Can Weela's Heroics Change Pitbull Image?

In the late 1980s the American pitbull terrier tumbled through the social safety net to a rock-bottom image.

It was portrayed as a killer, biter and public menace in the media. Slowly, it has climbed out of that chasm, thanks to Mission Control, i.e. the United Kennel Club and concerned breeders.

But their efforts and a $1 million advertising budget couldn't pay for the goodwill feats of Weela, a courageous pitbull from Imperial Beach, Calif., that has been named 40th winner of the prestigious Ken-L-Ration Dog Hero of the Year award.

The dog's repeated valor over a three-month period saved 30 people, 29 dogs, 13 horses and one cat, all of whom may have perished during large-scale Southern California flooding last winter.

In January 1993, heavy rains caused a dam to break miles upstream on the Tijuana River, normally a 3-foot-wide stream. The dog's heroics began at a ranch that belonged to a friend of her owners, Lori and Daniel Watkins. Weela and the Watkins worked for six hours, battling heavy rains, strong currents and floating debris to reach the ranch and rescue their friend's 12 dogs.

Risked her life

"She was constantly willing to put herself in dangerous situations," says Lori Watkins, referring to Weela's ability to cope with challenges such as quicksand, drop-offs and mud bogs. "She always took the lead except to circle back if someone needed help."

Over a month, the 65-pound Weela crossed the flooded river to bring food to 17 dogs and puppies, one cat, all stranded on an island. Each trip she pulled 30 to 50 pounds of dog food that had been loaded into a harnessed backpack. The animals were eventually evacuated in mid February.

Weela also led a rescue team to 13 horses stranded on a large manure pile completely surrounded by flood waters. The team successfully brought the horses to safe ground.

During one of Weela's trips back from delivering food to stranded animals, she met 30 people attempting to cross the fast-moving waters. Barking and running back and forth, Weela refused to allow them to cross at that point where the waters ran deep and fast. She led them to a shallower crossing upstream where they safely crossed.

The American pitbull terrier is one of the original 15 breeds recognized by the United Kennel Club of Kalamazoo, Mich., founded in 1898. The organization's founder, C.Z. Bennett, registered his pitbull, Bennett's Ring, and assigned it UKC No. 1.

"This is one of the most people-oriented breeds I have ever seen," says Fred Miller, UKC president. "It's very intelligent, wonderful around children and is used for rescue and therapy work."

Unfair label

It's unfair, he adds, to generically label this breed mean or dangerous. "If you want a mean dog, you can make any breed that way," he emphasizes. "These took a real hit in the media about 10 years ago, but when I checked those involved in serious bite injuries, there wasn't one that was UKC registered."

The American Staffordshire Terrier, recognized by the American Kennel Club since 1936, is a virtual clone of the American pitbull terrier, yet it has been out of target range for the barrage of potshots fired at its UKC counterpart. The first pitbull registered as a Staffordshire was Pete of the "Our Gang" comedies.

All of the original AmStaffs recognized by the AKC, says Miller, were American pitbull terriers. Today hundreds are dual registered with both associations.

Most of the breed's problems, says Miller, stem from backyard breeders cranking out litter after litter. These dogs range from 35 to 105 pounds and can be found in the classified section of almost any major metropolitan newspaper in the country any day of the year. Some of these people have been associated with more turkeys than stuffing mix, adds a longtime breeder.

Trying to sidetrack a potentially bad matchup, the UKC offers several tips for choosing a pitbull.

In a breed profile brochure, it says:

"No matter how beautiful a dog is, the outward beauty must be matched with the inward beauty of temperament. There are several ways a puppy's disposition can be gauged before you buy it.

"Spend some time with the breeder or owner of the litter. How long have the people bred American pitbull terriers? Have they participated in obedience trials or conformation shows? Have they won? In what condition are the kennels and the pups?

"Have the pups had any shots? Does the coat shine? Are the eyes clear and bright? Have the pups been socialized? Are the pups eager to greet people or are they reserved and tend to be shy? How does the mother of the pups react to strangers?

"If the owners tell you she doesn't like strangers, politely excuse yourself and seek a kennel that has a female that has a great disposition. Bad temperament can definitely be inherited. If possible, visit the stud dog. Would you want to own him or is there something about him you don't like? Keep in mind he contributes 50 percent to the pup."

The UKC-affiliated Northwest American Pit Bull Terrier Club, based in Tacoma, is the premier area resource for information and leads for sound breeders and available puppies.

Assortment of events

It conducts licensed conformation shows and obedience trials at the Pierce County Fairgrounds in Graham each May and August and plans to offer tracking, agility and flyball events, plus a tattooing identification clinic.

With the purchase price of any puppy, Tacoman Terri Beach, club vice president and an eight-year breeder, includes a basic obedience course and is always available for phone consultations with new owners.

"Don't buy from the first litter you see," she cautions. "Types vary greatly and come in almost any color, including red, black, brindle, fawn, black and white, etc. Be sure you see both parents and ask for registration papers, veterinary references and breeder guarantee of health and temperament of any puppy sold. If not, look elsewhere."

Pet quality, UKC registered pitbulls, which usually sport an underbite and/or drop ears, sell for approximately $350 while show stock is $500 and up. Litters average eight to 10.

There has been a resurgence of interest in the breed, says Beach. "Hopefully, the worst is behind us. Most of the adverse publicity today seems to be directed toward the Rottweilers and wolf hybrids." She emphasizes, however, that it is unfair to indict an entire breed for the actions of a few, yet these are problems experienced by fad breeds whose popularity increases quickly.

Beach characterizes the pitbull as "happy, light-hearted and honest." The UKC calls it "courageous and strong with an infectious love of life." Nevertheless, it's listed in numerous breed-discrimination ordinances nationwide. Pitbulls are not placed up for adoption by either the Seattle-King County Humane Society, Tacoma-Pierce County Humane Society or King County Animal Control unless they are owner-claimed. Seattle Animal Control handles each on a case-by-case basis, while Progressive Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood "treats it like any other dog."

PAWS will not, says Laurie Raymond, shelter director, release any pitbull with a biting record or any that has shown a propensity for aggressiveness. "We have placed many wonderful pitbulls," she adds, "but this isn't a breed for everyone, however."

However, an old English proverb, which couldn't apply to any other breed of dog more aptly than the American pitbull terrier, says, "Give a dog a bad name, and hang him. The virtues of the dog are his own, his vices, those of his master." Mail information regarding dog/cat events to Classified Division, attn. Marilyn Fairbanks, Dog/Cat Events, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. All releases must be in writing and received by Monday prior to Sunday publication. Be sure to include a phone number. Pet tip of the week is on The Times InfoLine, 464-2000, then press PETS (7387).