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October 19, 2012

Off Duty: Public Pit Bull Defender

HSUS attorney helps save lives and change minds, one foster dog at a time

  • Gina Tomaselli's dog Bruno went from neglected to nurtured. Meredith Lee/The HSUS

by Julie Falconer

Gina Tomaselli wasn’t looking for any particular breed when she contacted a rescue group about adopting a dog. She wasn’t looking for a particular size, color, gender, age, or coat length either. "I said, 'Give me the dog who is the least likely to be adopted.'"

That request yielded Bella—a 6-month-old fawn-colored pup with an injured front leg that would require several surgeries. Tomaselli, who had trained to be a professional dancer until a spinal injury led to major surgery and years of rehabilitation, wasn’t deterred by her new companion’s medical challenges. But there was something about Bella she wasn't prepared for. 

A new breed of discrimination

“I didn’t know anything about pit bulls. … I just thought she was cute and friendly and adorable," says Tomaselli, who was an undergraduate majoring in Spanish and Latin American studies at the time. "And then I started experiencing the discrimination."

Read more about our Animal Protection Litigation team »

When she and Bella strolled through their San Francisco neighborhood, people crossed the street to avoid them. Some made angry comments, including, "'Get that attack dog away from my children'---even when we weren’t particularly close---or ‘You should really have that pit bull muzzled.’ ” Even her mother, a fellow dog lover, was afraid of Bella and upset by her daughter’s choice.

But Tomaselli never second-guessed her decision. “I started feeling really connected to the breed based on being involved in this discrimination.  It made me feel like there was really an injustice.”

Fostering justice

The magnitude of the injustice became clearer when she began volunteering at local animal shelters. There were pit bulls with acid burns. Pups who had survived being set on fire. Dogs like Malik, a gray pit bull who cowered in the back of his kennel. Scars on his back legs testified to years of abuse. “Someone had taken a knife to this dog, repeatedly,” Tomaselli says.

Malik was one of 30 pit bulls Tomaselli fostered and placed in loving homes in the 11 years after she adopted Bella—years she also spent obtaining her undergraduate and law degrees in California and changing coasts to work as an attorney for a D.C. environmental law firm. "I have encountered hundreds of pit bull-type dogs in shelters," she says. "...I’ve never had a pit bull even come close to biting me. I’ve never been scared of one, ever."

In 2011, Tomaselli took on a new job—staff attorney with The HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation section. She now spends her workdays researching legal actions against puppy mill operators and others who profit off animal suffering. In her free time, she serves as the adoption coordinator for Presidential Pits, a nonprofit that helps place pit bulls from the district’s municipal shelter, where she also volunteers.

Changing hearts and minds

This summer, after taking in her 31st foster, she joined the "foster failure club" for the first time and made 95-pound Bruno a permanent member of her household. The 5-year-old gray pit bull had been severely neglected, with callouses and raw spots indicating he had spent most of his life on concrete. Nevertheless, Bruno has a "wonderful mellow temperament," says Tomaselli, who plans to train him for therapy dog work so she can take him to hospitals and schools and help more people view this much-maligned breed in a new light.

A similar strategy worked long ago with Tomaselli's mother, who "loves Bella more than she loves me," she says with a laugh. "Bella has totally changed her mind about pit bulls."

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