Behavior: Time Bombs on Legs

Violence-prone owners are turning pit bulls into killers

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Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face.

It is as if the vicious hound of the Baskervilles that burst upon Sherlock Holmes out of the fog has returned to haunt the streets of America. The creature last week attacked a 71-year-old woman in Stone Mountain, Ga., dragging her across her driveway and savaging her so badly that she required 100 stitches. It snapped and tore at an unemployed man as he watched the July 4 fireworks in Rochester; last week he died from his multiple injuries, including a 15-in. wound from calf to thigh. And in Atlanta, Houston and Ramsay, Mich., it has seized small children like rag dolls and mauled them to death in a frenzy of bloodletting.

The new canine terror is the American pit bull, a dog with a squat, muscular body and thick, steel-trap jaws that is descended from the fighting bulldogs of 19th century England. In 2 1/2 years it has been responsible for 16 deaths across the country, six of them in the past year, leading many municipalities to pass laws to restrict ownership. It is estimated that there are now 500,000 unregistered, often poorly bred pit bullterriers in the U.S. So fearsome is the dog's reputation that it has become imbued with much the same malevolent aura as the beast in Arthur Conan Doyle's story. That is exactly the effect sought by some owners, among them dog-fighting enthusiasts, members of street gangs and drug pushers, many of whom use revolting and painful techniques to bring the animals to the verge of bloodlust.

Officials of animal-protection societies tell of pit bulls being given live kittens or small dogs, such as poodles, to tear apart. Often they are fed gunpowder or hot sauce in the mistaken belief that this will increase the animals' pain threshold. Jean Sullivan, director of the Memphis-based Humane Society, charges that some owners have tried to increase their dogs' natural aggressiveness by keeping them tied up with collars of baling wire or running them on treadmills until they are exhausted. The pit bull's jaws -- which can exert as much force as 1,800 lbs. per sq. in. -- are strengthened by swinging the dog on a rope, its teeth clamped to a tire. This, she says, makes the animal a "lethal weapon. They hang on until their prey is dead." Such techniques, says Franklin Loew, dean of the Tufts University veterinary school, turn the dogs into "time bombs on legs." Many are used for high- stakes dog fighting, which has a sizable nationwide following, even though it is a felony in 36 states.

Ferocious pit bulls can be seen any day with their drug-dealer owners on the corner of Ninth and Butler streets in North Philadelphia. The dogs, with names like Murder, Hitler and Scarface, wear metal-studded collars concealing crack and cocaine and the day's proceeds. They are equally visible on Chicago's West and South sides, where teenage boys have taken to brandishing their fierce pit bulls just as they would a switchblade or a gun. "It's a macho thing, like carrying a weapon," says Jane Alvaro of the Anti-Cruelty Society.

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