By Lauren Morgan
Michael Vick hasn't gone to trial yet, but there are victims in his dog-fighting case who have already been condemned - the pit bulls.
Although pit bulls are highly publicized for their aggressive behavior, many pit owners contest that it's all about nurture versus nature with these dogs.
"People who have never met a pit bull just don't get it, and they believe all the stereotypes and misconceptions out there about these dogs," said Amanda Conrad, founder of Pit Prints Rescue in Canton. Pit Prints specializes in the rescue and rehabilitation of pit bulls, and is currently working to find 250 dogs across the country better homes.
"I started fostering, and fell in love with the dogs. Each pit I took in would come from a worse, more abusive or neglectful situation than the last, and yet no matter how badly they were treated and abused, they were more and more loving each time I got them."
Conrad said she started getting overwhelmed with phone calls and e-mails from people needing help with pit bulls.
"I was amazed when I found out that so few shelters would adopt pits out, and even fewer rescue groups would accept them," she said.
Responsible breeders who breed American Bull Terriers as pets have generally selected against the high degree of aggression toward other animals seen in fighting lines, while preserving the many desirable qualities of the breed, such as intelligence, strength and devotion to its master, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Web site.
Dog fighters, on the other hand, have placed the emphasis on "gameness," or the willingness to engage in prolonged combat.
"Once a puppy with those lines is produced, then the nurture part of this comes into play. And by systematically abusing, neglecting and withholding food from the puppies, they grow up into the fighting dogs we see," said Kit Jensen, a volunteer with the Gwinnett Humane Society.
Jensen has served both as a rescuer and as a show person for more than 20 years. She and her partner have rescued many pit bulls and American Staffordshire Terriers with a very high rate of success.
"This is a wonderful breed of dog who deserves so much more than they have gotten," Jensen said. "I remember 20 years ago in the dog world, Dobermans were the 'evil' ones, then 10 years ago it was the Rotties with the bad reputation ... and now pit bulls. It's very sad that people with less than humane intentions can ruin animals and then have those same animals considered intrinsically evil."
Lawrenceville natives Ron and Sandi Pienta adopted two pit bulls from Jensen - a brother and sister named Trinny and Daisy. They also rescued one other pit named Lilly from the Gwinnett Humane Society.
"They're the best dogs I've ever owned," Ron Pienta said. "It's just too bad they have such a bad reputation."
Pienta said his dogs are like his "other kids," and have never exhibited any aggressive tendencies.
"People will come up to me and say 'What a beautiful dog! What breed is it?' but when I say pit bull, they'll turn and walk away," he said. "People should punish the deed, not the breed."
There are many reasons people are attracted to dog fighting, and the most basic is money. Major dog fight raids have resulted in seizures of more than $500,000, and it's not unusual for $20,000 to $30,000 to change hands in a single fight, according to the ASPCA's Web site.
Stud fees and the sale of pups from promising bloodlines are also huge moneymakers. The owner of a grand champion - a dog that has won five contests - can sell the puppies for at least $1,500 apiece.
"Dog fighters have no interest in dogs that don't win fights - it's a waste of money to feed a dog who won't win, so if a dog loses, they don't hesitate to drown, shoot, electrocute, beat, or just leave it tied to something in the woods to die of shock or starvation," Conrad said. "I can't imagine doing anything else with my life. I love these dogs, and sacrifice everything for them ... and will continue to do so as long as I have a breath left in me."
To adopt a pit bull or donate to a rescue service, visit www.gwinnetthumane.com or www.pitprintsrescue.com.