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Pit bulls and breed-discriminatory laws: Following Vick’s dog-fighting conviction, what has changed?

St. Louis International Film Festival
Still from "The Champions"

After Michael Vick was convicted for involvement in a long-running illegal dog-fighting ring, more than 50 pit bulls were left behind. What happened to them? A St. Louis International Film Festival documentary, “The Champions,” answers just that question. It also delves into the discrimination pit bulls face as a breed across the United States…sometimes for unfounded reasons.

On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Ledy VanKavage, a senior legislative attorney with Best Friends Animal Society, joined host Don Marsh to discuss the situation.

“What Michael Vick did to the dogs was horrible, but the dogs that survived, they thrived and were a game-changer for all of the other dogs,” said VanKavage, who is from the Metro East. “Prior to that time, pit bull terriers seized in fight busts were killed. After the Vick case, they started being evaluated and got homes. It’s wondrous.”

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Ledy VanKavage

The documentary follows six of the pit bulls that were rescued by Best Friends Animal Society and, through the experiences of St. Charles native and baseball pitcher Mark Buehrle, follows the challenges faced by pit bulls left in the wake of breed-discriminatory laws.

Michael Vick’s fighting ring

Of the 53 dogs rescued from Vick’s fighting ring, most of them went to the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah for rehabilitation. There are now only six dogs left there, including one who is under a court order to stay at the sanctuary for life.

The dogs had experienced unconscionable brutality in the fighting ring and where they were held captive. Some of the pit bulls were electrocuted and others had their backs broken…all in an effort to encourage them to fight.

VanKavage said they were in a terrible state when they came to the sanctuary. “If you’d even look at them, they’d pancake, go to the ground,” she said.

Rehabilitation and perception of pit bulls

No matter the amount of rehabilitation that the pit bulls went through at Best Friends, they still face a formidable barrier on the way to adoption: a perception of violence. That perception is based on myths and population disparities, said VanKavage.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Matthew Beard, Pete the Pup, and Bobby Hutchins in the Our Gang comedy School's Out

Common myths about the breed include that they have more pounds per square inch than any other breed and that the pit bull is the dog of choice for protecting drug stashes. Each of those myths has been debunked in recent years.

At one time, in fact, pit bulls were one of the most admired and popular breeds in the country. They were used to recruit soldiers during World War I, Helen Keller owned one, and people recognized the breed from pop culture, such as Petey from Little Rascals and the RCA dog, which was part bull terrier.

In fact, the popularity of the breed was part of its demise.

"There's always a dangerous dog du jour."

“There’s always a dangerous dog du jour,” VanKavage said. “Back in the ‘70s, it was the German Shepard, then the Rottweiler, then the Doberman, and then the pit bull terrier. I think it is the popularity—the more dogs there are of a breed, the more bites you’re going to see.”

Pit bulls are in the top ten most popular breed of dogs in 48 states, VanKavage continued.

Current breed-discriminatory laws

Population and the use of pit bulls in fighting rings amped up popular perception that pit bulls are a “dangerous breed,” leading to breed-discriminatory laws across the United States that prohibit owning a certain breed of dog in particular municipalities.

In the St. Louis metropolitan area, Ferguson, Florissant, University City and Shrewsbury are examples of municipalities that have laws against pit-bulls in particular. If you’re caught with one inside of city limits, you face a fine.

“They’re outdated laws that need to be changed,” said VanKavage. “The research shows these laws are ineffective. They fail to enhance public safety and they interfere with property rights. As a responsible dog owner, you should be able to own any breed that you choose.”

Protecting against dangerous dogs, not breeds

VanKavage asserts that dog-related violence is not about the type of particular breed someone owns, but how the owner treats the dog. She pointed out a study that ran from 2000-2009 that showed that in dog-related fatalities and serious dog bites breed didn’t matter in the attacks. It had to do with how the owner had socialized or trained its dog.

Under this logic, a Pomeranian as commonly as a pit bull could be dangerous. For VanKavage, who owns a rescued pit bull herself, she’s seen the capability of pit bulls to be sweet.

“[Pit bulls] like to snuggle,” said VanKavage.“If you get cold at night like I do, they’re nice to sleep with, much warmer than my husband.”

If any breed of dog does seem hostile, however, VanKavage says the key is to diffuse the situation through calm and steady motions.

“Don’t look the dog in the eye,” VanKavage said. “That means ‘it’s on.’ Dogs, when they diffuse their own fights, they turn to the side. If you turn to the side, and look down to the ground, that will diffuse the situation in most cases. Do not run, that means you’re prey. Back away slowly. Get something between you and the dog.”

The end of breed-discriminatory laws?

"Any dog can be good. Any dog can be bad. They're individuals, just like people. They need to be judged by their behavior."

The trend in breed-discriminatory dogs is to do away with them. Last year, South Dakota and Utah passed state laws that said cities cannot enact breed-discriminatory laws. VanKavage said she hopes Missouri will follow suit. She pointed out that Lake St. Louis, Clayton and Manchester have all repealed breed-discriminatory laws, instead enacting breed-neutral dangerous dog laws, which evaluate a dog on a case-by-case basis.

“Any dog can be good,” she said. “Any dog can be bad. They’re individuals, just like people. They need to be judged by their behavior.”

Related Event

What: St. Louis International Film Festival Presents "The Champions"
When: Sunday, Nov. 8 at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard St. Louis, MO 63130 
More information.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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