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Rising pit bull adoptions reflect breed’s changing image

On a summer evening at JFK/UMass Station, police say, a Quincy man robbed a person standing on the platform. The robber’s weapon? The pit bull tugging on his leash.

A few weeks later, Eric Coldwell walked onto the back porch of his Weymouth home and watched as his own 60-pound pit bull terrier, Maizy, tackled his 9-year-old son, Thomas — then slobbered kisses all over him. “If you didn’t know better,” Coldwell said as he watched the scene unfold, “you might have assumed the worst.”

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Those two incidents frame the question: Is the pit bull an animal to fear, or to love? That question, said Rob Halpin of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “sums up the fight we’ve been in for years.”

If pet adoption rates are any indication, pit bulls have plenty of love to give. Pit bull adoptions are climbing statewide and, in the biggest surprise, extending into the suburbs.

The number of pit bull adoptions in Massachusetts has shot up in recent years, Halpin said, with most of that increase in the past two years. In 2003, 146 pit bulls were adopted from MSPCA shelters in Massachusetts. This year, the number stands at 216.

Even the White House has weighed in with support. In late August, the Obama administration responded to an online petition with more than 30,000 signatures requesting that breed-specific dog bans, which often target pit bulls, be outlawed on the federal level. “The simple fact is that dogs of any breed can become dangerous when they’re intentionally or unintentionally raised to be aggressive,” the administration said.

The MSPCA acknowledges that the pit bull is still the preferred choice of many young, single men who see it as a way to boost their tough-guy image. But it doesn’t stop there.

“The fact that we’re seeing more Coldwell families owning pit bulls these days and fewer like this alleged robber is a sign of how times are changing,” Halpin said.

Hype or truth?

It has been six years since NFL quarterback Michael Vick was charged with federal crimes for helping to run an interstate pit bull fighting ring, and killing and torturing losing dogs, a crime the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said caused anemic pit bull adoption rates to fall further.

“People were scared of pit bulls because of their fighting ability, when, ironically, the dogs were abuse victims, and it was their owners and handlers who needed to be feared,” Halpin said.

That has been the argument for years, even back to a 1987 Sports Illustrated cover story with an image of a menacing pit bull and the headline: “Beware Of This Dog.”

But is it that simple? It’s the owners, not the dogs?

It was certainly the owners in the case of an abandoned pit bull found wandering near a Quincy playground Aug. 31. The young female dog, dubbed “Puppy Doe,” was emaciated and had been tortured, authorities said, including being stabbed, burned, and beaten.

In response, some state lawmakers are proposing steeper fines for animal cruelty and creating a statewide registry of convicted animal abusers, not unlike the Sex Offender Registry.

However, not everyone is so eager to jump to the pit bull’s defense.

Robert Clendening of Wakefield was walking his small dog and pushing his toddler grandson in a stroller in August when a neighbor’s pit bull and boxer charged him.

Clendening said he warded off the boxer, but the pit bull was relentless, jumping and snapping at Clendening’s dog as he held the smaller animal aloft and kicked at the pit bull with one leg.

Clendening, his grandson, and dog escaped into the clubhouse of their condo complex.

But the pit bull followed and continued to throw itself at the clubhouse door, Clendening said, adding he doubted that a different breed of dog would have pursued him so aggressively.

There is some data, and plenty of examples, to support him.

In summer 2011, Boston police officers shot and killed a pit bull in Dorchester, after the unleashed, unmuzzled dog chased a teen and appeared to the officers to be circling her, poised to attack. The dog’s owner said it chased the girl because she ran, and it just wanted to play.

An Andover man stabbed a pit bull to death with a kitchen knife in May 2010 after the dog attacked the man’s wife as well as the neighbor who owned the dog. And in October 2009, a pit bull reportedly bit a 12-year-old girl’s foot at her school bus stop in Dorchester and would not let go until a passerby pulled the dog away.

“It’s difficult to hear about these stories, because the incidents happened,” Halpin said. “But I would say this: Considering how many dogs we have of all breeds, these terrible incidents don’t suggest a dog-biting epidemic, certainly not a breed-specific epidemic.”

During the same period of those pit bull attacks, a golden retriever-Labrador mix fatally mauled a 2-month old baby in South Carolina, and a black lab in Denver nearly ripped a boy’s scalp off in what the boy’s father and dog’s owner said was an unprovoked attack.

But if there is one difference experts agree on between a labrador’s attacking and a pit bull’s bite, it’s that the pit bull is stronger, bites harder, and is more likely to result in grave, or even fatal injuries.

The Insurance Information Institute says that pit bulls top the list of dogs cited in bite claims against homeowners’ policies. And a 2009 dog bite study in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery found that over a five-year period in Philadelphia, 51 percent of dog attacks were carried out by pit bulls, 9 percent by Rottweilers, and 6 percent by mixes of pit bulls and Rottweilers.

Seeing the other side

Gary Patronek, an animal epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said he has seen so many examples of non-pit bull attacks that he has been encouraging people for more than two decades to stop measuring dog behavior and risk by breed.

Mr. Biggs is available for adoption at MSPCA-Angell.

Scott LaPierre/Globe Staff

Mr. Biggs is available for adoption at MSPCA-Angell.

“There’s a certain amount of hysteria that comes with that type of measurement,” said Patronek, who has written extensively on dog bites. “But the hysteria doesn’t match the facts. I’ve simply seen no evidence over the years that pit bulls are any more of a risk than any other breed. In fact, what I’ve found is that the risk rests almost entirely in environmental factors like a dog’s surroundings and how it’s treated by its owners.”

That is certainly how Marla Andrews of West Newbury feels. She has two adult children and a pit bull — her third in two decades.

“I grew up like most people of my generation — I’m in my 50s — in communities of labs and golden retrievers and spaniels,” Andrews said. She said her family adopted its first pit bull, named Comet, in the 1980s, shortly after her son was born. “A few years later my daughter was born,” she said, “and Comet was like Lassie with the kids.”

It was not until she and her family moved from Nantucket to West Newbury around 1990 that Andrews noticed a problem with owning a pit bull.

“We got weird glances while walking Comet,” she said. “People would cross the street to get away.” Andrews, now a volunteer at the MSPCA-Nevins Farm and the owner of another pit pull, Jupiter, said she has noticed people seem less scared these days.

“People don’t cross the street anymore,” she said. “People actually approach to pet Jupiter.”

Uphill battle

With so many pit bulls awaiting adoption, the MSPCA decided the only way it could coax would-be adopters to consider a pit bull was to spend time with “pit bull-like dogs” at shelters. The organization officially refers to the dogs as “pit bull-like,” because “pit bull” is not a singular breed, but rather a mix of up to five dog breeds, including the American pit bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier.

Harrison Forbes, author of the book “Dog Talk,” owner of several pit bulls, and a dog behavioral expert, said that while he is confident pit bulls do not have an inherent behavior problem, what separates pit bulls more than anything from other dogs is their size and strength.

“Pit bulls are very strong dogs,” he says. “They were bred initially to hunt large animals. And for more than 200 years after that, they were bred to be fighters. You can breed certain things out of dogs, too. But that does not happen after just one or two generations. It will take a while, during which time any change will be attributable to responsible dog ownership.”

Don Cleary, director of communications for the National Canine Research Council, said America’s love and fear of specific dog breeds goes back to the aftermath of the Civil War, when Massachusetts issued its first breed ban — against bloodhounds, fearing that the breed had human “bloodlust,” since it was used to hunt runaway slaves. The pit bull, he said, was “America’s favorite dog at the turn of the 20th century. “They were in family portrait photos, in pictures as sports team mascots. Let’s not forget the dog Pete on ‘The Little Rascals.’ ”

Alex Talarico, a 30-year-old graduate student in Lexington, is in his second year of pit bull ownership. His dog, Max, was surrendered to the MSPCA in December 2012 when its owners could no longer care for it.

“My girlfriend and I had a Saint Bernard — a rescue dog,” Talarico said. “And when he passed, we just wanted another big, goofy, lovable dog. But we met Max and decided to be open-minded and take him for a walk.

“The rest is history. We love him. My mother, who I live with, was nervous at first. But her fear wasn’t so much of the dog as it was what the neighbors would think.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.
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