Mandy Ryan's path to pro-pit activism began when she was working as an animal control officer in Columbia, Missouri. There, she says, she saw vicious dogs of every breed, and the trauma that could be caused by dog attacks.
But she also saw something else when she and her colleagues visited jurisdictions that had implemented breed-specific legislation: dogs that were not violent, being taken from loving owners to be re-homed or euthanized.
It was hard to watch, and seemed like a waste of money and of her and her colleagues' time.
"I just saw how many issues those cities have," she says. "They cause more issues than they prevent."
Frustrated, she created the Stop BSL Missouri Facebook page mostly as a discussion group for workers in similar situations, enforcing laws they didn't agree with.
"It just kind of blew up from there," Ryan says.
Ryan's Facebook page started receiving messages from people who were losing their dogs due to local BSL laws and didn't know how to fight back. Ryan helped residents set up local organizations, with the Florissant Bully Alliance becoming one of the most active. From those humble beginnings, Ryan's organization has became a social media hub for pit bull owners, a resource for those dealing with bans in their communities and, eventually, the leading anti-BSL advocates in Missouri, lobbying governments on the state and local level.
What Ryan saw in her work has been echoed by many organizations and experts that study dogs and their behavior, including the National Animal Care and Control Association, which represents workers with jobs like Ryan's old one for the county. Many experts believe that breed bans simply aren't an effective way to counteract aggression or reduce dog bites. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has said that breed-specific legislation isn't an effective way to reduce dog bites, and has stopped tracking dog bite instances by breed.
"I've never personally met someone who works in the animal field who supports BSL," Ryan says.
Ryan's efforts drew a host of activists; even Ryan's own mother got involved. Karen Runk says she first became interested in the issue when she adopted a pit mix from Springfield, who would otherwise have been euthanized due to the city's pit bull ban.
"I personally don't think any dog should be put down if it hasn't done anything wrong," she says.
Runk is one of several activists who frequently attend Florissant city council meetings, lobbying the council's nine members to repeal the ban. The members are still divided; Runk thinks three members would vote to repeal and four never will. The last two she's still not sure about.
Although they haven't been able to force a vote yet, Runk still thinks the group's work has been effective.
"In the beginning, I didn't think they were going to do anything about it, and now they're talking about it," Runk says.
Ryan says the organization has even changed the mind of Florissant's mayor, Tom Schneider. Initially a supporter of breed specific legislation, he recently helped the Bully Alliance meet one of its goals by allowing pit bulls in the custody of Florissant's animal control department to be adopted out instead of euthanized. (Schneider did not return two calls seeking comment; members of the Florissant city council also did not respond to requests to talk.)
Keith English, the Democrat who is Florissant's newly elected representative in the Missouri statehouse, also opposes breed-specific legislation. He attempted to change Florissant's law in the city council when he was a member, and is now considering reintroducing a new version of HB 1811. He says it could easily pass the house again.
"I do believe we'll see something in writing in Jefferson City," English says.
Mostly, though, the opponents Ryan encounters aren't open to changing their minds. She understands that a bad encounter with a particular breed can leave a lasting, traumatic impression, but says many people who support BSL simply don't know anything about dogs.
"It's fear," she says. "Fear of the breed or fear of change."