Public Enemy Number One

Street-fighting dogs: Inside the world of the much-abused, ever-maligned pit bull

If Floyd Boudreaux ever got a close look at Barney, he would surely deem him a cur. Barney, a 95-pound brindle, hides from cats, avoids puppies, and likes to gently press his muzzle against a stranger's crotch. He is a glutton for affection. Barney belongs to Rick Ruzicka, an affable 50-year-old Brooklyn Park resident who says God's purpose for him was to catch dogs. Ruzicka came across Barney two years ago while on duty in Maplewood. "I knew I wanted him as soon as I picked him up. He was just this big, goofy dog, oblivious to the world," Ruzicka recalls. As the owner of Animal Control Services Incorporated, Ruzicka has spent most of his professional life chasing dogs and cats.

He currently has contracts with 27 suburbs and small cities, mainly in the east metro, and estimates that he picks up about a thousand dogs a year. Over time, he's come into plenty of contact with pit bulls. Unlike Humane Society investigator Streff, Ruzicka developed a robust love for the breed. "They're very loyal," Ruzicka offers. "I'll tell you this, I get a lot more bites out of huskies, Akitas, and Chows." And he takes pains to dismiss some of the more popular misconceptions about the breed. "You hear things like, oh, pit bulls' jaws lock. Well, that's just bullshit." Like many of the pit's defenders—even dogmen like Will Grigsby—Ruzicka is fond of this mantra: It's not the dog, or the breed of dog. It's the owner.

After a long day of chasing futile leads, Ruzicka pilots his Ford Econoline van into the parking lot of his kennel in White Bear Township. He exchanges a few pleasantries with secretary and staff and then heads to a back room of the small, well-tended facility. There, in a pile of unspeakable cuteness sprawled out on a blanket, is a litter of pit bull pups. Ruzicka guesses they are six to eight weeks old. He found them behind a woodshed in a remote spot in Columbus Township, not far from Forest Lake. "When I got there, the mother was already gone," Ruzicka recalls. So he loaded the animals in his van, brought them to the shop, and pondered what to do with them. In the end, Ruzicka says, he was able to pass the dogs on to a rescue group in which he had confidence.

But in the world of animal rescue, pit bulls present some unique problems. If there is any evidence that a pit has been fought, most shelters opt for the needle. Even absent such evidence, rescued pits are more likely than other dogs to be put down. To be sure, there are legitimate, liability-based arguments: What if a rescued pit attacks a child? And then there is always the fear that people who want to adopt pits might also want to fight them. While studies have shown that pit bulls are less likely to bite humans thans many other breeds, there is an extra measure of concern because of their capacity for inflicting severe damage. If you're far more likely to be bitten by a poodle or a spaniel (and you are), you're also more likely to be killed by a pit.

That said, human deaths resulting from dog attacks are an extremely rare phenomenon in the United States. As the journalist Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in an article on the subject of profiling, pit bulls have fared remarkably well on tests designed to measure temperament. In a sample pool of some 1,000 pit bulls in a test administered by the Georgia-based American Temperament Test Society, for instance, 84 percent of the pits "passed." That, Gladwell writes, places the breed "ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund."

But a high batting average doesn't usually count for much in the world of the abandoned or rescued pit bull. An especially pitiful spectacle played out this past August in the loading dock at the Humane Society of Golden Valley. There were 44 dogs there, almost all of them pits or pit mixes. The animals had been seized from a Sibley County woman who was running a "no-kill" pit rescue operation out of her home. According to Wade Hanson, an investigator with the Humane Society for Companion Animals, the conditions were beyond deplorable. The animals were stacked in travel crates three high. The air was all but unbreathable. "The ammonia smell was overwhelming, so a few of us had to get out of the house so we wouldn't pass out," Hanson said. It was, both Hanson and Streff agreed, an all-too-common story: a good-intentions-gone-bad saga in which private rescue efforts morphed into something that more closely resembled pathological hoarding.

For workers at the Humane Society, the provenance of the majority of the animals was a mystery. That presented a problem. So, amid a deafening chorus of barking and yelping, a team of vet techs and Humane Society employees set about examining the animals. Some were obviously in poor health—half-starved, diseased, or covered with lesions. None bore the telltale scarring that would suggest a history of fighting. One by one, the dogs were taken from their crates, given a cursory health examination, and tested for temperament.

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