- Ken Foster and his canine pal, Roosevelt, after a walk on Magazine Street
It's his initial visit to Petcetera, but Roosevelt still walks in like he owns the place. The young, rust-colored American pit bull terrier surveys the scene at the Magazine Street dog boutique, sticking a pink nose into some bags of chow before making a beeline for employee Jenny Jerusal.
"Who is this?" Jerusal asks, crouching to meet her courtier. Within minutes he's perched in her lap. "It's a shame you're not friendly," she says, laughing and scratching his white belly.
This is a day of firsts for Roosevelt, explains his temporary master, author and Sula Foundation founder Ken Foster. It's the dog's inaugural stroll — "Other than racing around the neighborhood when he got away" — since being rescued near Metairie Road on New Year's Day. Foster drops the leash as he talks, leaving Roosevelt to his druthers in the canine playground; this soon centers on disrupting a poodle grooming in back. Judging by their coos, the handlers don't mind: "Look how gorgeous!" "He's so handsome!" "Adorable!"
Jerusal answers them with a hopeful call. "He needs a home ... "
Trips like this one are now rituals for Foster and the dogs who walk him. Four blocks away, thanks to the Sula Foundation, Roosevelt and a handful of fellow orphans have found temporary shelter at Canine Connection. Using it and Zeus' Place on Freret Street as Uptown boarding houses, Sula has shepherded 15 strays into new homes and is currently looking after eight more. Each has been spayed or neutered and given necessary vaccinations or treatments, the expense of which is covered by donations. "We're always broke," Foster says. "We raise the money as we need it."
The foundation — named for Foster's muse, the rescued purebred who also appears on the cover of his 2006 book, The Dogs Who Found Me — was launched in March 2008 with a mission of promoting responsible pit bull ownership in New Orleans. Added almost as an afterthought is the following statement: "We also, on a limited basis and as space and funds allow, rescue and rehome abandoned dogs."
A year later, Foster says he gets around a dozen calls a day about pit bulls — now used as a catch-all term for many types of dogs — in need of rescue. "When we started a year ago, I really wanted to do education outreach (and) sponsor low-cost vaccination clinics; I didn't really intend to foster or adopt dogs. But [Roosevelt] makes a great example and sort of educational tool, in telling his story and finding a great home for him, and having them talk to people as well."
Watching Roosevelt work his canine charm, it's easy to forget pit bulls are among the most vilified of domestic animals. Proposed breed-specific legislation (BSL) has targeted the terrier in a majority of states and much of western Europe, and Foster says it's the only breed PETA advocates euthanizing. "(PETA President) Ingrid Newkirk was bitten when she was young," Foster says dismissively. "No statistical evidence has suggested that banning any breed has made anybody safer."
In response, Foster has become something of a pro bono counselor for the breed, defending it and condemning the practice of BSL in his articles and books. In New Orleans, he says, more than 60 percent of animals rescued after Hurricane Katrina were pits. "And that's not just of dogs," he stresses. "That's all animals."
He uses Tiramisu and Empanada, two puppies currently boarded at Canine Connection, as examples of "one drop"-style pit bull prejudice. Slender-bodied, with narrow noses and fanned tails, the mixed-breed siblings look more like foxes than pits. Even so, Foster says, "They were going to be euthanized (at St. John Parish Animal Shelter) because their mother was supposedly a pit bull. They're not allowed to adopt out anything that has pit bull in it."
And so Sula keeps up the fight to defend the breed's honor, often employing unusual and humorous means. The foundation has hosted a "pit bullennial" featuring dog-created art, issued calendars with pit bulls as models and even printed up a baseball card for Zephyr Field's "Bark in the Park" event featuring an all-canine starting nine. Foster, who owns three dogs and is fostering another, says it's all part of humanizing the breed, so to speak.
"They are special, but at the same time they're just like other dogs," he says.
"We're going to keep having dogs like (Roosevelt) — and his horribly cropped ears — unless we find a way of reducing the number of dogs that are being bred."
After spending a few minutes with Roosevelt at Petcetera, Jerusal, an admitted pit lover, is smitten. "Right now, with my living situation, I can't have one," she says, frowning. "But someday."