The author with a friend

    By Neil Lurssen

Anyone who has worked in a dog rescue shelter will tell you that Pit Bulls and other members of the Bully family are among the most lovable, loyal and entertaining of all. They are also the most frequently surrendered to shelters, confiscated, rescued as strays or found abandoned. They are the Oliver Twists of the canine world – creatures that, more than any other breed, have been abused by humans down the years when all that most of them seem to want is affection. And, maybe, a second helping of food.

They are maligned in the tabloids, castigated as dangerous, unpredictable and volatile, consigned to a no-adoption status by home insurance companies and landlords, and often viewed angrily by neighbors down the street. They are banned in many countries including Britain where we read in the mass-circulation tabloid The Sun that they are “devil dogs.” If you are thinking of going to Australia or New Zealand, both of them pet-friendly countries, you will have to leave your Pit Bull at home. They are banned there – and also in many other places like Germany, Russia, Norway, Portugal, Israel and Hong Kong where the ban is either total or partial.

They have terrible Press.  As we all know the buzz around Pit Bulls makes it hard for animal welfare groups to find them new homes and families.

Huckleberry; Leonardo doppleganger

Yet those who are lucky to have interacted with these dogs down the years have seen gentle and affectionate behavior. Much-loved Pit Bulls are part of the fabric of our own history at Marin Humane – like Mama Cass, the big ol’ bluenose who lived out her days at the shelter without ever having her own family and who melted into a lap dog when hugged by volunteers and staff; like that big galoot Moody Blues who was with us before Big Mama and made everyone chortle with his zoomies and enjoyment of stuffed toys; like Huckleberry who looked just like Leonardo DiCaprio but more handsome, like Pork Chop, Flex, Marley, Scooby Doo (who went to a happy home with our own volunteer Anne De Souza) and Ricky Bobby in more recent years. And many, many more.

In a future blog, we want to explain how Pit Bulls have been the victims of selective breeding for nearly 200 years, how their behavior patterns have evolved from the cynical intervention of humans who set out to create vicious fighting dogs – and continue doing it to this day. But today’s blog takes a more cheerful direction. We are going to look at the happier side of our Pit Bull experience, overseas as well as in America.

Mama Cass and fans

A hundred years ago and for some time afterward Pit Bulls were among the most popular dog breed in America – possibly because most folks were less affluent and less able to afford the fancier and more expensive breeds that are fashionable now. Another could be that mass communications were far less developed and the anti-Pit Bull lobby less vocal.

A number of Pit Bulls became national favorites – some worldwide. One whose international fame continues to this day is Jock of the Bushveld whose exploits were told in a 1907 bestselling book of that title by the South African writer, Sir Percy FitzPatrick. Jock was the runt of his litter who grew into the fearless and loyal companion to the author when he worked in the sub-tropical Southern African wilderness. When a literary friend, Rudyard Kipling, heard some of the Jock stories that FitzPatrick told his children, he urged that they be written down. The result was this classic book for young readers.

Jock was devoted, smart and spirited but, sadly, he was shot and killed by a farmer friend of FitzPatrick’s when chickens were attacked by an intruder dog. Jock had actually killed the raider when he was shot to everyone’s great distress. Jock was buried under a favorite tree.

Spanky and Petey

Another famous Pittie was Petey, the lovable dog in the Our Gang movie series of the 1920s and 30s. There were several dogs who played Petey who was a loyal companion to the mischievous kids of Our Gang and had his own adoring fan base. The first of these canine actors was Pal, who had a natural ring around his right eye and who could “sing” while sitting at a piano. Director Hal Roach chose the dog with the eye ring after auditioning more than 50 dogs because he felt the Pittie had the most personality. When Pal died after eating tainted food, his son became the next Petey. The producers of Our Gang had the ring painted around his left eye as a mark of respect for Petey Number One. At the peak of the series, Petey was earning his owner $225 a week – a massive income at the time.

Sergeant Stubby was a very famous Pit Bull in World War 1 whose exploits appeared in newspapers all over the US. When the American 102nd Infantry Regiment was in training on the Yale University campus at New Haven, Stubby wandered in as a stray and was quickly adopted. He was smuggled on to the transport ship when his regiment was posted to the war front and Stubby found himself in the thick of battle for the next 18 months. He first became a national figure when, wounded in the leg, he was sent to a field hospital where he was a tail-wagging comfort to recovering soldiers, his fellow patients.

Sgt. Stubby

When Stubby returned to the front, he was fitted with a gas mask; he had the much  appreciated ability to warn his comrades that an enemy mustard gas attack was on its way. His acute hearing also alerted everyone that cannon shells were incoming. Stubby was wounded several more times and was credited with holding an enemy soldier by the pants until GIs came along to capture the prisoner. Because of this achievement, Private Stubby was promoted to Sergeant Stubby and allowed to keep the Iron Cross that the prisoner was wearing. Sergeant Stubby went on to further fame in peacetime and was awarded a special gold medal at a White House ceremony in 1921. He was invited to the White House by three presidents (Wilson, Harding and Coolidge), probably because he was good press. Sergeant Stubby died in his sleep in 1926, an American  war hero with a whole lot of medals on his tunic. His remains are preserved at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

In more modern times, there was Popsicle, a five-month-old Pit Bull puppy who had been used by gangsters as a bait dog for training dog-fighting Pitties. In a police raid on a drug dealer the pup was discovered in a plastic bag in a freezer. When there was a slight movement inside the bag, the cops feared there was a baby inside. But it was a cute black Pit Bull they called Popsicle; the cops adopted him. Popsicle was eventually sent to the Canine Enforcement Training Center in Virginia where he learned to detect drugs – let there be karma! – and where he became the most successful drug-sniffer of all time, turning the tables on his would-be killers. His biggest cocaine bust was valued at more than $139-million. Popsicle became a celebrity and his affable nature made him a natural for public appearances. After he injured a leg, Popsicle enjoyed a well-earned retirement.

Shelter favorite Moody Blues

Not war hero but a memorable dog in many ways was Sir Thomas, the Bit Pull pet of Helen Keller, the American author, lecturer and activist who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliff College of Harvard University in 1904 despite being blind and deaf. Ms Keller loved animals and lived with dogs all her life, feeling their presence even though she could not hear them bark or see them playing with a ball on the lawn. Sir Thomas was one of her favorites. She said this: “Were my Maker to grant me but a single glance through these sightless eyes, and I could choose but two objects to behold, I would without question pray that my eyes portray of all things beautiful, first a child and then a dog.”

So, far from being “devil dogs” Pit Bulls deserve our admiration in spite of what our fellow humans have done to them.