When Sara Enos fills the small pen with puppies on adoption days, she knows they’ll inevitably attract scores of admirers.
The people will pat the heads of the chubby furry bodies. They’ll accept the playful licks, coo at the puppy breath and melt over the high-pitched yips.
Eventually, she knows, they’ll get around to asking for the name of the breed.
And when she tells them, American Pit Bull Terrier, she won’t be surprised by their collective gasps, nor their changing demeanor, as if surrounded suddenly by a den full of baby rattlesnakes.
Pit bulls are aggressive. They’re mean. They’ll attack unprovoked.
That’s what many people think.
Enos has spent the last few years trying to eradicate each and every one of those statements.
“Most of the people we run into who are afraid of pit bulls have never actually had experience with them themselves,” said Enos. “They have only ever heard bad things.”
In 2010, Enos, a University City resident, started the American Pit Bull Foundation as a means to educate people about the canines that, for most of the 20th century save the last 20 years, were considered one of America’s most admired breeds.
“We are pretty multifaceted, but our focus is on education and breed advocacy,” said Enos. “We promote responsible breed ownership with education, programming and assistance.”
Enos knows from experience that the organization has a big task ahead of it.
Before launching APBF, she used to rescue pit bulls privately, but found the problem was too big for her to even make a dent.
“There was always another dog to take in,” she said. “So we began trying to figure out what the problem was to begin with: why so many pit bulls were being surrendered and euthanized.”
The breed has attracted a lot of negative attention in recent years. Stories of horrific injuries from their bites and even deaths have been reported across the country.
In University City last year, pit bulls were responsible for 52 of the 205 dog bites reported, making them the breed with the highest number. Second was the Labrador retriever, responsible for 19 bites.
But those numbers are skewed, said Terry Edwards, a senior animal control officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Animal Care & Control unit, because there are more pit bulls and Labs than any other breed in the region.
“I wouldn’t say (pit bulls are) any more aggressive than any other breed,” said Edwards. “I think a lot of times what’s left out of statistics and not taken into consideration is the popularity of the breed.”
Pit bulls can inflict severe damage because of their jaw strength, which measures between 300 to 325 pounds bite pressure per square inch. Of the 52 pit bull bites in University City last year, 15 were considered severe.
But other breeds, said Edwards, have even stronger bite pressure. In his 12 years as an animal control officer, specializing in animal training and rehabilitation, he said, he’s never seen a pit bull suddenly attack unprovoked.
“There is a cause and effect for everything, especially when it comes to dog behavior,” he said. “Randomness does not happen.”
Last year, the American Temperament Test Society, a not-for-profit organization that evaluates purebred temperaments, gave the American Pit Bull Terrier an 86.8 percent pass rate, better than the golden retriever, the standard poodle, the bichon frisé and the Basset hound.
Yet most animal shelters around the nation report that 40 percent of their dogs are bull-related breeds, surrendered by their owners for a variety of reasons that, according to Enos, could easily have been solved.
One of the biggest reasons owners drop off their pit bulls, Enos said, is frustration over finding an apartment complex or homeowners’ association without breed bans.
“They can’t find a place to live with a pit bull,” said Enos. “And it’s not just pit pulls, but Dobermans and German shepherds, too.”
To help, APBF keeps a list of apartment complexes and HOAs in the Charlotte area that ban specific breeds. It also works with a real estate agent to find acceptable homes where pit bulls are welcome.
They also help owners, one-on-one, to try to solve dogs’ behavior problems, and even to assist when financial hardships, such as paying for vaccines or surgery, become a reason to surrender the dog.
“We’ve been really successful with the idea of avoiding surrendering,” said Enos.
Since its founding, APBF has helped hundreds of pets stay with their families and has even adopted out puppies and rescue animals to others who had a change of heart about the breed.
“We’ve adopted to some who never in their lives would have considered a pit bull,” said Enos. “And they’ve been some of the best families.”