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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 1.6.11

Pittie People

What kind of person would own a pit bull?

By Camilla Mortensen

Statistically pit bulls that wind up in shelters don't get out alive. Pit bulls that have been fought get even less of a chance, as it's long been assumed they are irredeemably vicious. When football star Michael Vick was convicted in 2007 of dog fighting as well as killing several of the pits in his "Bad Newz Kennels," it was assumed that the dogs would all be put to sleep. Even PETA advocated for euthanasia. But dedicated animal rescues stepped in and saved nearly all the animals. Many have been adopted out, and several have earned their Canine Good Citizenship awards. Others have become therapy dogs.

Vick is now out of prison and playing football again. President Obama incited controversy among pit bull advocates recently when he called Philadelphia Eaglesowner Jeffrey Lurie to commend him for giving Vick a second chance. Most pit bulls, advocates say, don't get such a chance. Vick is prevented under the rules of his probation, which lasts until May 2012, from getting a dog, though recently he's begun talking about getting a puppy.

Lane County Animal Services is packed with unwanted pit bulls. LCAS has a voucher program to help curtail breeding more of these dogs that can't find homes. Those dogs that do find homes are the lucky ones. After all, what kind of person would own a pit bull? As it turns out in Lane County, it's the kind of person who sells you your clothes, sells you an insurance policy or gives you a massage. It's businesswomen and university women. It's the kind of woman that likes to dress her dog up in pink clothes and paint its toenails. It's a woman who loves a good dog.

Sondra Arrache massage therapist and dog rescuer

Pip and Gabriel (pictured)

Todd Cooper

Sondra Arrache rescued Gabriel from Lane County Animal Services (LCAS) back before the agency began its effort to go No Kill. Gabriel, she says, was slated to be euthanized the day she went and got him. "Nobody wanted him because he was a total spaz," she says. Now Gabriel's a trained bird hunter, though "no longer practicing," and sleeps under the covers at night. She says, "Once I got him I realized I'd never have another type of dog." In his youth, she says, he would leave the covers when he got hot, then wake her up to crawl back in when he got cold again. Now, at age 10, he likes to snuggle the night through.

Gabriel and Arrache's year-old foster pup, Pip, are both brindle, which she says "is the most overlooked color of dog at a shelter." Pip was rescued from a high kill shelter and came to Arrache bald due to mange, and emaciated. She nursed him back to health and he's looking for his forever home. Arrache works with Save the Pets and rescues and fosters pit bulls. Pit bulls, she says, "Are loyal, loving, serious with an almost human quality to them, but very much a real, muscular, athletic beast." She adds, "They have a childlike quality."

Elizabeth Thompson owner, Sweet Potato Pie and Target employee

Zeeta and max

Todd Cooper

When not working one of her two jobs "she owns Sweet Potato Pie in downtown Eugene and is a "low level manager" at Target " and raising her two kids, Elizabeth Thompson plays for the Andromedolls in the roller derby, coaches the Junior Gems and fosters dogs for Luv-a-Bull Pit Bull Rescue, LCAS, Save the Pets and "whomever else needs me." She's fostered at least 200 dogs over the years, most of them "mama pit bulls and their puppies."

Thompson says, "We're the house that is constantly full of kids, and the pit bulls love it when we have the Junior Roller Girls' sleepovers. Last summer, it was about 40 girls " the dogs were in heaven!Me?Not so much!"

She got Max from a backyard breeder, "before I knew better."

"Max was my entry into the world of discrimination," she says. "As a middle-class white girl, I'd never experienced discrimination until I got Max.Suddenly friends didn't want their kids coming to the house."

Thompson says, "They are judged so harshly, and most of what people think about pits is false.I got involved in rescue to dispel myths, help educate people about them and do everything I could to encourage spaying and neutering of my favorite breed."

Before getting her dogs, she says, "Like most people, I had never been around pit bulls and was terrified of them. Everything I'd ever seen or heard about them was negative, and I was fearful of what I didn't know." But she met a friend's pit, who was "good and gentle with my kids, beyond anything I'd ever seen with any dog, and I've had dogs all my life."

Zeeta came from Luv-a-Bull and had become a certified therapy dog through Delta Society " the most prestigious honor a therapy dog can have "while at Luv-a-Bull, Thompson says. "Zeeta is the epitome of what a pit bull can and should be. She loves all people, and is a true pit bull ambassador."

Tara Plaunty-Jensen controller at the Hilton Eugene and member of the hotel's executive committee


Todd Cooper

"If you ask anyone who knows him, they will tell you that Hammer should be the poster child for pit bulls. He is loving; he listens; he wouldn't hurt a fly; he is so concerned with where we are and what we are doing and just wants to be close to us at all times," says Tara Plaunty-Jensen. She is 24 weeks pregnant with her and husband Charlie's first child, which means she's had to take time off from her other career as Emerald City Roller Girl "Reign of Tara."

Hammer was a wedding present, bought by friends who ran across someone selling pit puppies at the local supermarket. The friends, she says, would have kept Hammer if it hadn't worked out, but she and her husband loved him.Plaunty-Jensen says, "He has changed my thoughts on dogs in general. I never thought I could love a big dog so much!"

Hammer is the epitome of politeness when it comes to playing outside in the Oregon mud. "When we let him outside and then back in, we lay down his towel and, instead of running in the house, he stops on his towel and picks up one paw at a time so we can wipe it off. When we're done, we give him a pat on the rear and he knows he can run into the house.He does this without prompting; he's just trained," says Plaunty-Jensen.

She says when Hammer goes for a walk, "People stop and ask if they can pet him. Sometimes they say they think he is smiling, which is funny because we always think that too."Plaunty-Jensen says, "It's hard to put into words the amazing that is Hammer."

Liesl Wilhardt fine jewelry maker and founder of Luv-a-Bull

Pictured with Mama Noelle and her babies(up for adoption with Luv-a-Bull)

Trask Bedortha

"I have a master's degree from Harvard University in politics and religion which is completely irrelevant to my true passion " dog rescue," says Wildhardt. In addition to running Luv-a-Bull, she runs a small breed rescue called Luv-a-Little. Luv-a-Bull focuses on exceptional dogs with great temperaments and personalities, she says. In fact, the only mean dog she ever rescued, Wilhardt says, was a Chihuahua. That dog, whom she named El Diablo, landed Luv-a-Bull on an episode of Cesar Millan's The Dog Whisperer called "Chihuahuas from Hell."

In addition to the more than 400 dogs she's rescued through Luv-a-Bull, Liesl's own dogs, Esmarelda, Ellsinore, Josephine and Griffynn, a Shih tzu named Stella and a dachshund/pug mix named Blarney Stone, are rescues too. "My old matriarch, Blossom, died this past September at age 12, and has left a whole hole in my heart and my pack."

Wilhardt says, "It is estimated that nationally, only about one in every 800 pit bulls that enters a dog pound or animal shelter makes it out alive through adoption or rescue."

Mama Noelle, one of Wilhardt's many rescues up for adoption, was slated for euthanasia at an out-of-state-shelter. The pregnant dog was on the table, and the technician was just about to stick the needle in her leg to put her to sleep, but she wagged her tail, and the tech couldn't kill her. The shelter put out an urgent plea to all the rescues, and the Hiegl Foundation stepped in. Noelle and her pups were sent to Oregon and Luv-a-Bull.

Wildhardt says she grew up with a poodle in the family, but "I fell in love with the breed from seeing the pit bull Petey on TV as a kid. I went to college in L.A. and met a lot of pit bulls there. No matter how tough and mean looking they were, they were always sweet and loving with me. I loved that they were so strong and athletic, but gentle and playful too."

Jenny Johnson senior level account executive at KMTR NewsSource 16


Trask Bedortha

Martina was found wandering the streets of Oakland, Calif., and despite her sunny, outgoing personality, wasn't able to find a home. Luckily, she was pulled from the shelter and sent to a foster home, where Jenny Johnson found her on Petfinder.com "I got Martina in December of 2006. I had a friend who adopted/rescued a pit mix, and over the course of a couple of years, I fell in love with the dog," Johnson says. Upon discovering she wasn't first in line to get Rhoda the pit mix (the owner's ex-boyfriend was), "I decided I needed my very own Rhoda-type dog." She found several options on Petfinder.com, which lists both local dogs and dogs across the country.

Johnson says, "I did not know anything about Petfinder or that eight out of 10 shelter dogs are unwanted pit bull or pit bull mixes." Of all the dogs she saw, it was Martina, all the way down in California, that she fell in love with. She made the 16-hour roundtrip drive on Thanksgiving weekend to meet "my new best friend Martina."

Martina is named for Martina Navratilova, the tennis player, because she is so "buff," and she's "energetic with a capital E!" Johnson says. To work off some of that energy,Martina goes running alongside when Johnson takes her horse on trail rides and ran with her during Greenhill's 2010 "Bark in the Park." The dog is always up for a run, a hike, tearing up a new stuffed toy or trail ride, Johnson says, but "luckily she is also down with being a couch potato or hanging out in the car for a couple of hours as needed."

When Martina isn't at the barn, rolling in "stinky smelling things" while Johnson rides her horse, she has also been known to dress up on lavender wings and have her toenails painted pink.

Kelly Beal artist, online jewelry business, Bealdesigns.com

Ava (aka Duffel bag of Love)

Trask Bedortha

"Ava is a huge chunk of love," Kelly Beal says. "She looks big and intimidating but there isn't a mean or aggressive bone in her body." She says, "I used to hear all these horrible things about pit bulls, but after working with them and owning one I have come to see that they are truly an amazing breed with a depth of spirit and soulfullness that is unmatched by any other breed."

In addition to Ava, Beal has a couple of small dogs as well and "she is so gentle and loving with them, aware of her size and strength." Ava's best friend is a seven-pound Chihuahua who curls up with her every night.

Ava, Beal says, came from LCAS, and Beal adopted her from Luv-a-Bull. Beal is now the vice president of Luv-a-Bull and does all the photography for grants, publications, adoptions, etc.

Before Ava, Beal says, she had Rottweilers. When it came time for her next dog, "I knew I had to get another big dog, and I knew it had to be a rescue. I like having a big dog because they have always made me feel safe in my home, camping, hiking, etc."

She says she chose a pit because "I had heard how wonderful pit bulls were and how human-oriented they are, so I decided to get a pit bull from a local rescue."

When not snoozing with her small dog friends, Beal says, Ava likes to go for hikes,play with the sprinkler " chasing the water as it rushes out of the sprinkler head " and hang her head out of the car window so she can feel the wind on her face. Beal says Ava "thinks she is a lapdog, and whenever she can she unapologetically jumps up into my lap and curls up like a doughnut for a long nap. All 75 pounds of her."

Beal says, "Because of Ava, I know I will always have a pit bull in my life until the day I die."

Christine Dambach self-employed insurance agent for Farmers Insurance


Trask Bedortha

When Christine Dambach, who is originally from Switzerland, adopted Kona almost 13 years ago from an ad in the paper, the dog was 2 years old and had "amazing energy, but I knew she was 'right' for us, when at the initial meeting she rolled on her back and let my very old and fragile German shepherd be the boss."

In addition to Kona, Dambach has a rescued Boston terrier and three rescued cats. In her spare time she walks half marathonsas afundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Dambach adopted her other pit bull, Rosie, to help work off Kona's energy. "They were the perfect match for each other; they played and slept together and not once in 13 years did they get into a fight. Unfortunately Rosie died last summer; she was 15 years old, very spoiled and very sweet. She too, was rather perfect."

She says, "Kona is also almost 15 years old now and spends a lot of time sleeping; my cats all love to cuddle with her and go out of their way to rub on Kona and walk between her legs."

Kona has her own unique way of dealing with hot summer days, Dambach says. When she gets too hot, Kona moves her head to the edge of the sofa and lets gravity take over, letting her body crash to the floor. "At first it was a bit surprising to hear 70 pounds hit the floor, but that seems to be the preferred way to get off the bed, sofa or chair," she says.

Dambach says, "I love the breed. I believe they are beautiful dogs that are very kind and loyal, and if brought up right, are the best dog anybody could ever want. It is too bad that the press in general gives them such a bad rap."

Rachael Wolfgang contracts specialist for UO


Trask Bedortha

Joy had been abandoned at a shelter starving and just about ready to give birth. She was due to be put down due to lack of space, Rachael Wolfgang says.

Liesl Wilhardt of Luv-a-Bull stepped in and bailed the dogs out. Wolfgang and her husband were looking for a second dog "to keep our very needy mastiff-Labrador mix company." They stumbled across Joy, who was being fostered by Sweet Potato Pie owner Elizabeth Thompson. "She was the first dog who patiently endured our mastiff's obnoxious entreaties to play," Wolfgang says. "She was patient and sweet, but had been horribly abused. She was afraid of everything, and would huddle shaking under the table if a person so much as raised their hands over their heads " yoga at home was difficult!"

Wolfgang says, "I am ashamed to say it, but I actually used to be one of those people who bought into the pit bull stereotype. I had heard they were aggressive and what a horrible breed they were, and was terrified at the prospect of letting such a dog into my life. I had never met a pit bull, but I had heard stories."

She says, "A memory of Joy that will always touch me is when we were taking care of my mom after the chemotherapy hadn't been effective.I brought my dogs over to help cheer her up. My mom had always loved my mastiff mix but had been skeptical of Joy. She was the one who had taught me to be wary of pit bulls, after all. For some reason, something about my now bed-bound mom scared my mastiff mix " he wouldn't go in her room, which made my mom sad."

But Wolfgang says, "Joy was in the car, so I asked my mom if she minded if I brought her in, and she nodded." When they took her in, "Joy came happily in the room, sniffed my mom's extended hand for only a second before giving it a big lick and going on to lick my mom's now-smiling face. She then slowly crawled onto my mom's bed for abetter snuggle and face kissing vantage point. Normally, she would get in trouble for getting onto a couch or bed without permission, but we let this one slide. My mom was in love and later told me I might have been right about pit bulls after all." She adds, "OK, really, she told me that Joy might not be a pit bull after all, but I knew what she meant. Joy's unbridled affection had won her over."