ROCKVILLE -- It's not easy being a pit bull - even a sweet pit bull with floppy ears and a sleek coat the color of maple syrup.
Sometimes 3-year-old Hazel stands alert, tail pumping, eyes bright, and other times, she doesn't even bother to look up at visitors to the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. Either way, it doesn't seem to make much of a difference. Hopeful pet owners walk by slowly. Maybe they peer into her cage, maybe they pause.
Then, usually, they keep walking, stooping to coo at some fluff ball. Lucky pets go outside for a proper meet, greet and belly scratch, and the luckiest eventually walk out the door and never come back.
Not Hazel. Not yet. She gnawed a rawhide bone on a recent afternoon as a human parade floated by, oblivious to her.
The Montgomery County Humane Society has operated this shelter for the county since 1958, and the place - with room for about 200 animals - is often so busy that visitors have to take a number and wait. People leave unwanted creatures, bring in old, sick pets to be euthanized, call to make reports about mistreated animals, drop off strays and joyfully reunite with their lost dogs.
All the while, a nonstop stream of pet seekers travel up and down the rows of animals, looking for that indescribable something: stripes that bring to mind a childhood pet, a lapdog, a protector, a companion, a snuggler. Often, people don't know precisely what they want until a creature with saggy, sad eyes looks up with a take-me-home gaze that is too sweet and tragic to ignore.
The shelter prides itself on its adoption rate, which staff members say is among the highest of any open-admission county shelter in the country. In January, 91 percent - 239 - of their animals moved into permanent homes. About 3,300 animals are adopted each year, said JC Crist, the shelter's president.
It's not just dogs and cats cycling through, either. Open admission means open - the shelter has been home to hedgehogs, ducks, parakeets, bunnies, ferrets, a peacock, an emu and mice. (Hurry! The lime-green lizard they had last week is gone, but a turtle and 21 rats, including some babies, are boarding there now.) A guy with a farm recently toted away two goats and a rooster.
Sarah Hollingsworth, who was visiting with her 15-month-old baby, had something more traditional in mind. One of her cats ran away after a recent move to Gaithersburg, and, though she expects he'll return, she figured it's a good time to expand the family menagerie. She hugged a big, orange tabby with a striped tail named Subaru. Her first cat was the same color - so big points there - and Subaru seemed gentle. When her baby bobbled over and grabbed a handful of fur, the cat didn't even flinch.
"It's really hard to come here," Hollingsworth said. "You know some have been given up, which is just really sad. ... Some get euthanized, and that's heart-wrenching."
Sometimes people get rid of pets simply because they don't match the carpet, said Michael Ruley, aka Cat Man, who has worked in the shelter since 2002 and usually wears a faded tan cap bearing the phrase "My best friends have hairy legs."
"We live in a throwaway society, and that's how people are," he said. "They do it with their children, so I know they do it with their cats."
He carefully set Subaru back in her cage. "You did good," he murmured, as Hollingsworth left to fill out an application.
Next door, amid the rolling waves of barks and whimpers, Matt Wagner, a police officer from Germantown, was trolling for a dog. He wanted a large, confident dog, he said, like a mastiff or maybe a Rottweiler. Big - definitely big.
But a few minutes later, Wagner was outside towering over a low-lying black, white and brown beagle and basset hound mix. He couldn't quite explain what had happened, just that the dog had looked up at the right moment and, suddenly, getting a huge dog didn't seem as imperative.
Barrie Barnett of Bethesda also had made up her mind. She was on visit No. 4 with a fuzzy Pomeranian she hoped to adopt over the weekend after shelter staff completed the mandatory home visit and she paid the fee. (Adoption costs for dogs and cats range from about $30 to $110, depending on such factors as whether the animal has been spayed or neutered and implanted with a microchip that helps owners find them if they're lost.)
"He's so cute," Barnett said, as her hand disappeared into the halo of fluff around the dog's head. The dog, looking smug from his perch on her lap, opened his mouth wide - grrr - and yawned.
Barnett had casually stopped at the shelter the other week and, well, that's a dangerous thing. She had not exactly been looking for another pet, but she had spotted this preening orange ball, and he seemed like he might be the perfect companion for her other dog, a Hurricane Katrina rescue.
"I'm totally a convert - I would never buy from a breeder or a pet store," she said. "I wish everyone would visit a shelter as their first stop."
Some minutes later, Anna Brumbaugh arrived and spotted a little black-and-white pit bull, Spirit, curled up on her bed. Brumbaugh's hand fluttered from her mouth to her chest and back again. Her face reddened, and tears started sliding down her cheek.
"I can't believe people did that to her," she said. "She was neglected, and they brought her here in a box like she was nothing," she said, picking up the dog and burying her face in his fur.
Too often, people get a hold of pit bulls and use them like weapons, Brumbaugh said, "but if you put them in the right hands, they will be loyal, obedient, playful."
Alas, prejudices and preconceived notions are as common in the animal world as they are in the human one - and not everyone shares Brumbaugh's sunny view of pit bulls, animals that are illegal in neighboring Prince George's County and a host of other municipalities. Even at the Montgomery County shelter, would be pit bull owners have to go through a more extensive adoption process, including mandatory obedience training.
No matter how docile they are, adult pit bulls who end up here tend to have shelter stays that drag on and on. Like poor Hazel. In nine months, she has seen hundreds of pets come and go, and still nothing. No pink-cheeked children begging to take her home, no car waiting for her in the lot.
At least the staff has come to adore her - they know she's more than a breed; more than a muscle-bound body and a serious face. One kennel staff member, 20-year-old Chris McGuire, visits Hazel all the time. He feeds her, brings her treats, keeps an eye on her and sometimes he even stops by when he's not working just to say hello. People kind of think of Hazel as his dog.
McGuire said he's hoping to move into his own place soon, and when he does, the first thing he's going to do is take Hazel home. Someone could adopt her before then - and really, he'd be OK with that - but at this rate, it doesn't look too likely.
More visitors swept by Hazel, barely looking at her. The dog watched for a second, sniffed, then flopped down in her crate, crossed her paws and closed her eyes.