By JACQUIELYNN FLOYD / The Dallas Morning News
Laura Dapkus used to shy off the topic when the conversation turned to animals.
It was easier to skip the shocked stares, the rude questions, the intimation that she's in the same class with wackos who try to keep live tigers or poisonous snakes as pets.
Ms. Dapkus and her husband – self-described left-leaning, NPR-listening types – are devoted to their four dogs: a fluffy apricot chow and three pit bulls.
"I've heard some of the meanest comments," she said with a sigh. "People will say, 'Why would you want that in your house?' It's like somebody saying, 'Boy, your baby sure is ugly.' "
Most of us accept it as gospel that the strong-jawed, square-headed terrier breeds known collectively as "pit bulls" are dangerous. The anecdotal evidence is everywhere: stories about children being attacked or other animals being preyed upon. The savage pit bull guarding the crack house or speed lab, straining at its chain and foaming with frustrated fury, is a staple cop-show cliché.
Laura Dapkus talks about her pit bulls
Only Thursday, a woman reported that two stray pit bulls attacked her and killed her dog in Oak Cliff. On Wednesday, a 12-year-old boy on his way home from school in the Red Bird area was bitten by a pit bull that also threatened other people.
I like dogs and cats of pretty much every type. In my family, we're especially partial to slobbery labs and spoiled wiener dogs. But I suppose I bought into the notion that pit bulls are naturally mean and unpredictable, even though I had never met one personally.
It took Loretta Lynn and Lucy roughly five minutes to convince me that this sweeping judgment might be unfairly prejudicial.
Loretta, a black-and-tan brindle wearing a comically dainty pink rhinestone collar, and Lucy, a fawn-and-white senior citizen who has grown a trifle deaf with age, are utterly endearing dogs. Both were strays before being rescued by Ms. Dapkus.
"Every time a pit bull does something, it gets in the paper," she said pointedly. "If they really bit at the rate that people think they do, we'd all be getting bitten left and right."
Well, there's no question the dogs get bad press – so bad that many cities and even entire regions have enacted "breed specific" ordinances making them illegal to own.
DeSoto considered such an ordinance but decided against it last year. Denver and many smaller communities have outlawed pit bulls entirely, while other cities require that the dogs be neutered at a young age, or muzzled at all times. Landlords and homeowners association routinely forbid residents to keep pit bulls.
"If my husband got the job offer of a lifetime and it was in Denver, we'd have to say, 'Sorry, but no thanks,' " Ms. Dapkus said.
So here's the money question: Are Lucy and Loretta aberrations? Or does the breed really have an unfair reputation?
"These are wonderful dogs," said Birgit Wingate, whose pit bull, Ali, is a certified search-and-rescue dog. "People are afraid of these dogs, but when they see my little boy working, they change their minds."
Ms. Wingate and Ms. Dapkus became friends through the Lone Star State Pit Bull Club, which they say includes owners ranging from tattooed bikers to blue-haired grandmas.
The problem, they insist, isn't the breed ("pit bull" covers several related breeds, including that long-faced dog on the Target commercials), but stupid people who mistreat the dogs and train them to fight or attack.
True. But these are genetically strong, tenacious dogs. The ones that do bite are capable of inflicting a lot more damage than, say, a skittish Shih Tzu.
So, isn't it in the interest of public safety to enact citywide bans?
Interestingly, many of the experts say it's not. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society of the United States, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all oppose breed-specific legislation.
A CDC review of dog attacks over 20 years concluded that the number of humans killed is statistically too small to use as a basis for broad policy change.
Instead, the agency supports better bite-prevention policies and education for all breeds, owners and the public in general.
"...[B]reed specific legislation is an inappropriate and ineffective approach to protecting public safety," said an AVMA report published last year.
Too many factors besides a breed's genetic tendencies contribute to a tendency to bite, including socialization, training, health and victim behavior, the report said.
Besides, meeting Lucy and Loretta convinced me that there's more to the breed than all those bad-dog stories.
One sloppy dog kiss won't change the world, of course. But it's awfully persuasive.
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