a Roz by any other name
PIT BULL Terriers have an unfortunate reputation as aggressive attack dogs and are often the victims of media-fuelled hate campaigns that lead to Breed Specific laws to restrict their ownership. But now pit bulls are set to be given a new breed name in America in an effort to re-launch them as family-friendly pets instead of fearsome fighting dogs.
The re-branding plan was devised by Ed Boks, the director of New York's dog pound. Boks was appalled to learn that nearly 6,000 abandoned or confiscated Pit Bull Terriers were put down in the city last year.
Boks, who arrived in New York last month from a similar job in Arizona, believes that most pit bulls are "misunderstood", and decided that marketing was the answer to the problem. Last week, the pound - officially known as the City Animal Care and Control Agency - declared that pit bulls would henceforth be known as "New Yorkies".
"I figured that we need to do a little marketing here, however wacky the idea, and re-brand this dog," said Boks last week.
Though the pound is already listing the breed by that title on its books, his plan initially faltered when the new name was greeted with howls of protest from human New Yorkers, and the owners of Yorkshire Terriers. Now, the agency has asked the public for suggestions for a new name, with frontrunners including the "Yankee Terrier" and the "Patriot Terrier".
Last year, only 460 of 6,300 pit bulls were reclaimed or retrieved from the pound. The others were put down. "That is an appalling slaughter," Mr Boks said. "The only solution is to persuade people to adopt them, and people are wary of adopting a 'pit bull' with all that the name implies."
Pit Bull Terriers were banned in Britain under the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act following a series of attacks. Imports and breeding were outlawed, and dogs already in the country had to be registered, neutered, marked with a tattoo and fitted with a microchip. Pit bulls were cited as dangerous in many other countries even if they had not caused a problem and were targeted in Breed Specific legislation enacted in the image of the DDA.
First imported to America at the end of the 19th century, when dog fighting was banned in Britain, combining the strongest jaws of any dog with a high pain threshold and extraordinary stamina. Pit bulls became the dog of choice among US drug dealers in the 1980s and have since become the "macho" choice of urban American dog owners.
In New York, they are the fourth most popular breed, after Labradors, GSDs and Shih Tzus. They are also responsible for the second greatest number of bites, after GSDs, although these figures often class crossbreeds as pit bulls and are therefore inaccurate.
The American Kennel Club said that re-branded pit bulls would have to be submitted to them as a new breed.
"We are always in favour of saving a dog's life when possible," a spokesman said. "The key to this problem is the same as with any dog. It rests in responsible dog ownership."
Ed Boks insists that most pit bulls make first-rate family pets. "A sweeter animal is unimaginable," he said. "It is not just my opinion: I have talked to cruelty investigators across the country and they all report a real decrease in vicious dog behaviour. People used to get killed by these dogs, but now that's a rarity."
Bernadette Peters, a popular Broadway musical actress, owns a pit bull named Stella, who she says has shown no signs of aggressive behaviour.
Ms Peters believes that a name change could rescue the breed. "With a different name, maybe the guys who train them to be macho won't want them anymore," she said.
Yet Keith Galley, 37, a doorman in a Park Avenue apartment building, expressed doubt about the re-naming exercise as he walked his three-year-old, 70lb bitch, Jade, in Central Park.
"My family has always had Pit Bulls, and I don't think that changing the name will change much," he said. "It will only last until the next time that there is a big story over a bite.
Educating people is the answer. People abuse these dogs - same as any breed - but they are so much stronger and can do a lot more damage."
Bill Stewart, the editor of Pit Bull Reporter, a magazine published in Arizona, known as the centre of the dog-fighting world, applauded the effort to save New York's pit bulls.
But he warned: "Changing their name to get people to adopt them could be like handing someone a hand grenade and saying it is a piece of fruit.
"People need to be educated on them, and the problem in the cities is that a lot are in the wrong hands, the riff-raff and the drug dealers.
"These are the toughest, gamest dogs on earth. They like to fight other animals."