Her siren was a pit bull named Sally.
The dog’s white-tan muscular body and vibrant energy drew Donna Reynolds in at Berkeley’s Animal Care Services in 1998. Sally was slated for euthanasia the next day, but she had no record of poor behavior, and was just 10 months old. There was something so alive about the dog that Reynolds overlooked the unpredictable and violent labels often used to describe pit bulls. She brought Sally home.
“I’ve been lied to,” Reynolds recalls thinking of the negative things she’d heard about pit bulls. “This is the most amazing dog I’ve met.”
And with that, the seed was planted for BAD RAP, a pit bull advocacy organization.
BAD RAP is a nonprofit aiming to end the poor treatment and unnecessary deaths of pit bulls. The breed is used in dogfighting rings, discriminated against by landlords and insurance brokers when dog owners seek housing and renters insurance, and is still up against the vestiges of a negative spate of press from the 1980s and 1990s. BAD RAP’s name—once an acronym for Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls—now stands on its own, a reminder of the slang term for “bad reputation,” which Reynolds works to dispel.
BAD RAP’s website devotes a page to myth-busting with questions like, “Aren’t pit bulls mean and vicious?” (Answer: “No more vicious than golden retrievers, beagles or other popular dogs!”) and “Don’t pit bulls have locking jaws?” (Answer: “Don’t be silly. A pit bull’s ability to ‘lock on’ with its jaws is one whopper of a myth that refuses to let go.”) Below each “monster myth,” the organization refutes the claims with quotes from researchers and links to data about dog behavior.
The organization advocates for fair treatment of pit bulls, educates people about handling the animals, trains dogs, and offers a spay and neuter program. They even rescue and adopt out a small number of dogs each year—it “reminds us of the soul of our organization,” Reynolds said.
On a recent Saturday, BAD RAP held a “Pits & Giggles” event in the Oakland hills to mark the organization’s 15th anniversary. Reynolds, Tim Racer—her BAD RAP cofounder and husband—and approximately 150 supporters mingled around a fire pit, danced to Zydeco, and visited the handful of dogs up for adoption in their “Rescue Barn” adorned with white Christmas lights. Several guests brought their own dogs, leashed and wearing festive costumes—most of those animals owe their lives to BAD RAP’s work.
The world hasn’t been kind to pit bulls, and some believe there are legitimate reasons for this treatment. The bulldog, an ancestor to the pit bull, was bred to “bait,” or fight, bulls and other large animals. When this activity was outlawed in the 1800s and dog-against-dog fighting rose in its stead, the dogs were bred with smaller, more athletic terriers, bringing about the modern day pit bull variety. In the 2007 book The Pit Bull Placebo, Karen Delise, founder of the National Canine Research Council, wrote that by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pit bulls were rarely used for bull-baiting or dogfighting, and instead “were used to assist and accompany their masters in the daily tasks of living.” In other words, they became pets. (In fact, this reporter has a pet pit bull.)
Pit bulls held a soft spot in the hearts of American entertainment-makers in the early 1900s. Comic strip character Buster Brown had a pit bull named Tige. The Little Rascals had Pete the Pup, a white dog with a dark ring encircling his left eye. But then the pit bull’s image changed again. “By the middle of the 1970s there became an emerging public awareness of the cruel practice of dogfighting in the United States,” Delise continued. Law enforcement and the media began to portray pit bulls as more vicious than the innocuous Pete the Pup. In 1976, a California boy was killed by a pit bull, which prompted the media to increasingly portray the breed as violent to people, not just other dogs.
Most emblematic of this environment is a 1987 Sports Illustrated magazine with a snarling pit bull on its cover, the words “Beware of This Dog: The Pit Bull Terrier” emblazoned on the front. The article covered the pit bull debate (“Is the pit bull a fine animal, as its admirers claim, or is it a vicious dog, unfit for society?” asked reporter E.M. Swift), but also contained frightening information about the dogs. (“In the last 18 months, 12 of the 18 confirmed dog-related fatalities in the U.S. —or 67 percent—have been caused by the pit bull terrier.”)
Meanwhile, perhaps because of its reputation as a tough dog, the pit bull became more popular with “unsuitable owners who seek dogs to increase their status as a person of power,” Delise wrote, and the dogs were increasingly “portrayed in negative functions (fighting, guarding drug stashes, etc.).”
Allison Lindquist, president and CEO of the East Bay Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also remembers pit bulls becoming popular because of their “tough looks” around the 1980s. Exploitation of this breed for their image was a huge detriment to the dogs, Lindquist said. “It causes thousands of pits their lives every day,” she said, because people are less likely to adopt them. As a result, she said, they are the most euthanized breed in shelters regionally, and the euthanasia rates are probably worse nationwide.
One reaction to the pit bull hype was development of “breed specific legislation,” or laws that apply to specific dog types. Denver banned pit bulls in 1989, and today San Francisco requires all pit bulls to be spayed or neutered, on the theory that fixed dogs are less violent. Angela Padilla, founder of the nonprofit Northern California Family Dog Rescue, said she has seen more pit bulls end up in shelters over the last five years as landlords and big-name insurance companies have increasingly excluded this type of dog from their property and insurance plans.
Oakland Animal Services officers and directors of major Bay Area animal rescue groups say they are not aware of a pit bull killing any person in Oakland, and Internet searches yield no evidence of a recent incident like this. But there are reports of deaths caused by pit bulls in other Bay Area cities. Among the most recent: A family’s pit bull killed a 6-year-old boy in Union City in 2013, and a pregnant Pacifica woman was killed by a pit bull in 2011. In 2000, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released a 20-year study that reviewed dog breeds associated with fatal attacks. The study concluded that of the 238 deaths, pit bulls were responsible for 76, more than any other breed.
But pit bull advocates argue that while tragic, these are isolated instances, and pit bulls may not be as aggressive as people think. “It’s really just a dog. It doesn’t have special powers, it can’t lock its jaw. It’s a smart dog. It’s easy to train,” Lindquist said. Reynolds said that even when BAD RAP has worked with dogs that had previously been mistreated or involved in dogfighting operations “we were surprised and blown away by how great the dogs were” when evaluated for temperament. “Strength, confidence, a sense of humor and a zest for life are all hallmarks of the breed,” BAD RAP’s website states. “Properly socialized dogs are quite affectionate and friendly, even with strangers, and therefore do not make good guard dogs.”
The nonprofit American Temperament Test Society, Inc. promotes uniform temperament tests across dog breeds. Passing their test means a dog does not show panic, unprovoked aggression, or avoidance (backing away or trying to escape). In 2013, the passing rates for various pit bull breeds ranged from 84.5 to 90.7 percent. Other popular dogs like Golden Retrievers averaged an 85.2 percent passage rate, and Labrador Retrievers clocked in at 92 percent. And in a 2008 study of 30 breeds by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and National Taiwan Normal University, Chihuahuas and Dachshunds scored above average in aggression towards people, while pit bulls scored below. In this same study, however, pit bulls scored above average—along with Jack Russell Terriers and a few other breeds—for aggression directed at other dogs.
Pit bulls “are not necessarily more aggressive than other breeds. However they do tend to be more dog-aggressive as, unfortunately, they have been bred to fight dogs,” said Melissa Bain, a veterinarian and assistant professor of clinical animal behavior at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Bain said their negative perception is related to more frequently being owned or “used” by people involved in illegal activities.
And even if pit bulls are not more inclined to attack humans, Bain said, because of their strength, their bite will do more damage than that of a smaller dog. Attacks by smaller breeds may go unreported, she added, because they cause less harm.
For these reasons, animal rescue groups like the Milo Foundation, which is based in Richmond, California, take extra precautions when accepting pit bulls or preparing them for adoption. Founder Lynne Tingle said she tests pit bulls more thoroughly for good behavior. Tingle said pit bulls “take a long time to place anyway,” so it’s all the more important that the dogs who are adopted will not hurt anyone or become a liability. The breed “already has such a bad reputation that we need dogs to show [pit bulls] are really wonderful,” she said.
So is the public ambiguity Reynolds and Racer were up against when they began BAD RAP.
Reynolds didn’t envision a career as a fulltime pit bull rescuer. She and Racer met at art school in Detroit, and worked for years as artists and illustrators for the advertising industry in Chicago before relocating to the West Coast. In 1998 they already had two dogs—not pit bulls—when Sally joined the family as a birthday gift for Racer.
Disturbed by how life with Sally wasn’t at all like pit bulls’ public image, Reynolds and Racer created a website focused on pit bull rescue and misconceptions about the breed. It was 1999, and the Internet was still relatively new, yet within a week the pair was overwhelmed by emails and phone calls from people who had questions or who wanted to help the dogs. “We’ve tapped a vein,” Reynolds thought. “The public wanted it. I’m not sure if we were ready.”
Over the past 15 years, BAD RAP broadened into a national advocacy organization. Their education programs—for both dogs and people—not only focus on training pit bulls in dog manners, but on countering their tough-dog image. BAD RAP offers mobile spaying and neutering services with a van that reaches communities with limited access to veterinary care. Reynolds and Racer travel cross-country to speak at conferences, partner with shelters to create solutions for working with pit bulls, and evaluate dogs with rough pasts to determine if they are adoptable.
The luckiest of the adoptable dogs end up at the Rescue Barn, an immaculate, boutique shelter with a yard littered with toys and a kids’ playset refashioned for canines. The group only takes 12 to 15 dogs at a time, so they can focus on advocacy and education. The dogs that end up at BAD RAP are there because the stars aligned—there’s space at the barn, and that dog could especially benefit from a place where they can “rest and play and be dogs,” as Reynolds put it.
“We put a different face on the breed; the true face,” Racer said. After the negative publicity of the 1980s, he said, “We knew it was all about marketing.” So BAD RAP’s website uses a wholesome, family-friendly dog image of the pit bull. Kids are all smiles with their arms around the blocky-headed dogs, and vintage photos of dogs with families show the historic love for the breed. Dogs up for adoption have their own Facebook pages; one currently has over 2,500 “likes.” A September Facebook post about Sally, who is still alive at 17, has a conversation chain 137 comments long.
Racer said BAD RAP’s biggest accomplishment was showing that animals from dogfighting rings can be rehabilitated and live safely with families. Before 2007, dogs rescued from fighting rings were generally considered damaged beyond help, and a waste of the finite resources of shelters and rescue groups. But strangely enough, said Racer, their biggest win arose from a case of serious animal cruelty.
In 2007, authorities busted football player Michael Vick for operating a dogfighting ring. The New York Jets quarterback served 21 months in prison, and 51 pit bulls belonging to Vick were seized. Instead of euthanizing the dogs, an evaluation team, including Reynolds and Racer, reviewed each animal’s behavior. Only one of the 51 dogs was deemed too violent for rehabilitation, and was later euthanized. Racer remembers the dog—she was quite aggressive to humans, he said, but then again, all she knew was a life in which she had been fought and bred. BAD RAP took 10 of these dogs back to California and placed them with families. These dogs and their adopters became news darlings, the poster dogs for pit bull rescue.
Over the years, public attitudes towards pit pulls began to change. Sports Illustrated, the magazine that helped perpetuate the idea of the vicious pit bull, published a story in 2008 about where Vick’s dogs ended up. This article was sympathetic towards the pit bulls, describing the awful conditions in which they had once been held, and portraying young children showering the dogs with affection. (“The girl kisses the dog. The dog licks the girl’s entire face,” wrote author Jim Gorant.)
In Oakland, Officer Jackie Pan, who has worked in the Oakland Animal Services shelter for 13 years, said he noticed pit bull adoptions increasing over time. According to shelter data, adoptions of pit bulls and pit mixes has risen—albeit erratically—from 2010 (when they represented 18 percent of all adoptions) to the fall of 2014 (27 percent of all adoptions so far).
Fifteen years after finding Sally, Reynolds is proud of what BAD RAP has accomplished and of all they’ve done to help other people meet their own sirens. And at their anniversary party, as the sun was setting and the Zydeco music was starting up again, a new love story was unfolding between a woman named Kana Takahashi and a pit bull named Monkey.
Monkey, a light brown pit bull with a white stripe down her face, was rescued in 2013 along with 366 other dogs from a multi-state dogfighting ring. Takahashi was drawn to Monkey the moment she saw her on BAD RAP’s website, but like online dating, she said, “Even if you think somebody is cute on the Internet, you have to have the chemistry.” Takahashi started fostering Monkey in June, and by the time of the party she knew more about the dog than that she was cute. She knew Monkey had scars on her legs, likely tests to see if she was a good dogfighter. She knew when Monkey was too hot and needed her red plaid doggie jacket removed. And she knew she wanted to keep Monkey.
So as the music played, Takahashi signed the dog adoption papers. Monkey didn’t understand. She simply stood by her side, watching Takahashi’s every move.