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Pit bulls bite. The public barks. But the District’s no closer to banning the dogs.

Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

The first warning of the imminent attack came in the form of a scream.

“Oh, no! Bruno! Stop! Please stop!” a teenage girl yelled.

Bill Simpkins heard the girl yelling as he was strolling with his dog and a friend in Adams Morgan late one evening last July. But in the split second it took him to understand the danger, it was already too late. Bruno, a massive, muscular dog, was lunging toward Simpkins’ own dog, Hoss.

“I saw that he was going right for Hoss’ neck, and I stepped in and kind of knocked him aside before he made contact,” Simpkins recalls. “But then he just clamped his huge jaw down on Hoss’ side and just started tearing skin away.”

Simpkins and his friend, Chris Biondi, fought the attacker with everything they could, battering the dog with full-force kicks to its sides, punching at its head, jabbing their fingers into its eyes. Hoss, a 70-pound mixed shepherd/pointer, was rendered helpless, whining in pain and shock and losing massive amounts of blood from the 18-inch tear in the skin across his ribs.

“That’s when I knew it was a pit-bull attack,” says Simpkins. “Hoss wasn’t doing anything. He was crying and whimpering, acting completely submissive and trying to surrender. When I realized this animal was going to kill him, I just shoved both of my hands into Bruno’s mouth to try and pull his jaw up and get him loose. Meanwhile, Chris was just kicking him over and over.”

By the time Bruno released his grip on Hoss’ flank, Simpkins was lying flat on his back in the street. As he clutched Bruno’s head and collar, the massive, bloodied animal began to drag him down Columbia Road. Simpkins was terrified that Bruno would try to kill him, too. He beseeched the girl to come get her dog, but she just stood in the street, helpless and in tears.

Simpkins tried the last thing he could think of to save himself: “Bad dog!” he said. “Stop! Sit down!” And Bruno calmly stopped and sat down like a well-trained family pet.

After a rushed and angry exchange with the girl’s father, who arrived moments after Bruno was under control, Simpkins rushed Hoss to the Friendship Hospital for Animals for emergency surgery. The dog nearly died from blood loss and an ensuing infection, which later required additional surgery. Simpkins, meanwhile, ended up in the emergency room of George Washington University Hospital with bites on his hand and leg.

But Simpkins was comparatively lucky. Just a few weeks before, Elijah Campbell, a 13-year-old boy who is deaf and mute, had suffered puncture wounds to his neck and bites to both legs, and had his ears torn off when he was mauled by two of four pit bulls he had been feeding at a family friend’s place of business in Capitol Hill.

Incidents such as these have periodically led the D.C. Council to consider severely restricting ownership of “pit bulls”—a catch-all term for several controversial breeds originally bred for fighting—or even outlawing the acquisition of new pit bulls entirely, as neighboring Prince George’s County did in 1996, when it required existing pit bulls to be registered, and banned the importation of any new pit bulls or pit-bull mixes. The dogs, it seems obvious to many observers, are simply too dangerous to keep in densely populated urban areas.

But when it comes to pit bulls, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The very idea of restricting ownership provokes fierce opposition from many owners and breeders of purebred dogs wary of demonizing any particular breed. Others argue that bans are ineffective and that pit-bull owners, if barred from their dog of choice, will simply seek out other intimidating canines. And not far from the surface lurks the incendiary issue of race, because pit-bull owners are commonly stereotyped as poor and black.

Two years ago, a coalition of four alarmed D.C. councilmembers—Ward 1’s Jim Graham, Ward 7’s Kevin Chavous, Ward 8’s Sandy Allen, and Ward 5’s Vincent Orange—first proposed a ban on new pit bulls in the city.

“I think that, in the wrong hands, these dogs are lethal weapons,” Graham said in November 1999, when the proposed pit-bull legislation was introduced. “These are full-auto-assault canines,” said Chavous, who added that his neighborhood, east of the river, was “inundated with pit bulls that terrorize our citizens.”

Then the councilmembers were inundated by pit-bull supporters.

“We were totally unprepared for what happened next,” Chavous explains. “Jim and I got calls, letters, and e-mails from all over the country. I personally got calls from big stars like Mary Tyler Moore and Bernadette Peters, who never seemed to care about anything that happened in the District before, offering to fly across the country to explain why a pit-bull ban was unfair, ineffective, and a slander of a wonderful animal.”

The council held a public hearing on the proposed legislation on May 1, 2000. In the words of Victor Chudowsky, president of the D.C. Dog Coalition, which was specifically organized to fight the ban, “They got their butts kicked. We filled the room with dog owners who recognized that it was a terrible, unworkable idea.”

Pit-bull supporters, Chavous says he quickly discovered, bore a strong resemblance to gun-control opponents: a small, dedicated, well-organized group of people motivated by their fear of losing their right to own a uniquely intimate piece of personal property.

“The way it was most like gun control was their emotional belief that the real problem was a kind of domino theory,” Chavous says. “They felt that once we took their right to own pit bulls away, then we’d want to come after their Doberman pinschers and their German shepherds.”

In fact, the council was not contemplating confiscating any pit bulls already in the city; at issue were barring any new pit bulls or mixes and requiring existing owners to obtain liability insurance.

Peggy Keller, head of the D.C. Department of Health’s Division of Animal Disease Control, was not surprised that pit-bull owners reacted so vehemently. “People really believe that they have a right to own any type of dog they want,” Keller says.

“When you dis my pet,” explains Adrianne Lefkowitz, a pit-bull owner and the regional director of the American Dog Owners Association, “you’ve dissed me. I love my dog, who has never bitten anyone, and when someone looks at me and says, ‘You’ve got a violent, dangerous dog,’ it feels just like someone coming up to you and saying that you’ve got a violent, dangerous child.”

Pit bulls and dogfighting are synonymous in many minds, and the District is scarcely immune from the practice.

Animal-cruelty investigator Terri Littlejohn, who previously worked for the Washington Humane Society and now works for Prince George’s County, gave the D.C. Council a particularly gruesome account of what she found in an abandoned building at 4956 A St. SE in the fall of 1999. Littlejohn discovered a makeshift dogfighting ring made of four doors than had been taken off their hinges, all caked with blood and tufts of blood-soaked fur. Two pit-bull puppies were cowering in cages in a storage area, and an adult male was recovered in a bathroom. The most heartbreaking sight, Littlejohn recounted, was a female pit bull who had obviously lost her fight and was so badly mangled she couldn’t stand. A Washington Humane Society veterinarian determined that the most merciful course of action was to immediately put her to sleep.

“You have to wonder who would cause a dog to fight for her life like this,” Littlejohn asked. “Who would leave a half-dead dog in a closet to die alone?”

Ray Brown might have an idea. An expert dog trainer, Brown lives in Brandywine, Md., with his girlfriend, his 18-month-old daughter, a 70-pound Rottweiler, and a 110-pound mastiff. Brown, 41, says he has personally bred and trained more than 30 pit bulls in the two decades since he switched from Dobermans, around 1980.

“My Dobermans were so well-trained, they were accepted to be used as K9s by the police academy,” Brown claims proudly. “I’ve had many different kinds of dogs, and I must say that there is simply no other breed that will be as loyal and loving a servant to its master as a pit bull.”

But Brown says he doesn’t own any pit bulls any more, for two reasons: the Prince George’s County pit-bull ban and the fact that he went to prison after being convicted of animal-cruelty charges in the District.

When Brown lived in Southeast D.C. in the ’90s, he says, he raised pit bulls on the balcony of his apartment and staged dogfights. “Officer Littlejohn took her work very seriously,” he says. “She came looking to arrest me many times.

“Looking back now,” he continues, “I realize it was cruel. Sometimes, if one of my dogs didn’t perform up to my expectations after I had invested months feeding and training it, then, zzzzt!” He slashes his right hand through the air.

Brown says that dogfighting can be big business, because people become addicted to both the fighting and the gambling. “I’ve seen people bet their houses on dogfights and show up with suitcases full of cash, just like it was a drug deal,” he says. “You don’t necessarily make the money off the fights. It’s more like owning a racehorse: Once you’ve got a champion dog, you make your money off selling the puppies.”

The power of owning a dangerous dog is also alluring, Brown says.

“I love the fact that my dog can be sitting there perfectly calm and serene, but it will be on you instantly if I snap my fingers,” he says. But he insists that pit-bull owners are not to blame for the aggressive tendencies of their dogs. “Pit bulls didn’t become dangerous because we fight them; we fight them because the English specifically bred them to be dangerous.”

A caller to a WAMU talk show on pit bulls last year put what Brown was intimating more bluntly: that pit bulls are particularly alluring to some in the inner city.

“There’s no way to put this tactfully,” the caller from Virginia said, “but isn’t this really a problem of minority urban folks? I mean, even out here, we see them at dog shows with these huge fighting dogs that seem to be a status thing with them. It’s really just frightening.”

The radio host, Kojo Nnamdi, who is black, jumped in and argued that the issue in dogfighting, as in cockfighting, is not race but socioeconomics: Both are sports of the poor. Despite the semantics, though, Nnamdi and the caller were really saying the same thing. In the District, “poor” overwhelmingly means “African-American,” and locally it is largely young black men who own pit bulls with names like Uzi and Homicide.

“The relationship between these teenagers and their dogs doesn’t necessarily have to be pathological,” says Dr. Martin Jones, who has worked as a psychiatrist at St. Elizabeths and D.C. General Hospitals. “Animals offer an unconditional love that can be very therapeutic, particularly for AIDS patients, convicts, and other folks who feel rejected by the larger society.

“On the other hand,” he continues, “too many young black men identify with the negative aspects of these dogs, including the pack mentality, the indiscriminate sexuality, and, of course, the violent aggressiveness. Walking down the street with a pit bull can be an easy way to project hostility without accepting any personal responsibility.”

Victor Chudowsky and his wife represent the other side of pit-bull ownership. They live on 28th Street in upper Northwest and have a beautiful, well-behaved American Staffordshire terrier named Cleo, who happens to belong to one of the types of dogs that Chudowsky fears would be affected by the proposed D.C. law. Other jurisdictions that have passed pit-bull bans have drawn criticism for leaving the definition of the banned breed to enforcers’ discretion. Breeds that have been classified or might be classified as “pit bulls” also include bull terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers, as well as the non-American Kennel Club-recognized American pit bull terriers and American bulldogs, and various mixed breeds.

Pit bulls are not inherently vicious, Chudowsky contends. “The vast majority of dogs just want to love you and chase sticks,” he says. In fact, he continues, pit bulls make affectionate pets well-suited to city or apartment life because they are relatively small and have short hair. And, he maintains, there is no scientifically valid statistical evidence that pit bulls are more likely to bite humans than any other breed.

“It’s simple math,” he argues. “Pit bulls only make up around 25 percent of D.C.’s dog bites. So even if the city wasted a lot of time and money getting rid of hundreds of pit bulls—the majority of which never bite—it would still be stuck with the rest of the dogs, that accounted for 75 percent of the bites.”

What’s more, Chudowsky asserts, the pit-bull ban in Prince George’s County has not resulted in a decrease in bites by pit bulls or any other breed.

Whether that’s true is difficult to discern. The Prince George’s Journal recently published county statistics suggesting that the pit-bull ban was actually working, having reduced the number of pit-bull bites from 95 in 1996, when the ban was approved, to 59 in 2000.

But those statistics were flawed, Lefkowitz asserts.

“The problem with that study was that the statistics were done by people who are very good at epidemiology but bad at identifying dogs,” she says. Not all types of pit bulls outlawed under the statute were included in the dog-bite figures, she says. Once those breeds and mixes are counted, last year’s total came to 81 pit-bull bites, which scarcely represents a significant decline, Lefkowitz says.

“If a pit bull is raised under optimal circumstances,” Lefkowitz adds, “it won’t be any more dangerous than an Irish setter raised under the same circumstances. And if a pit bull is abused, it won’t be any more dangerous than an Irish setter that’s abused.”

Chudowsky offers a scholarly paper, “Are Pit Bulls Different? An Analysis of the Pit Bull Terrier Controversy,” co-authored by Randall Lockwood, an epidemiologist and animal behaviorist who is a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, to support such contentions. Lockwood agrees that pit bulls are not statistically more likely than other dogs to bite humans, because the people who originally bred them screened out any animal that turned on its master.

But the article also notes that all bulldog-derived breeds share some dangerous characteristics that explain why “pit bulls are over-represented in the small population of dogs involved in human fatalities.” Pit bulls are likely to be more aggressive toward other animals and are “ready and willing for combat and are unyielding in battle with another creature,” the authors wrote. Moreover, “these animals will fight without provocation, and…a game animal will fight until complete exhaustion or death.” “Game”-ness seems to “include a genetically based lowering of sensitivity to pain.”

According to Lockwood’s article, pit bulls are also less likely than other types of dogs to communicate, so they often don’t growl or bark before attacking and don’t respond to submissive behaviors displayed by other animals trying to surrender. And pit bulls inflict wounds that are much worse than other breeds’. “Guard dogs, such as German shepherds, for example, tend to restrain their enemies by grabbing and holding,” the authors wrote. “The fighting breeds, on the other hand, have been selected to inflict maximum damage on their opponents by sustained holding, shaking and tearing.”

Bruno’s attack on Hoss conformed to these predictions. Bruno attacked without warning, bit to cause maximum damage, wouldn’t let go, and seemed to ignore any pain from the kicks and blows of two large men.

Lockwood’s paper also contained another frightening warning. “The widespread practice of hybridizing American Staffordshire terriers and American pit bull terriers [with other breeds] can produce particularly dangerous animals.” Why? Because the cross between a pit bull, bred for maximum attack power, and a guard dog such as a German shepherd or Rottweiler, bred to overcome the natural reluctance of dogs to attack humans, can produce a powerful, aggressive animal that’s a threat to both man and beast.

Yet the notion of banning pit bulls incites disagreement between groups devoted to animal causes.

Chudowsky points out that the American Kennel Club and the American Society of Veterinary Medicine both reject “breed-specific legislation” such as pit-bull bans. He portrays proponents of the D.C. ban, such as the Washington Humane Society, as animal-rights extremists, pointing to connections between the society and the activist People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA has donated money to the Washington Humane Society, according to tax returns Chudowsky obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and Ingrid Newkirk, the current president of PETA, was a former director of the D.C. Animal Disease Control Department, which subcontracted work to the society.

A pit-bull ban is “part of [PETA’s] larger political agenda,” Chudowsky asserts, “because they are radical crazies who are against anyone owning companion animals, or even using animals for research that would stop people from dying of AIDS.”

Newkirk makes no apology for supporting a pit-bull ban, adding that if bans really were so radical, they wouldn’t have been passed in more than 200 jurisdictions across the country.

“When you see it from a national perspective, you realize that these people make the same arguments against breed bans again and again,” Newkirk says. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re trying to defend the right to own wolf-dogs in Washington State or arguing that they should be able to keep a tiger in a private home in Texas because it’s just another kind of cat. They always say it’s unfair to be prejudiced against their individual pet simply because it belongs to a particular breed.”

Many local humane societies have supported specific legislation against pit bulls. “The issue is quite controversial within the organization, and even though we prefer other alternatives, it is true that some of our officers do support pit-bull bans,” says Stephanie Shaine, the director of outreach for the Humane Society of the United States.

On the other hand, notes Lockwood, “the Humane Society does not represent the dog industry. We’re not like the American Kennel Club, which primarily represents the interests of dog owners and breeders. We are an animal-welfare organization.”

Lockwood himself occupies a middle ground, supporting some forms of breed-specific legislation. “I don’t want to take pit bulls away from responsible owners,” he says, “but I do think it is perfectly reasonable to say that you have to be over 18 to own a dangerous dog—or at least to take one outside.”

Lockwood’s perspective has been formed by a lifetime of studying fatal dog attacks, where he says the single best predictor of a tragedy is not the breed of the dog but the criminal record of its owner.

“There are two reasons I’m not behind a ban,” he says. “First, a mandatory spay/neuter law would go just as far to solve the problem. Second, a ban just doesn’t address the human factor.”

Adam Parascandola knows all about the human factor. As an anti-cruelty officer for the Washington Humane Society, Parascandola has seen more horribly mistreated pit bulls than he cares to recount. One of the sad paradoxes of the breed, he notes, is that pit bulls are among the most affectionate of all dangerous dogs—which makes them particularly vulnerable to mistreatment.

“When I first started doing this job, I used to love doing pit-bull runs, because they’re so friendly, they’re easy to catch,” Parascandola says. “In the past, people who wanted to have tough dogs like Dobermans sometimes strutted them around the neighborhood, but they mostly left them home to protect their house. But pit bulls have become fashion accessories, just like baggy pants. People just didn’t drive around in cars with three German shepherds ready to jump out of the back window, or chain Doberman pinschers up at the basketball court where they could break loose and attack other dogs.”

On a tour of duty in the poorer neighborhoods of Northeast Washington, Parascandola pulls up to a house just in time to see a felony in progress: a teenage boy flinging a small black terrier over a fence into a neighboring yard, right on top of a small pit bull. When Parascandola slams on his brakes, the teenager runs off and the terrier escapes through an open gate, leaving the animal-control officer to confront another boy, who is in the yard with the pit bull.

“Hey, don’t you know you’re not supposed to make dogs fight?” Parascandola says to the boy. A toddler in a dirty diaper appears in the doorway and starts crying. The boys say they are alone because their mother is at work. Parascandola has encountered problems with how this family has treated this dog before, and he considers impounding the animal. But the boy seems ready to fight for his pet, so Parascandola decides it’s easier to come back later when the mother is home.

“Well, at least they have food and water out for the dog now,” he says. “And it was actually the other kid who started it.”

When Parascandola turns into the alley behind the row houses in the 1600 block of Kramer Street NE, it seems he’s entered canine hell. Almost every house has a dog howling from behind a fence or beneath a deck. Most seem to be pit bulls. At one house, a large white pit bull stares down through a second-story window. Next door, a black pit bull snaps and growls through holes in a wooden fence. It’s clear that he’s suffering from some type of skin disease.

Parascandola pulls around to the front of the block, stopping at the house with the black dog. He notices that next door, at the house with the white dog, the electricity appears to have been shut off. As he starts writing out a warning for the owner of the black dog, a man drives up and quietly stares. Parascandola asks him if he knows the owner of the house with no power.

“Yeah, he lives there with the lights out, but he takes real good care of that dog,” says the man, introducing himself as Vincent Richardson, a truck driver. When Parascandola tells Richardson he is writing a warning to the black dog’s owner, Richardson says, “Good, I’m glad. Give it to me and I’ll make sure he gets it.”

Then Richardson pushes open the unlocked door to the house. Inside the entryway, a healthy, white-and-brown pit bull wearing a blue nylon body harness stands calmly. “That’s Blue,” Richardson says. “They both belong to my cousin. He takes real good care of Blue because he likes him, but he doesn’t seem to care as much for the other dog. So he leaves him outside all the time.”

Richardson says he thinks pit bulls are a terrible problem on his street, particularly because they’re breeding so fast.

“When the kids first bring them home, they think they’re cute and cuddly, but when they grow up and need some kind of training and discipline in order to stay out of trouble, then these kids lose interest. Once these puppies aren’t cute anymore, they’re put out in the back yard on a rope.”

Chudowsky contends that any problems with pit bulls are caused by irresponsible owners who neglect or abuse them and shouldn’t have a dog in the first place. But the facts often seem not to fit that theory, as in the case of Bruno’s owner, Pierre Mattia.

“I’m not irresponsible,” Mattia says. “When Ms. Keller’s office investigated [after Bruno attacked Hoss], they found that all my dogs were properly licensed and had all their shots.”

Mattia, who was not present at the attack, says he was very upset about the incident and that his daughter was traumatized by it. He says he was prepared to pay the original $500 or so for Hoss’ veterinary bills but balked when Simpkins started yelling something about triple damages and threatening to sue. According to Mattia, his pet is an American bulldog, not a pit bull, anyway.

“It’s not like I let Bruno run wild or go out with a small child,” he adds. “He was on a proper collar and leash, and my daughter is 5 foot, 10 inches tall. My dog had scratches, too. Sometimes dogs just fight.”

That is the fundamental problem with pit bulls, says Jim Monsma, Washington Humane Society acting executive director: They get into fights even when in the care of responsible owners.

“People like Chudowsky blame all pit-bull problems on irresponsible owners who fight them, but often there is no evidence of that.” As an example, Monsma points to the pit bulls, owned by Aaron Harris, that almost killed the deaf boy on Capitol Hill.

“The reason Aaron Harris had his dogs in a completely enclosed pen was because [we] required it after the neighbors had complained of being afraid,” Monsma says. “We suspected that he was breeding them, which we didn’t like, but we never found any evidence that he was fighting his dogs, or that he had abused them.”

“I loved my dogs,” Harris says in a phone interview, “and Elijah liked them, too.” Harris feels he has doubly suffered, first because his young friend was terribly injured and then because he felt he had no choice but to have all four of his pets put to sleep, even though only two of the four had participated in the attack. “I knew that keeping them would just kill my business,” he says. “But I still don’t know why they attacked him like that.”

“The reason some national organizations don’t support pit-bull bans is because they look at the entire country, which includes a lot of places which don’t have a pit-bull problem,” says Michelle Otis, who directs education programs for the Washington Humane Society. “But the reason we support it is because it’s a good solution for the situation here in D.C.”

At the D.C. Council hearings on the proposed pit-bull law, Otis notes, many of the people against a ban were upper-class folks with purebred dogs who lived west of Rock Creek Park, and many supporters of the ban were advisory neighborhood commissioners and local leaders from less-affluent Wards 7 and 8, where some citizens complain of living in fear of pit bulls.

Otis believes that a pit-bull ban is more humane and practical than some of the D.C. Dog Coalition’s alternative proposals, such as strict enforcement of leash laws. She agrees that most bites happen when dogs are running at large, not necessarily because “irresponsible owners” are walking them without a leash, but because the dogs jumped over fences, snapped their chains, or broke free of their owners. Moreover, she says, strictly enforcing leash laws would target an even larger number of dogs that posed no threat.

Making dogfighting a felony also hasn’t been much help, Otis says, because most of what happens in D.C. are informal “pick-up fights,” and it’s nearly impossible to make charges stick unless the fights are witnessed by authorities.

Her most important point is that even if a pit-bull ban did lead tough guys to switch to other tough dogs, D.C. would still be much safer. This conclusion is partly based on Lockwood’s finding that traditional guard dogs have less destructive bites, give more warning, and are less likely to attack other animals. Also, German shepherds, Rottweilers, and Dobermans aren’t used for organized dogfighting, so a pit-bull ban might eliminate the financial incentive to breed dogs for the underground economy.

But the best evidence, Otis believes, follows from Chudowsky’s own assertion that most people who own pit bulls don’t choose them because they want macho dogs but because they want great pets. After a ban, those people wouldn’t switch to attack dogs, Otis reasons—they’d choose beagles or golden retrievers or any other dog. “That’s why I think that a pit-bull ban would work in D.C.,” she concludes, “just as it’s worked to reduce dog bites in Prince George’s County.”

But dogs biting humans is only one part of the pit-bull problem. The dirty little secret in the whole argument is that most animal shelters throughout the greater Washington area consider pit bulls simply too dangerous to put up for adoption—the legal liability is too great if a dog subsequently attacks someone. That means that virtually every pit bull that is taken to a public shelter because it is has been abandoned or impounded has to be euthanized if it is not claimed by its owner.

Of nearly 2,300 pit bulls that went into D.C.’s public shelters last year, only around 170 came out alive. By comparison, according to the D.C. Dog Coalition’s own estimates, Prince George’s County had to kill only about 500 pit bulls, and after a 14-year-old pit-bull ban, Cleveland had to contend with only 45.

“We have every reason to believe that Chudowsky loves his dog and that Cleo would never bite anyone,” Otis says. “But this is about a lot more than people’s rights to own dogs. It’s also about public health and animal cruelty. And there’s a lot of good evidence that in D.C., a ban is the best way to protect pit bulls, and the other dogs, and people they bite, from going through a lot more suffering.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.