On pit bulls and writing about your best friends

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Bowser and Banks at Animal Rescue New Orleans

In college, I figured I could manage two and a half jobs. My senior year, on top of classes and keeping deliriously long hours at the school paper and freelancing, I quit a restaurant job and answered a Craigslist ad for a graveyard shift at a soon-to-open clinic for special needs dogs. I was hired, and from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., I'd walk, feed, pet and try not to doze off for too long with dogs big and small, in wheelchairs or incontinent, epileptic or with severe anxiety or worse. Not too sure how I looked or performed in classes the rest of that year, but I remember graduating (then going to work).

The first dog I met there was a white, one-year-old pit bull named Party, who was found over Mardi Gras, abandoned and covered in spray paint. He greeted me when I arrived for the interview, and he never left my side after I arrived for work. The clinic fostered him. He later was adopted, and I was a little heartbroken. There were many, many other pit bulls, and I was lucky to be friends with all of them.

I mention pit bulls because I wrote this week's cover story on them.

Should I have left the story to someone who had no opinions on dogs? Maybe, but everyone has an opinion on dogs. And really, the only people who'd have a problem problem with my covering pit bulls would be DogsBite.org, whom I didn't include in the story because of its controversial history and statistics.

The Humane Society and other animal welfare organizations, not to mention the federal government, have made clear that no dog is more likely to be a "bad dog" than another. Period. Studies show fatalities from dog bites and point to pit bulls as the most likely culprit. But those studies are more than a decade old and use data dating back to the '70s — but why are pit bulls at the top? A few reasons: They're way over-bred; there are thousands more pit bulls than other "big" dogs, so the likelihood of them appearing on any list is much higher, including how many are homeless or feral or untrained. And many owners use them irresponsibly, and illegally. So one could say that you are as likely to be bitten or attacked by an intact, untrained pit bull as any large, intact, untrained animal — which you might as well compare to being in an airplane crash. (You'll get more than 6 million results each for Google searches of pit bull attack and Labrador attack.) But those stats and the above-mentioned website, and sensationalist "attack" coverage, have convinced lawmakers across the country that pit bulls need to be banned forever.

The article's online and print headline both mention the "problem": it's not the dog itself, it's overpopulation, which leaves thousands of pit bulls on the streets, homeless, without a loving home and living only to survive, or rescued only to be put down. Any animal welfare person will tell you more animals need to be spayed and neutered, and more animals need to be adopted. Shelters nationwide are inundated with pit bulls, including local shelters, where the sheer volume of pit bulls show disproportionate figures in adoption and euthanasia rates. Groups nationwide (like the ones profiled in the article) work to dispel breed misconceptions and promote responsible ownership and the dogs themselves. Pit bull owners are some of the most prolific supporters of their pets. But I didn't need to be won over. I already have been.

I know how loving and affectionate pit bulls are. I've met many people whose pit bulls changed their lives.

So how do you write objectively about your best friends? I've been surrounded by dogs my whole life, my family fosters and adopts them, I've worked with them. I was even born on St. Roch's feast day.

I guess you can't, but I tried: I told other peoples' and dogs' stories, not my own. I also included the above-mentioned statistics, and one person's account of his attack (which was more the fault of, again, irresponsible breeding and ownership), in an attempt to show how and why exactly other people perceive pit bulls as dangerous animals — animals that once were the first "it" dog of the 20th century, from the first cross-country road trip companion to the Little Rascals' Petey, to Helen Keller and Teddy Roosevelt's pet to World War I "hero" dogs.

Then there's Michael Vick, and hoarders, and serial abusers, and worse, fighters — and other reports of pit bulls as victims of neglect and violence. (I recommend The Sula Foundation's blog to read some of the inspiring stories about its rescued pit bulls.) Follow rescue groups' Facebook pages and your timeline is filled with horrific images of abused pits. Why are these dogs treated so poorly?

An easier answer is to help: spay and neuter your pets, adopt, volunteer, show love to animals who don't get any.

April Allain of Animal Rescue New Orleans has volunteered helping pets for more than three years. Helping animals "gets in you," she said. "I kept coming back."

Me too.

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