author: Lynne Ames
source: New York Times























Helen Keller had one. So did Fred Astaire. And if the Elmsford Animal Shelter has its way, lots of other people will have one, too. The subject is pit bulls, the guests of honor at a Pit Bull Reunion Day at the shelter here. Wagging tails, licking faces, rolling on their backs to be petted -- these friendly, intelligent dogs were the absolute antithesis of the stereotype that persists about them.

Medium to large, in colors ranging from all black to all white and everything in between, with faces that actually seem to be smiling, they looked like Petey from the television show ''Our Gang,'' and the comic strip character Buster Brown's companion, Tige, and Nipper, the trademark dog of the Victor Talking Machine Company (later acquired by RCA Corporation).

In fact, those dogs were pit bulls, as was Stubby, World War II's most decorated canine soldier. Before a few sadistic humans got their hands on them, pit bulls -- also called American pit bull terriers -- were known as ideal pets, loyal, bright, handsome and friendly.

Only in recent years has the breed's reputation plummeted. Only in recent years have they been systematically tortured by people deliberately training them to be vicious so they could fight for money or stand guard at drug dealers' dens.

And so the Elmsford shelter, which does not put animals to death, decided to hold a gathering of people who had adopted pit bulls, along with the dogs themselves.

Standing in the sunlight, speaking to the 50 or so guests and their dogs, Gina Forella, vice-president of the shelter's board of directors, summed it up: "A few months ago, we were considering ways to share with the public -- those people who may have preconceived notions that the American pit bull terrier is a vicious animal -- the wonderful experiences we have had and the hundreds of successful adoptions of the breed over the past few years alone.

''We have books filled with photographs and letters from families who have adopted these dogs and want to let us know how much they are loved. So we thought the best way was to invite some of those adoptees to the shelter for a reunion.''

Many of the pit bulls that wind up at Elmsford are still puppies; others are pets that have been abandoned but were not treated cruelly. Their temperaments are virtually always excellent, said Mimi Stone, shelter president, and Kaeley Blum, the manager. Others have been treated with unbelievable brutality.

People feed the pit bulls gunpowder and hot sauce to give them ulcers to make them vicious. They sew razor blades under their skin. They clamp their jaws to tree branches and make them hang for hours to strengthen their neck muscles. Losers in dog fights are left to die of suffocation because of swollen nasal tissue, blood loss or starvation. Even among those that were actively abused, there are dogs with remarkably nice temperaments.

Mrs. Stone got choked up and teary eyed telling the crowd about Zach, an 8-year-old pit bull adopted several years ago by Virginia Nicholson, a yoga teacher from Mahopac. ''Here was a dog most people would say was hopeless,'' Mrs. Stone said. ''But we don't label any animal hopeless. He showed up cut and bloody. His head was one massive scar. We did not even know where to start with him. We just wanted to turn him around.''

Then Ms. Nicholson took the microphone. When she wanted to adopt Zack, she recalled, Mrs. Stone questioned her intensely, as she does every prospective person interested in adoption, to make sure she was sincere and responsible. Ms. Nicholson was not deterred. After several interviews (prospective pit bull owners are screened with particular care) she took the black dog home.

'He's kind, generous, never showed one moment of aggression, even after all he has been through,'' Ms. Nicholson said. ''He has taught me a lot. If he could overcome horrible obstacles, we all can.''

Others also spoke on behalf of the breed. Dr. Patrice A. Whittington, aveterinarian who works with the shelter and practices in Yorktown and Armonk, said pit bulls are ''ideal patients,'' noteworthy for ''the way they never complain during procedures.'' Sara Etkin, an animal behaviorist, described them as highly intelligent and easy to train. The tragedy, Ms. Etkin and Dr. Whittington explained, is that their inherent traits have been used against them by the wrong people: their willingness to follow commands, for example, makes them subservient to cruel owners who force them to fight.

There was also what Ms. Blum described as a ''fashion show, a parade of pit bulls'' still available for adoption. Among them was Petey, a white dog with a fetching black patch over one eye, who rolled on his back, stuck all four legs in the air and whined softly to have his belly rubbed. There was also Axel, a handsome copper-colored animal whose badly cropped ears indicated that he had once been used for fighting. Despite what he had most likely been through, Axel was gentle and friendly, and on this day he was also lucky. Tommy DiLorenzo, a physical education teacher who had brought his own pit bull to the event, fell in love. ''I wasn't deciding to adopt another, but when I saw Axel get on his hind legs, well, that was it,'' he said. Most emotionally affecting, perhaps, was the show and tell of happy owners and their dogs.

One by one, each came up to the microphone to tell his or her story, to describe, sometimes in elaborate, articulate sentences, sometimes in short, simple phrases, the bond between canine and human.

''I named her Lhasa,'' said Soren Gordhamer, a writer, of his beautiful beige and white dog. ''We fell in love with her right away. We didn't even think to ask what breed she was. As we were signing the adoption papers, they told us she was a pit bull.

We love her very much. We named her Lhasa because Tibet, the country, has been beaten and abused over the years and has still remained nonviolent.'' Ms. Blum, overhearing this conversation, smiled.

''This event is so phenomenal,''she said. ''When you do an adoption, you interview people. You're as careful as you can be. But, basically, when they leave, you cross your fingers and hope that everything works out. Here, I get to see them all. I get to see how wonderfully things did turn out for these dogs.'' {HOME}

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