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Bully for Memphis

Shelter's campaign show that 'pittie' parents come from all walks of life

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2013

The Humane Society of Memphis & Shelby County started a campaign to promote the idea that all kinds of people adopt pit bull-type dogs.

Katie Pemberton was walking her beloved Staffordshire-chow mix, Pally, last fall and thinking about how people have misperceptions about pit bull-type dogs like hers.

Shelters in the Memphis, Tenn., area are swamped by homeless pits, and many locals seem to think they won’t make good pets. Pemberton wanted to change that.

“It was really important to me to do something on behalf of the humane society for National Pit Bull Awareness Month, so I had just been rolling around in my head what we could do that would be unique,” says Pemberton, public relations/marketing specialist at the Humane Society of Memphis & Shelby County.A friend of Pemberton’s had recently adopted a female pit bull-type dog from Memphis Animal Services (MAS) and had posted a picture of the dog on his Facebook page, causing someone to ask, “Is that a pit?” The new owner replied, “Yep, we’re pit bull people.”

Recalling the phrase, Pemberton conceived a project to change the way Memphis residents view pit bull-type dogs—and their guardians.

It was already mid-October, but she wanted to pull together a campaign that could launch on Oct. 27, National Pit Bull Awareness Day. She could’ve sat on the idea and used it the following year, but she was too excited: “I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to do it right then.”

With little time to prepare, and no extra funds in the budget, Pemberton crafted a campaign using social media and the humane society’s website. She pitched her concept to Alexis Amorose, the shelter’s executive director, who liked the idea that the campaign would focus on the diversity of people who adopt pits. The message would be that the dogs “can fit into any kind of home, and that there shouldn’t be those stereotypes about what type of person should be a pit bull owner,” Amorose says.

She also liked that it fit with the shelter’s adoption philosophy of treating each adopter, and each dog, as an individual. “And so this was just such a nice way to say that when you’re considering that perfect pet, consider all breeds,” Amorose says.

Pemberton started reaching out to other shelters and rescues in Memphis, asking for suggestions for adopters to feature in the ads, and then she followed up on the leads.“And so I just started reaching out to the families and just explaining the project to them, and saying, ‘Obviously you love pit bulls. Will you help us show the community what great dogs they are in great families?’”

One of the first people she called was Chris Conroy, her friend who had unwittingly coined the phrase, “We’re Pit Bull People.” Conroy, marketing director at Memphis television station WMC-TV Channel 5, is a supporter of the humane society, where his family had previously adopted pit bull-mix Izzy.

After Izzy died, the Conroys wanted to adopt another pit bull-type dog. They eventually found Bluebelle, a blue-brindle female at MAS. When Pemberton asked him if he and his family and pets—the newly adopted Bluebelle, and Rupert, a 15-year-old miniature poodle—would appear in an ad, he and his family said yes as fast as they could, he says. “They were super excited to do it, because, I mean, this is a part of our family.”

Other people featured in the ads with their dogs include an interracial couple and their son; a single mom and her daughter; a same-sex couple; a senior citizen taking care of a dog owned by his son, a Marine who suffered brain damage while serving in Afghanistan; and a retired couple with their three granddaughters. Several of the featured dogs were adopted from local shelters and rescue groups.

Pemberton came up with all the messaging, and Kristen Walker of Wildflowers Photography donated time to take five of the six pictures—Pemberton took the shot of the Conroys—keeping the costs minimal.

The ads were posted on the shelter’s Facebook page, and one ad was included in the rotating image banners on the shelter’s homepage. When people clicked on it, it took them right to the Facebook page. People were also invited to post photos of themselves with their own dogs, using the “We’re Pit Bull People” tagline.

The campaign got hundreds of “likes” and shares, and an overwhelmingly positive response. “People, especially people in the animal community, were absolutely starving for something like this. They were so thankful to us for doing the work … to get this message out to the public,” Pemberton says.

Amorose feels the campaign was a big success. “The way we looked at it, if we can change just one person’s perception about [bully breed dogs], and whether that breed makes a family pet, then we achieved our mission. And I think without a doubt, we can say we did that with this campaign,” she says.

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.