I was walking with my friend and her three pit bulls at Edgewater Park recently, and I couldn't help but notice that there were really only two reactions that the dogs evoked. There was the cooing adulation, the petting, and the "rolling around with the dogs" kind of stuff. And then there was the wariness, the questions about muzzles, and the backing away into the grass with all due haste.
She said that dichotomy of response happens all the time when she's out walking them. Pit bulls — and this is no secret — have a long history with both love and fear in this country.
It should be noted that the dogs were kind and gentle throughout the walk, with nary bark nor bite.
There's history here, though, with these public reactions. In that conversation, pit bulls are front and center. Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds have all been vilified to one extent or another, but no breed of dogs has been pinned against the ropes like pit bulls. With a prevailing media and government narrative of fear, pit bulls in need of a home are filling kennels to capacity across the country. (Nearly all dogs available for adoption at the Cleveland city kennel are either American Pit Bull or Terrier mixes.)
Despite the population boom at kennels and rescues, it's not so easy to surmount the public perception and find homes for these dogs around here.
Many Northeast Ohio cities have enacted bans — Brook Park, Garfield Heights, Lakewood, Mansfield, Massillon, Parma, Put-In-Bay, Richmond Heights, for instance — and many more have legally declared pit bulls to be "dangerous" or "vicious" dogs. (As of 2012, the state of Ohio no longer considers pit bulls "vicious.") Cities' breed-specific legislation has long been a sore spot in the world of local public policy.
"Pit bull" is not even a breed, making the term a misnomer. The bans include any dogs whose DNA comprises at least 50 percent of the three breeds that fall under the pit bull umbrella: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.
Lakewood passed its pit bull ban in 2008, and the measure still comes up quite often in casual conversation and city council hearings. There are rumblings even now among council members that, after nearly a decade, it might be time to revisit the ban.
Zach Ehren wrote a piece earlier this year for the Huffington Post titled "My Pit Bull Turned Me into a Criminal," in which he describes spending time in his hometown of Lakewood with his newly adopted pit bull, Calliope. He tells Scene that he had always been a dog guy, but he'd never really considered pit bulls.
"Everyone hears all the misconceptions about pit bulls," he says. "There's the news and all the terrible stuff they've had to go through — Michael Vick and pit bull fighting. I became more aware of it. But I didn't start thinking about it a lot more until I knew I was coming home to Lakewood and I was bringing her."
Ehren landed back in Lakewood for a month between moves, and he began learning more and more about pit bulls and their relationship with various forms of media and government. Like countless others before him, he became part of a subculture of dog owners.
He was thrilled, but bringing Calliope into Lakewood technically constituted a crime and, balanced against his dog's lovely nature, that seemed wrong. So he started talking with city leaders and pit bull advocates, all of whom had their own perspectives and stories. The law in Lakewood and in other suburbs isn't going to change overnight, but Ehren says that just talking about pit bulls — raising awareness — is a huge step in the right direction.
"Since I adopted Calli, I've realized that I don't think I'll ever have another breed," Ehren says. "I'm fully into the pit bull community now. They're amazing dogs, and she is by far — and I know I'm biased, because she's my dog — but she's by far the smartest dog I've known."
The two camps — the love, the fear — will probably remain entrenched for some time. Such is the nature of narrative in this country. But perhaps with a brighter spotlight, pit bulls will find a bit more unity among those charged with keeping them safe and happy.