OAKLAND — For Tim Racer and Donna Reynolds, the dog rescues started with an open-door policy.
Cruising around Chicago on winter nights, they pulled up beside bedraggled strays and swung open the car door. If the animal didn't skitter away, if it wasn't too beaten down to contemplate jumping inside, they figured, there was a chance to save it.
Often, their hearts got the best of them. They bolted from the car and chased down dogs of all shapes and sizes. Once they found a home for one animal, they'd soon spot another needy outcast.
"There was this satisfying sense of justice," Racer recalled. "We knew those dogs should not be allowed to die."
Moving west, the two commercial artists focused their rescue efforts on American pit bull terriers, which they consider the nation's most misunderstood breed. In 1999, they formed Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls, or BAD RAP, to help reverse the dogs' criminal image.
Now they've set their sights on the most vilified outcasts of all: fighting pit bulls taken from disgraced football star Michael Vick's Bad Newz Kennels.
In most dog-fighting busts, the animals are euthanized. But this time, a federal judge ordered Vick to pay for the dogs to be assessed individually by experts who would look past the breed's stereotype.
Working with a team from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others, Racer and Reynolds evaluated 49 dogs.
What they found astounded them: Only one dog was put down because of its temperament. Twenty-two, deemed either unsocialized or dog-aggressive, were sent to the Best Friends animal sanctuary in Utah.
The rest were placed with families, including an attorney who wears a T-shirt proclaiming "My best friend is a pit bull."
As part of the adoption effort, BAD RAP took 13 dogs back to Oakland. There was Teddles, Vick's white-and-gray trophy dog, and Hector, who still bears fighting scars on his chest and legs. And Jonny Justice, Zippy, Grace, Iggy and little Uba, many of them bearing the pit bull's signature physical traits: the broad face and brick-like head. The couple has so far found homes for 10 of the dogs.
"I give BAD RAP a lot of credit for what was accomplished with the Vick dogs," said Rebecca Huss, a Valparaiso University law professor who was appointed by federal prosecutors to be guardian of the Vick dogs. "They were there at the forefront."
Over the last decade, Racer and Reynolds have found homes for 400 pit bulls. They assist kennels nationwide in creating pit bull adoption programs and help new owners train their pets.
For the artists, natives of Detroit who met at the Center for Creative Studies there, the work is part of the mission to help restore a tarnished image. Just a few generations ago, they say, pit bulls were considered America's dog: The dogs helped sell bonds during World War I. And Petie the pit bull later became the mascot of "The Little Rascals," the popular children's TV show.
Now, thanks to perverse breeding and training, the animals are associated mostly with violence. They are by far the most commonly found breed in shelters nationwide, and hundreds of thousands are euthanized each year.
Racer and Reynolds say the dogs are chosen as fighters because of their athleticism and stamina. Many want nothing to do with fighting yet are still put down by authorities.
"The Vick case is a milestone," said Reynolds, 46. "For once, these dogs were not destroyed, dismissed as ticking time bombs. They were seen for what they are -- as victims."
Despite successful rescue efforts, some animal experts say pit bulls are not for everyone. Abandoned pit bulls need to be evaluated before an adoption and, like most dogs, they need exercise and training. Though fiercely loyal to their owners, some can be aggressive.
"These dogs are athletic, determined and unbelievably, unnaturally strong," said Daphna Nachminovitch, vice president of cruelty investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "They may be friendly with people, but many are animal-aggressive. People need to know that going in."
Countered Reynolds: "One need only to look at the Vick dogs to see excellent examples of dogs breaking those exact stereotypes."
Weary of the Midwestern winters, Racer and Reynolds moved to Oakland. In 1996, they bought their first house. And the first law of home ownership, they joked, was having their own dog.
Racer wanted a pit bull, something playful and clownish but with a sense of physical confidence. Not Reynolds. "All I knew I'd learned from the media -- that these were unpredictable, violent dogs. I thought, why would you want to own a pet like that?"
Then, at a local animal shelter, they found Sally, a 10-month-old pup they couldn't walk away from. They took her home, intending to adopt her out, but soon noticed something peculiar. "This was one of the best dogs we'd ever known," Reynolds recalled. "Clearly, we had been lied to about pit bulls." They decided to keep Sally for themselves.