SAN DIEGO — Being cooped up in a pound isn't fun for any dog, but Corky the pit bull seems especially cranky this afternoon. When the assistant director of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services walks by, the chocolate-brown Corky locks his gaze with hers and refuses to let go.
"He's staring me down," says Dawn Danielson, a veteran animal control specialist, as the dog's body stiffens and his pupils dilate. "That's a bad stare, not a good trait in any dog."
No wonder Corky has been on the shelter's adoption list for weeks, awaiting a new owner, while the smallest and cutest pooches zip out the door in a matter of days. But at least Corky has company: On this day, 24 of the 108 dogs at the county shelter's main facility are pit bulls or pit-bull mixes.
Some, like Corky, look like they've been trained for trouble. But many of the others bound to the front of their cages to see visitors, wagging their tails furiously as they lick fingers poked through the bars.
"We don't like to paint with a broad brush," Ms. Danielson says. "Not all pit bulls are bad, and not all pit bulls are good. They're individuals, like all dogs."
Nonetheless, aggressive postures like Corky's define the pit bull in the minds of many Americans, one result of well-publicized attacks that make the animal seem "more demon than dog," says Julia Szabo, a New York City pit-bull advocate.
While activists like Ms. Szabo try to rehabilitate their favorite dog's image, hundreds of pit bulls continue to languish in animal shelters. And now lawmakers in Georgia and a Canadian province are vowing to clamp down on pit bulls.
Lawmakers in Georgia are sponsoring a bill that would, with minor exceptions, ban the selling and breeding of pit bulls. Similar legislation is up for consideration in the Canadian province of Ontario.
No one knows exactly how many pit bulls live in the United States, nor is it clear whether the number of abandoned animals has gone up or down. However, the pit bull population "explosion" shows no sign of waning, animal advocates say, especially in cities where the dogs are common sights in urban neighborhoods.
"If you walk through almost any animal shelter, you're going to see anywhere from 25 percent to more than 60 percent of the dog population comprised of pit bulls," says Eric Sakach, director of the West Coast regional office of the Humane Society of the United States.
Considering their heritage, it's no surprise that pit bulls have a reputation for aggressiveness. Pit bulls trace their history to the early 19th century, when they were used in bull-baiting. Contrary to popular belief, they're not a breed, but instead a type of dog that encompasses several kinds of terriers.
Are pit bulls inherently aggressive? Insurance companies seem to think so: Some refuse to offer property coverage to pit-bull owners out of fear of liability claims. Others say the dogs are inherently vicious.
But advocates like Szabo say irresponsible and mean owners are to blame. "These dogs are cruelly treated," says Szabo, who writes a pet column for the New York Post. "They are so attached to their owners that they'll do anything for them to please them, and cruel people take advantage of that by forcing them to do things that are not in their nature. They're fought against each other, they're kept in chains from the time they're puppies."
The Humane Society of the US, which monitors dogfighting magazines and websites, estimates that 40,000 Americans participate in organized dog-fighting rings, and tens of thousands of other people make their dogs fight on the street. Adding to the dogs' profile in the public eye, "rap singers and people in professional sports have used the dogs as props," says Mr. Sakach.
Not all the news about pit bulls is bad. In Washington D.C., the percentage of abandoned pit bulls in the pound has dropped by half since the late 1990s. Now, only a quarter of the impounded dogs are pit bulls.
"Clearly, something has changed," says Washington Humane Society spokesman Jim Monsma, but he's not sure what it is.
Evolving shelter policies are also helping pit bulls. Under "no kill" rules, many shelters try to keep pets available for adoption indefinitely unless they're dangerous or extremely unhealthy.
Meanwhile, networks of pit-bull owners - reportedly including celebrities like Mel Brooks and actress Linda Blair - are promoting the dogs. "There are more and more people who really understand that these are incredibly affectionate, loyal, beautiful dogs," Szabo says. "They need and deserve a second chance."
However, the some-of-my-best-friends-are-pit-bulls argument hasn't budged the American and Canadian lawmakers who are pushing to outlaw the dogs.
"We heard loud and clear that Ontarians want to be protected from the menace of pit bulls," said Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant in a statement.
Regardless of the outcome of the legislative efforts, the pit bull seems likely to remain a tough sell. Even when friendly and affectionate, they're physically strong and energetic. "They're a lot of dog," says shelter official Danielson.
And what of Corky the pit bull? He'll soon enter his third month at the San Diego pound, still waiting for someone to see him as a challenge instead of a threat.