For the first time in about 15 years, pit bulls and Rottweilers are available for adoption at the Minneapolis Animal Care and Control shelter, just like labs, terriers and mutts.

Staff and city officials pegged the change as a natural shift that mirrored what's happening at shelters elsewhere.

Before, adoption of these so-called bully breeds was limited to specific city-approved rescue groups.

"There's a lot of dogs who didn't get a fair chance here, mostly because of how they looked," said Matt Kondracsek, a member of the group Citizens for Minneapolis Animal Care, which was among those pushing for the change.

In recent years, the city found it couldn't keep up with the flood of pit bulls and Rottweilers being left at the shelter. In 2011, half of them were euthanized because they were deemed dangerous or because no foster home was available.

Many of the pit bulls and Rottweilers brought to the shelter over the years were found in alleys and behind garages, some of them injured and dying after being battered in dog fights.

Unlike other shelters, the Minneapolis facility cannot turn animals away, no matter the species or breed.

For the most recent year available, 2011, the city shelter took in 761 dogs among the "bully" breeds, an increase from 674 the previous year.

Council Member Lisa Goodman, also a board member with the local Animal Humane Society, introduced the City Council resolution last fall that brought about the change. It was funded in December with about $51,000, mostly for additional staffing at the shelter, according to a city spokesman.

Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower, Animal Care and Control's program development coordinator, said that barring the general public from adopting pit bulls and Rottweilers began about 15 years ago when animal control directors didn't want to "revictimize the dogs" that came in with serious injuries and violent dispositions.

"The breeds got such a bashing, but now you move forward," she said. "We've got to trust the public."

Michelle Klatt, the director of A Rotta Love Plus, said her organization advised the city on the policy shift and is unaware of any other metro-area municipalities that allow pit bulls and Rottweilers to be adopted out. Her Twin Cities-based rescue group has a long-running placement partnership with the Minneapolis shelter.

"We feel that all dogs, regardless of their breeds, should be evaluated as individuals," said Klatt, whose group takes in several dozen pit bulls and Rottweilers from municipal shelters annually.

Because of the stigma that the breeds carry as fighters and dangers to the public, pit bulls and Rottweilers find themselves in city facilities in large numbers and "are dying in shelters every day" waiting in vain for a home, Klatt said.

While expanding who can adopt these dogs is likely to mean more of them in neighborhoods, Klatt said she's not worried that it will place the public in danger.

Pit bulls and Rottweilers will undergo the same behavioral evaluation as collies, poodles and the rest before heading out the door and into neighborhoods, Wiedemeier Bower said. If a dog fails the behavioral assessment, it will not be adopted out, she said.

Also, all dogs leaving the shelter are spayed or neutered, which should further allay concerns about the public's safety, proponents said.

Goodman said she promoted this change in city policy after seeing the success of pit bull and Rottweiler placement at the nonprofit Animal Humane Society.

The problem is not that the dogs are violent, she said. "It's the people who incite the violence in the dogs."

Kondracsek, who owns a pit bull mix named Casey Jones, said pit bulls aren't dangerous, and national groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association have advocated against breed-specific legislation to rein in dangerous dogs.

The groups said it's often difficult to determine a dog's breed, so such legislation could be tough to enforce; the groups also say more focus should be on the dog owners, who often create dangerous animals by isolating, chaining and abusing the animals.

That hasn't stopped, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, from opposing pit bull ownership. The group's website lists recent pit bull attacks; it says pit bulls killed 176 people in the United States between 2005 and 2013, accounting for about 62 percent of all fatal dog attacks. The group characterizes itself as a whistleblower against dog breeders, veterinarians and animal welfare groups that have lobbied in support of pit bull ownership.

The last dog fatality in Minnesota was the 2010 death of 11-day-old Robert Hocker, of Independence. He was killed by the family's Siberian husky after being bitten on the head. The last dog death in Minneapolis was the 2007 death of Zachary King Jr., 7; he died when he went to the basement of his father's house to play with a pit bull his father kept chained there. The father was later found not guilty of manslaughter by a Hennepin County judge.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

Matt McKinney • 612-217-1747