By JULIA SZABO
For the millions of people who already fear pit bulls, the terrifying incident merely confirmed the widespread perception of the breed as a vicious, snarling beast, more demon than dog.
But for fans of this controversial breed, myself included, there's evidence that the public is starting to see pit bulls the way we do: as affectionate, friendly pooches that often make loyal family pets - yet are often misunderstood.
In recent weeks, pit aficionados were pleased to notice the ubiquitous advertisement for spirits giant Schieffelin & Somerset's Tanqueray gin. Decorating telephone booths all over town, the ad features a happily grinning pit in a purple T-shirt.
And coming to bookstores next week is a much-anticipated new novel, "The Dog Who Spoke With Gods" (St. Martin's Press, $22.95). Written by Diane Jessup, an animal-control officer in Olympia, Wash., it's the haunting tale of what a medical student learns from a brave pit named Damien, a dog subjected to torturous tests in a medical lab.
Author James Ellroy calls Jessup's book "a testament and a love song to the most misunderstood and noble of breeds: the American pit bull."
Pit bulls have collected many high-profile supporters lately, among them actress Bernadette Peters, who adopted one from the Center for Animal Care & Control, TV host Jon Stewart and rocker Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind.
"My dog's name is Koby, short for kobuta, which is Japanese for little pig," Jenkins explains. "But I like to call her 'the gentle sweetness,' because she most certainly is.
"She's solid black and looks like the face of death, so she scares many people," he adds. "But she's a friend to children. All the little kids in my neighborhood run up and stick their fingers in her eyes, and she just wags her tail. She's very gentle with the kids, and all the parents love her. She's my little pit bull ambassador!"
"I used to be afraid of pits, until I saw another side of them," says Ben Ligon, who works with the breed at New York Dog Spa & Hotel, a swank doggie day-care center in Chelsea.
"They're so playful and affectionate," says Ligon, who adopted two pit bulls, Brenda and Earl.
Pit bulls weren't always the object of controversy. From the turn of the last century through the '30s, Jessup notes, "pit bulls were massively popular as family pets. Laura Ingalls Wilder had one." History's most famous pit was Our Gang's dog Petey, on "The Little Rascals."
Yet today, many shelters nationwide are overrun with unwanted pits. At Manhattan's Center for Animal Care & Control, for example, some 8,000 pit bulls go through the city shelter system each year, and most of them wind up being euthanized.
Jessup praises the outreach efforts of Cydney Cross, who runs a non-profit rescue group called Out of the Pits upstate in Chatham, N.Y. Despite her tough-looking, muscular exterior, Cross' own dog Alexis is a softie: a certified therapy dog that regularly accompanies her on visits to hospitals and nursing homes.
While applauding developments that cast pit bulls in a more favorable light, animal experts caution that this is not a dog for everyone.
Bill Berloni of the Humane Society of New York, who taught the original Sandy for Broadway's "Annie," has trained several pits for Broadway and off-Broadway shows, with great success.
Still, he cautions, "as much as I like pit bulls, they need to be handled and owned by responsible people."
Part of being a pit owner is facing the unfortunate fact that the dog was originally bred to fight other dogs, often to the death. Many still possess a dog-aggressive streak. Owners of dog-aggressive pits should never let their charges loose in a park or dog run. And they should keep their dogs leashed at all times.
"You could have the greatest, most gentle pit bull, and your dog could be attacked by another dog, and ultimately the pit will take the responsibility for the incident, no matter who started it or how it turns out," Berloni says.
"If a German shepherd bites someone, the dog gets a second chance. If a pit bull does the same thing, he's put down. And that's prejudice."