “Pit bulls and pit bull mixes account for less than  of all dog attacks, only 21%” and “it’s important to understand the paradoxical truth that my pit bull is gentle and friendly and great with kids because of, not in spite of, her breed’s history of selective breeding for fighting purposes.”

She says that pit bulls’ history of being bred to fight has less to do with being violent, and more to do with being highly responsive to humans. “No one would referee a fight if the dog wouldn’t back off when a human said so. This has been bred into them,” Graecyn says.

Of course, things don’t always work out as they should. Sarah Riccabona of Santa Cruz was bitten by her 5-year-old pit bull, DeDe, last week. A friend brought her Chihuahua over to Riccabona’s house, and DeDe—who does have a history of aggression towards other dogs—got into a fight with the Chihuahua. 

“I grabbed DeDe’s harness on her back. She turned and just nipped on my arm,” Riccabona recounts. She had to go to the ER and was treated for a one and a half-inch gash on her forearm.

Riccabona says DeDe had never shown aggression towards humans. “It was very interesting to kind of see that side of her. It did surprise me that she snapped on me.”

Phillips would argue that the randomness and unexpected nature of the attack is classic pit bull behavior.

“This particular dog has been known over and over again to attack without warning and without provocation,” he says. “We have pit bulls who live in a house with a baby, and at some point somebody is holding the baby and all of a sudden the pit bull, which has appeared totally normal to that point, flies off the floor without warning, without a bark, without expression, and in midair, grabs the baby with its teeth and kills the baby. We have that over and over again.”

Graecyn says this “killer” generalization of pit bulls couldn’t be further from the truth. “Selkie’s best days are when my friend comes over, and she’s got a five year old, a three year old and a two year old. One of them will be pulling Selkie’s ears, another one’s got his hand down her throat, another one’s yanking on the tail, and she’s just never been happier,” she says.


Nature or Nurture

While they will admit to certain characteristics that some breeders may aim for, pit bull advocates uniformly say it’s irresponsible to judge any dog by its breed, rather than its individual personality. Any dog can become aggressive if it is not socialized properly, insists the Santa Cruz Animal Shelter’s Sobel.

Pit bulls’ reputation, however, has led to something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. “They are now the popular breed with, frankly, irresponsible owners,” says Sobel.

“A pit bull attack is reported in the news more often than others, and is very sensationalized,” says McClay. “Every time that happens, it advertises to more unscrupulous people who say, ‘Oh, I want a dog like that.’ And nice people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want a dog like that.’”

McClay says breed is a moot point. Even if there are traits commonly associated with a particular breed of dog, she says the washout is so great that many dogs don’t possess the traits they’re expected to. “I’ve had clients that are like, ‘Can you teach my Retriever to retrieve?’” she says.

“The first and only face transplant on a human that was performed was due to a Labrador Retriever,” she adds. “Ripped a lady’s face off, literally.”

During Lam’s “Pit Bulls 101” class, a woman tells her that her four-year-old pit bull recently attacked another dog—the first sign of aggression the dog has ever shown. Lam asks about the situation. Was the pit bull on a leash? Did the other dog come running up out of nowhere? Yes and yes, the woman replies. She says the attack may have been something called “prey drive,” which exists in all dogs. She encouraged the woman to step behind a car or tree or even pick her dog up if a similar situation arises in the future. The most important thing is to know your dog, train and socialize it, and know how it will react in certain situations, she tells the woman.

Riccabona says she learned from the experience of being bitten by her dog, and vowed never to open the door if DeDe is behind her. For good measure, she’s extending the same rules to her shy Golden Retriever/poodle mix.

“I’m not going to answer my door with the dog behind me, no matter how sweet it is. Either dog. An animal can turn at any time, no matter how much you think you know them.”