The Surprising Truth About Pit Bulls

The Surprising Truth About Pit BullsBy Beth Levine

Learn about the passionate organization working to stop the violence against these gentle companions for good. Photo by Mary Kate McKenna.

Rescuing the Underdogs

In 2007, a chestnut-brown pit bull named Sweet Jasmine was carried, skinny and terrified, into a Washington, DC, animal rescue center. The dog, a survivor of football star Michael Vick's infamous Bad Newz kennel (an illegal dog-fighting operation that tortured and killed dozens of dogs), had been badly abused. As volunteer Catalina Stirling helped assess her for placement in a foster home, she felt Sweet Jasmine's pain. "It seemed like she wished the ground would swallow her up," says Catalina, who was so affected by the dog's plight that she adopted her. When Sweet Jasmine died in 2009, Catalina felt she had to do more for other dogs like her. "It was astounding how many pit bulls came into the shelter from abusive homes," says fellow volunteer Kate Callahan. As the two friends talked more, Catalina and Kate gradually formed a plan to help the dogs: They founded Jasmine's House, a nonprofit rescue organization that aims to save and rehabilitate neglected, abandoned or abused pit bulls. "I love all dogs," says Kate, "but we decided to focus on pit bulls because they're the ones most in need."

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Fighting Stereotypes
Indeed, according to research, pit bulls-a general label that covers a wide range of purebred terriers and mutts that look like the stereotypical fighting dog-made up an estimated 30% of the total U.S. shelter intake in 2010, according to Animal People, an independent news site on animal issues. Many of those rescues were ultimately put down. "There are a lot of myths about pit bulls, like that they're inherently aggressive," Kate explains. More often than not, it's neglect and lack of socialization that cause them to behave badly. Jasmine's House officially started in 2010, but, despite its name, is not a physical "house" or shelter facility. Instead, the organization is a network of volunteer foster homes run out of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. Kate now oversees the day-to-day operations along with rescue director Heather Cole, and the two women partner with four local Maryland shelters to identify pit bulls in need and pair them with volunteers. A trainer, also a volunteer, visits each foster home to help work with the rescued dogs until they're ready to move to a permanent home. To date, around 200 dogs have been adopted.

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Prevention Projects
But Kate and Catalina also wanted to prevent pit bull abuse, so last year, the pair began to address the dangerous misconceptions about these animals. With the help of Kate's friend Heidi Moore Trasatti, a Baltimore school psychologist, they developed a program, Project Mickey, that teaches fourth and fifth graders compassion and empathy toward dogs-pit bulls in particular. Named for one of Jasmine House's early rescues, Project Mickey takes certified therapy pit bulls into classrooms to show students how sweet-natured they can be. "We've seen amazing progress," Heidi says. Before Project Mickey, about half of the students felt pit bulls were more dangerous than other dogs. Upon meeting the gentle animals, one young boy with behavior problems told teachers that the pit bulls were misunderstood, "just like me." Another student, who had always been scared of dogs, was surprised that the pit bulls weren't being hostile. "Now I know that all dogs aren't mean," she told Heidi.

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Kate and Catalina hope that with time and exposure, the number of people who share their love of pit bulls will continue to grow. By teaching the truth about these dogs, "we're contributing to a larger solution," Kate says. And despite the cruelty she has seen, she remains optimistic for change: "When our dogs win hearts in the classroom or find a new family, it reminds me that there are still many, many angels among us."

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