For one pit bull owner, a feeling of vindication

Defeat of ban effort called common sense

May 16, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Outside City Hall, two pit bulls (with owner in tow) nuzzled a worn man on a park bench Monday. The man was not afraid. He playfully scratched their blocky heads as a local TV cameraman took the shot.

Gunner and Diva: poster pit bulls for the cause.

Moments later inside City Hall, City Council members narrowly rejected a bill that would ban an estimated 6,000 pit bulls in Baltimore. Leashes and victory in hand, Jim Stocksdale of East Baltimore went home, a satisfied owner of the two dogs. Common sense prevailed, Stocksdale says. Gunner and Diva remain free to nuzzle unmuzzled.

"If they try to pass a law to muzzle our dogs in public, we'll fight that, too," Stocksdale says.

The council's action notwithstanding, many people still feel strongly that pit bulls are a public menace, have irresponsible owners and should be removed from city streets and homes. Several pit bull attacks have occurred in the Baltimore area, including a case last week when a 2-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights was severely injured by her family's pit bull.

The stories aren't lost on Stocksdale. Like many owners, he's fiercely loyal to pit bulls in great part because others are so fiercely opposed to them. Still, he says, "To be honest with you, there was a time I felt the same way - that these were evil, ferocious dogs."

Stocksdale, a 47-year-old registered nurse, has seen his share of newspaper photos and television video of children whose faces had been disfigured by pit bull attacks. Who in his right mind would own a pit bull? he thought. Just look at the dogs - all chest and jaws, with those cropped ears.

For 15 years, Stocksdale had a Chesapeake Bay retriever, which, for dog owners, is the easy life. But then Stocksdale's retriever died, and through a twist of friendship, he inherited two pit bulls last year. A man living alone, he now had a project.

He was not trained to handle two American pit bull terriers. Gunner and Diva were cute babies, but what could he expect of two grown pit bulls?

"When I first got them, I had very little control of them," Stocksdale says, a not-so-reassuring admission.

In the beginning, the dogs barked all day while Stocksdale was at work. All-day barking gets old quickly, so Stocksdale would leave the stereo on to mute the noise for the neighbors while he was gone. He sneaked home once through the back door of his rowhouse to see if his pets had stopped barking. Gunner jumped off his perch on the radiator and moved toward Stocksdale. The dog eventually recognized his owner and stopped before news was made.

Now he no longer sneaks up on Gunner. And Gunner, his owner says, no longer jumps the fence to chase cats. He's more under control now - thanks to obedience school. Obedience school should be required for all pit bull owners, he says. The dogs aren't born killers: They are trained to kill.

Despite Gunner's obedient ways, he remains a compact 85 pounds and "so powerful he wears me out," his owner says. This accounts for the medieval motif of the dog's training collar. As long as Gunner behaves, no problem. But if he needs "correcting," then the small spikes inside the collar apparently correct him. When Gunner is horsing around and locks his jaws onto Stocksdale's sleeves, the owner merely commands, "Don't tear the shirt!"

After a year with pit bulls, Stocksdale walks the pit-bull owner walk. Head up, back straight. To see him with his "red-nosed pits" is to see a man walking confidently, as if armed. His misunderstood dogs are safe, he says, and he certainly feels safe around them.

Stocksdale, it turns out, has a track record with so-called dangerous creatures. For eight years, he was a volunteer diver at the National Aquarium, where he swam among the sharks to the amazement of children. "Sharks, too, have a bad rep," he says.

No longer swimming with sharks, Stocksdale now walks with pit bulls. To demonstrate their friendly nature, he brings his dogs to Future Care Canton Harbor, the nursing facility where he works. Among the residents, Gunner and Diva harmlessly make the rounds.

Back out on the street, Stocksdale gets a kick every time strangers pet his dogs before casually asking him exactly what brand of dog they're scratching. He drops the "P.B." words and watches them yank their hands back.

That's learned behavior too, the pit bull owner says.

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