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10 True Tales of Pitbull Heroism

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After a dog attack that killed a woman earlier this year in Montreal, the Canadian city approved breed-specific legislation targeting pit bull-type dogs. Under the new law, no one would be able to get one of these dogs, and people who already have them would have to face severe restrictions, like paying a high fee for a permit, muzzling the animals in public, and keeping them on a leash that is 4 feet long. Any owners who don’t get the special permit will likely have their dogs seized and put down.

Luckily for the pit bulls of Montreal, Justice Louis Gouin of the Quebec Superior Court has suspended the legislation until a hearing about the legality of the law is held. But the legal scuffle has likely furthered false negative perceptions of the breed—even though the dog that initially spurred the ruling wasn't necessarily a “pit bull-type” dog; the Humane Society claims it was registered as a boxer.

Breed-specific legislation on the whole has been proven ineffective. Hundreds of cities have adopted them, forcing dog owners to jump through hoops like DNA tests, obtaining liability insurance, and enduring lengthy permit processes. But the fight against dogs hasn’t always been focused at pit bulls—in the past it’s been German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, and Rottweilers—and studies from Australia and the Netherlands have found that the bans aren’t reflective of reality. The American Bar Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Humane Society of the United States, and the American Veterinary Medical Association have all noted the ineffectiveness of these laws, as well as pointing out that research doesn’t implicate one breed as worse than others.

Pit bulls are known (and loved) for their sweet, silly personalities, and loyalty to their owners and other animals. Here are 10 stories of pit bulls that were true heroes.

1. CHIEF // SAVED TWO WOMEN FROM A COBRA ATTACK

One day in 2007, in Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines, a cobra found its way into the kitchen of the Fronteras family. The snake went after 87-year-old Liberata la Victoria and her granddaughter, Maria Victoria Fronteras—but the family’s 4-year-old pit bull, Chief, wouldn’t allow anyone to get hurt. When Fronteras screamed for help, the dog rushed in to protect both women from the cobra, shielding them from two attacks and then grabbing the snake by the neck and smashing it on the kitchen floor until it died. But in the process, he suffered a fatal bite on his jaw. Chief was able to give his owners one last glance and wag of the tail before dying from the attack. A local pit bull club later released balloons in his honor.

2. HERO // INTERVENED TO STOP A STABBING

When a stray pit bull was walking around town in Baldwin, Georgia, this August, he saw a man and woman fighting in the street and ran to intervene after the man pulled out a knife. He protected the woman, taking the brunt of the attack as he was stabbed five times. He was rescued by Sgt. Timothy Clay and Officer Daniel Seeley, who immediately brought him to a vet for surgery. The dog died twice during surgery but miraculously recovered; he was named Hero and has now been adopted.

3. LILLY // PULLED WOMAN OUT OF A FREIGHT TRAIN'S PATH

One night in May 2012, Lilly, an 8-year-old pit bull, and her owner, Christine Spain, were walking along train tracks in Shirley, Massachusetts, when Spain collapsed. The operator of a freight train was heading down toward them when he saw the pit bull desperately pulling the unconscious Spain off the tracks. Spain escaped injury, but Lilly was hit, causing internal injuries, pelvis fractures, and catastrophic damage to her right front leg. Even while suffering from a devastating injury, Lilly was calm and stayed by her owner's side until help arrived. After multiple surgeries, the amputation of her leg, and lots of physical therapy, Lilly recovered. Spain's son, Boston Police Officer David Lanteigne, who had adopted Lilly from a shelter in 2009 for his mother, told ABC News, "We saved Lilly, and Lilly saved my mom's life. My hope is that this story is going to get out and show what pit bulls are truly about. I hope by Lilly going through this, it's going to get other dogs homes."

4. MESSIAH // ALERTED WOMAN'S HOUSEMATE OF A MEDICAL EMERGENCY

When Darrin Trombley heard a crying noise coming from his housemate Carol Hathaway’s room one evening in 2014, he went to check on her—and found Hathaway, who has Type 2 diabetes, lying on the bed with her feet on the floor, unconscious. Her pit bull, Messiah, was whining and licking her face. Trombley saw that the pup's tail wasn't wagging and realized something was wrong, so he called 911. When EMTs arrived, they discovered that Hathaway's blood sugar was dangerously low. “She had already started to seize and was making, like, burbling noises,” Trombley told The Post-Star. Thankfully, the EMTs were able to stabilize her. When Hathaway woke up, Trombley told her that it was Messiah—who she had rescued from a shelter a year and a half before—that had alerted him to the fact that Hathaway was in trouble. “I was stunned,” Hathaway said.

5. PRECIOUS // STOPPED AN ALLIGATOR ATTACK

Robert Lineburger lived on his boat at Port LaBelle Marina in southwestern Florida with a service dog, Precious, who could sense his seizures. "She went everywhere with me for the past six years," he told WPTV. So, when Lineburger got up to use the bathroom one night in April 2016, Precious followed—and intervened when an alligator on the dock tried to attack. "She jumped in front of me," Lineburger said. "She was roughly 2 to 3 feet away from me when the gator attacked." Lineburger couldn't see the gator because of the lack of lights on the dock, which he believes is a violation of code. Precious died saving her owner's life, and he is determined that her death bring about some changes at the marina. "Nothing they will do will bring her back, but I do not want her death to be in vain," he said. "At least let it accomplish something [and get] some of these violations taken care of."

6. POPSICLE // FOUGHT CRIME WITH U.S. CUSTOMS OFFICERS

Popsicle began his life as a drug dealer’s fighting dog. When the dealer was arrested in 1997, a policeman found the dog in a black garbage bag stuffed into a freezer on the back porch, blood-caked, malnourished, and near death. Popsicle was taken to a local animal hospital/shelter, but no one would adopt him because of his breed. So, he was sent to the Canine Enforcement Training Center in Front Royal, Virginia, which trains U.S. Customs dogs. He graduated at the top of his class and ended up at the Texas-Mexico border, where he sniffed out more than 3000 pounds of cocaine hidden in a truck—the facility's biggest drug bust at that point.

7. PITTIE // ADOPTED AN ORPHANED KITTEN

Employees from an animal rescue group made a surprising discovery on a Texas roadside in March 2015: a stray pit bull nursing an abandoned newborn kitten. The dog, named Pittie by Mercy Animal Clinic where the pair was taken, was keeping the kitten alive with her milk. "Over my 28-year career, I've never seen anything like this," veterinarian Dr. Rick Hamlin told The Dodo. "My gosh, to find this in the wild, that a pit bull and kitten found each other on their own and they connected like they did, it's really something." From that point on, Pittie acted as the kitten’s mother—and when her milk began to dry up and the kitten had to be bottle-fed, Pittie followed and watched over the whole process. The two couldn’t be separated because Pittie would get upset every time someone took her kitten out of her sight. Sadly, according to Mercy’s Facebook page, Pittie’s kitten passed away in April (the kitten "had congenital malformation of the urinary bladder and kidneys," according to the clinic, which might be why its mother abandoned it). Pittie, though, has since been adopted to her forever home.

8. BABY // RESCUED A FAMILY FROM A HOUSE FIRE

In 2013, then 10-year-old pit bull Baby rescued her family—and their other pets—from a house fire in Wellston, Oklahoma. The fire likely started in the dryer and spread through the house while Rhonda Westenberger and her sister Evelyn were asleep. Baby ran into their rooms, barking and jumping on them so they would wake up and see the danger. "There were flames shooting down the hallway," Westenberger told KOCO News. "If Baby hadn't woken Evelyn up, I don't think either one of us would have come out of it." The women escaped, but they had five other dogs still trapped inside. Baby saved them, too, even pulling one from under the bed and dragging it out of the house.

9. STUBBY // THE MOST DECORATED DOG IN MILITARY HISTORY

Sergeant Stubby was a pit bull mix (among the types that would be banned in Montreal) hailed as a war hero in World War I. Originally a stray puppy found by Private J. Robert Conroy at Yale University in 1917, Stubby became the mascot for the unit Conroy was training with. The dog made it to the front lines in France, where he was injured after being exposed to gas; after he recovered, he was able to smell when gas attacks were coming. He was also very good at locating wounded men between the trenches. He once managed to capture a German spy—an effort that made him the first dog to gain rank in the U.S. Armed Forces. Stubby served in 17 battles total, and he even learned a modified salute, putting his right paw up by his right eyebrow.

10. JACK // FOUGHT OFF COYOTES TO SAVE A CAT

Rescue pittie Jack and rescue cat Kitty share a similar past and a current friendship, with Jack regularly acting as Kitty’s watchful caretaker. When two coyotes attacked Kitty at their Florida home in 2013, Jack sprang into action. Sheree Lewis, the animals’ owner, said the coyotes were battling over the cat, one grabbing her by the tail and the other grabbing her by the neck. Jack bolted over to save his friend’s life—"I didn't know Jack could run that fast," Lewis said—fighting off the coyotes until they let Kitty go. Kitty didn’t escape unharmed—she had several cuts, a broken tooth, and brain swelling—but without Jack’s help, it would have been far worse. Jack is still devoted to his friend. "He checks on her every day and sniffs her, seeing what kind of shape she is in," Lewis said.

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Animal Welfare Groups Are Building a Database of Every Cat in Washington, D.C.
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There are a lot of cats in Washington, D.C. They live in parks, backyards, side streets, and people's homes. Exactly how many there are is the question a new conservation project wants to answer. DC Cat Count, a collaboration between Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society, PetSmart Charities, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, aims to tally every cat in the city—even house pets, The New York Times reports.

Cities tend to support thriving feral cat populations, and that's a problem for animal conservationists. If a feline is born and grows up without human contact, it will never be a suitable house cat. The only options animal control officials have are to euthanize strays or trap and sterilize them, and release them back where they were found. If neither action is taken, it's the smaller animals that belong in the wild who suffer. Cats are invasive predators, and each year they kill billions of birds in the U.S. alone.

Before animal welfare experts and wildlife scientists can tackle this problem, they need to understand how big it is. Over the next three years, DC Cat Count will use various methods to track D.C.'s cats and build a feline database for the city. Sixty outdoor camera traps will capture images of passing cats, relying on infrared technology to sense them most of the time.

Citizens are being asked to help as well. An app is currently being developed that will allow users to snap photos of any cats they see, including their own pets. The team also plans to study the different ways these cats interact with their environments, like how much time pets spend indoors versus outdoors, for example. The initiative has a $1.5 million budget to spend on collecting data.

By the end of the project, the team hopes to have the tools both conservationists and animal welfare groups need to better control the local cat population.

Lisa LaFontaine, president and CEO of the Humane Rescue Alliance, said in a statement, “The reality is that those in the fields of welfare, ecology, conservation, and sheltering have a common long-term goal of fewer free-roaming cats on the landscape. This joint effort will provide scientific management programs to help achieve that goal, locally and nationally."

[h/t The New York Times]

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How Does Catnip Work?
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If you have a cat, you probably keep a supply of catnip at home. Many cats are irresistibly drawn to the herb, and respond excitedly to its scent, rubbing against it, rolling around on the floor, and otherwise going nuts. There are few things that can get felines quite as riled up as a whiff of catnip—not even the most delicious treats. But why does catnip, as opposed to any other plant, have such a profound effect on our feline friends?

Catnip, or Nepeta cataria, is a member of the mint family. It contains a compound called nepetalactone, which is what causes the characteristic catnip reaction. Contrary to what you might expect, the reaction isn’t pheromone related—even though pheromones are the smelly chemicals we usually associate with a change in behavior. While pheromones bind to a set of specialized receptors in what’s known as a vomeronasal organ, located in the roof of a cat's mouth (which is why they sometimes open their mouths to detect pheromones), nepetalactone binds to olfactory receptors at the olfactory epithelium, or the tissue that lines the mucus membranes inside a cat’s nose and is linked to smell.

Scientists know the basics of the chemical structure of nepetalactone, but how it causes excitement in cats is less clear. “We don’t know the full mechanisms of how the binding of these compounds to the receptors in the nose ultimately changes their behavior,” as Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, tells Mental Floss. Sadly, sticking a bunch of cats in an MRI machine with catnip and analyzing their brain activity isn’t really feasible, either from a practical or a financial standpoint, so it’s hard to determine which parts of a cat’s brain are reacting to the chemical as they frolic and play.

Though it may look like they’re getting high, catnip doesn’t appear to be harmful or addictive to cats. The euphoric period only lasts for a short time before cats become temporarily immune to its charms, meaning that it’s hard for them to overdo it.

“Cats do seem to limit themselves," Michael Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss. "Their stimulation lasts for about 10 minutes, then it sort of goes away.” While you may not want to turn your house into a greenhouse for catnip and let your feline friend run loose, it’s a useful way to keep indoor cats—whose environment isn’t always the most thrilling—stimulated and happy. (If you need proof of just how much cats love this herb, we suggest checking out Cats on Catnip, a new book of photography from professional cat photographer Andrew Martilla featuring dozens of images of cats playing around with catnip.)

That said, not all cats respond to catnip. According to Topper, an estimated 70 percent of cats react to catnip, and it appears to have a genetic basis. Topper compares it to the genetic variation that causes some individuals to smell asparagus pee while others don’t. Even if a cat will eventually love the smell of catnip, it doesn’t come out of the womb yearning for a sniff. Young kittens don’t show any behavioral response to it, and may not develop one until several months after birth [PDF].

But some researchers contend that more cats may respond to catnip than we actually realize. In one 2017 study, a group of researchers in Mexico examined how cats might subtly respond to catnip in ways that aren’t always as obvious as rolling around on the floor with their tongue hanging out. It found that 80 percent of cats responded to catnip in a passive way, showing decreased motor activity and sitting in the “sphinx” position, an indicator of a relaxed state.

There are also other plants that have similar effects on cats, some of which may appeal to a wider variety of felines than regular old catnip. In a 2017 study in the journal BMC Veterinary Research, researchers tested feline responses to not just catnip, but several other plants containing compounds similar in structure to nepetalactone, like valerian root, Tatarian honeysuckle, and silver vine. They found that 94 percent of cats responded to at least one of the plants, if not more than one. The majority of the cats that didn’t respond to catnip itself did respond to silver vine, suggesting that plant might be a potential alternative for cats that seem immune to catnip’s charms.

Despite the name, domestic cats aren’t the only species that love catnip. Many other feline species enjoy it, too, including lions and jaguars, though tigers are largely indifferent to it. The scent of the plant also attracts butterflies. (However, no matter what you’ve heard, humans can’t get high off it. When made into a tea, though, it reportedly has mild sedative effects.)

The reason Nepeta cataria releases nepetalactone doesn’t necessarily have to do with giving your cat a buzz. The fact that it gives cats that little charge of euphoria may be purely coincidental. The chemical is an insect repellant that the plant emits as a defense mechanism against pests like aphids. According to the American Chemical Society, nepetalactone attracts wasps and other insect predators that eat aphids, calling in protective reinforcements when the plant is in aphid-related distress. That it brings all the cats to the yard is just a side effect.

Because of this, catnip may have even more uses in the future beyond sending cats into a delighted frenzy. Rutgers University has spent more than a decade breeding a more potent version of catnip, called CR9, which produces more nepetalactone. It’s not just a matter of selling better cat toys; since catnip releases the compound to ward off insects, it’s also a great mosquito repellant, one that scientists hope can one day be adapted for human use. In that case, you might be as excited about catnip as your cat is.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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