Posts Tagged ‘pit bulls’

Speaking Up for the Underdog

At a meeting with some of our closest shelter colleagues last week, we talked about, once again, the pit bull dilemma.  We all want to get to zero euthanasia of adoptable animals in our city but there are just too many pit bulls, not all of whom are “ambassadors” for the breed.  And there are simply not enough adopters.   Shoot, there aren’t enough adopters for yellow labs, yorkies or cocker spaniels either.   And pit bulls, no matter how much we promote them and try to tackle the “bad rep” that we as a society have created, are just not for everyone.  They’re energetic, strong, athletic dogs who need a lot of training.  The media have done a bang-up job of villainizing “America’s dog.”  Sometimes it’s the dog, but it’s always the owner and a good story about a dog attacking anyone makes great TV.

So where does it start?  Do we discount adoptions for pit bulls? Give them away for free?  Or do we attack the “supply” side of the problem?  If so, how can we promote spay/neuter better than we have been doing non-stop for the past two decades?  Do we educate, do litter abatement programs (spay the mom and rehome the litter), bribe, cajole, entreat? 

The fact is, we’ve been trying to do all the above.  But it’s just not working.  We give away spays and neuters, as do many of our colleague organizations.  But we actually have trouble filling these free slots.  We talk, teach and train owners to be responsible.  It just doesn’t work.  We haven’t tried paying people to spay and neuter their dogs, but that’s being discussed nationally with promotions like “spay your dog and get a $20 gas card” among other ideas.

We’ve even talked about going out to pick up dogs for spay/neuter from people’s homes.  Like the rug cleaners do.  If we can’t get the dogs to come to us, we’ll go to them.  And that’s the model that some of the largest spay/neuter programs, like Humane Alliance in Asheville, North Carolina, have done.

Here’s an example of what we’re up against.  Just last week, in the middle of our weekly low-cost vaccination clinic, someone tried to sell his pit puppies in our own lobby.  Unbelievable! Selling puppies at an animal shelter whose mission is to promote animal adoption over breeding as a means towards ending euthanasia and placing every homeless dog and cat in a home.  Where is the message not getting across?  That’s like someone coming into your living room, grabbing your TV remote and changing it to C-span during American Idol.  If we ask people, during our outreach, if they’d bring their dog in for a free spay or neuter, they look at us as if we’re completely nuts.  Why would they spay a dog whose puppies they can sell off in the lobby of an animal shelter?  Or why would they ever want to neuter their dog, especially if it might make him less of a guard dog (it won’t).

So what’s the solution?  If we step back and take a broader view, I think it becomes obvious.  The solution to the pit bull problem is the same as the solution to any animal problem.  It’s all a matter of seeing things from the animal’s point of view.  What if people looked at their own pit bull and saw, not a fighting dog, not a potential source of income, not a tough-dog status symbol, but a living, breathing companion with his or her own interests?  What if they saw a loving, trusting, and loyal companion—a family member, even—whose welfare mattered and was entirely dependent on them? 

Then they would be much more hesitant to turn their dog in to a shelter when he or she became “inconvenient.”  They would be much more forgiving of the dog’s “imperfections” and realize that the burden of training lies on them.  Then—most importantly—they would understand that their dog has absolutely nothing to gain from being bred so that her puppies can be sold on the street corner.  At the cost of annual euthanasia of thousands of unwanted pits already out there.

No matter what it is, it’s a big, fat problem.  And one we’ve got to fix if we’re ever going to get to zero euthanasia of adoptable dogs.  I’m up for any and all out of the box ideas.  But one thing I know is that we’ve got to convince people to stop breeding these dogs.   Then we’ve got to make sure we place pits responsibly in the right homes.  And we’ve got to follow up and make sure they stay there. 

That’s a tall order, but people’s attitudes can and do change.  We need a change on a societal level, but every society is made up of individuals.  Everyone’s opinion counts, but only if it’s voiced.  Yes, animal protection groups like mine have a responsibility to lead the chorus.   But we need every voice we can get.  And every idea, entreaty, proposal out there to encourage people to spay and neuter their pits.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t buy a dog, especially a pit bull.  Believe me, there are thousands waiting for adoption at every animal shelter. 

So, I urge you to speak up for animals, even—or rather, especially—for pit bulls.  When enough people do, and do so at every opportunity, the change will come. Until that happens, we’ll never get to zero.   And that’s the only goal that matters.

The Pit Bull Dilemma

“Any pits?” I asked our shelter director, Maureen, when she got back from the Baltimore shelter with the transfer animals and was parking our rescue truck in front of the shelter. 

She smiled sheepishly at me. 

“Oh, no.  A bunch of lab mixes and a mixed shepherd or two.  And the cutest puppies you ever saw.”

I knew what that meant.  She had a truck full of pit bulls.

There are two reasons for this:  One, we’re an urban shelter north of the Mason-Dixon Line.  And two, Maureen, like me, loves pit bulls and knows they need our help more than any other animal in this country.  Because of the public’s misperception of this often gentle, loyal, and intelligent breed.   And due to the absolutely unconscionable breeding for criminally inhumane uses that this breed has endured by the most irresponsible humans among us.  There are just so too many pit bulls for the system to absorb.

Here then, is the dilemma.  We have an urban shelter in which we want to house highly adoptable animals whom the public wants to adopt.  And it’s the pits who are most in need of adoption, yet the least likely to get adopted.  So how do we get people into our nation’s shelters when the majority of dogs ready for adoption, at least in the north and in urban centers, are the least likely to be adopted?  How do we compel people to go to their shelters first—long before looking for a dog on Craig’s List, or going to a breed-specific breeder, as good and responsible as many breeders can be?

Some shelters, such as limited admission ones like mine, are not saddled with the municipal obligation of taking in every dog or cat or “other” that is surrendered to them.  We can say no.  Or yes, to the extent we have room.  But that’s not an option the majority of shelters have.  They have to say yes; yes to every litter of puppies, every stray cat, and every pit bull that comes through their doors.  And that leaves shelters full of animals less likely to be adopted—especially in a society that reveres purebred golden retrievers, labradoodles, bichons and Siamese.

We’ve nearly solved the problem of overpopulation in dogs in this country.  That is, if the north had not won the civil war and we were just talking about Washington and above.  Where spay/neuter has worked, it has really worked.  And where it hasn’t—in the south—it really hasn’t.  Other than pit bulls, there are now so few dogs being bred in the north, we have to go to rural communities in the south and in the “middle” to get puppies now, or anything besides a pit bull. I’ve even recently heard a shelter professional say we’ll need to start breeding adoptable dogs now—somewhat facetious, but not entirely. 

I want people to come to the shelter—anyone’s shelter.  That’s why we work to get animals from places where there aren’t adopters to places where there are.  Whether those places are prosecuted puppy mills, hoarding cases, or just the overwhelmed countryside where dogs and cats so readily make more dogs and cats.  That’s the solution.  And, of course, keep those doors open to your own community’s animals, because you can’t be part of that solution without taking care of your own backyard, too.  And I want every single person who adopts to see the number on that national euthanasia rate drop by one digit.  Because that’s exactly what every single adoption represents.

So, has the battle against pet overpopulation been won? Absolutely not.  And certainly not for cats. In this country, there are still between three and four million dogs and cats being euthanized every year.  That’s a huge reduction from the dozens of millions euthanized just a decade ago. But still, looking into the faces of my own dogs, I’m constantly reminded how bonded we humans are to this incredibly dependent species, and therefore, any unnecessary death is an insult to our own humanity.

We’ll continue to try to save dogs and cats from needless euthanasia in this country.  We’ll save the pits, and anything else we can.  And we’ll try to convince the adopting public to go their local shelters first, if they’re in the market to adopt.  And support their shelters with donations.  Lots of them.  Because if ever there were a noble cause, saving and honoring the human-animal bond between us and our canine and feline dependents is a cause that is worthy and very visible.

So back to Maureen and the truck parked in front of our building. 

I just smiled and said, “Bring them in.” 

Because she and I both know that they have nowhere else to go.

Michael Vick: Redemption Story?

A question posed on the Washington Post’s website recently asks if Michael Vick “has succeeding in redeeming himself” after having done time in prison for running a dog fighting operation.

Denzel, one of Vick's dogs while he was at the League

Most of the responses lean favorably towards Vick with a benefit-of-the-doubt argument, though at least one commentator considers Vick merely a lucky recipient of America’s amnesia when it comes to bad celebrity behavior.

Those of us in the animal welfare field tend to be a good deal less impressed.  Vick’s admittedly impressive performance on the football field does not do the dogs he fought—and those he brutally killed—much good.  He will have to wait a very long time indeed before most animal protection workers forgive him.

On the other hand, Vick now speaks out against animal fighting, and it could be argued that his case has had a very positive effect over all.  America is now taking the crime of animal fighting more seriously than ever as a result of Vick’s high profile arrest.

And that, I think, is the more interesting question: Has America redeemed itself for the blight of animal fighting?  After all, Vick was never the nation’s only or biggest dog fighter.  He joined a culture that was there before him and existed far beyond the fences of his Bad Newz Kennel.

I think the answer to that is a guarded “yes.”  America is now redeeming itself.  As evidence, I would point to the pit bulls in our own shelter, some of whom are certainly the unwilling veterans of the fighting pit. And I know from my colleagues that fighting dogs are being confiscated and rehabilitated in animal shelters and rescue groups across the county.

That’s redemption.

As for Michael Vick, his real redemption will happen in the solitude of his heart, far from the cameras and the stadium with its cheering crowd.  I can only wish him the best of luck with that and hope that his inner transformation will be real and sincere.

We’re Getting Good at This

“The staff was amazed at how far the dogs had come in just one week. The new charges had shaken off some of their kennel stress and already seemed much happier….Limited as it may have been, this was the first time these dogs were allowed to simply be dogs.”

That’s a quote from The Lost Dogs, Jim Gorant’s new book about the rehabilitation of Michael Vick’s pit bulls.  He’s describing the turnabout that eleven of Vick’s dogs made after they arrived at the League, which he describes as being “on the cutting edge of animal housing.”

The League took care of these dogs for three months in 2007. Though it may seem odd, our basic assignment was to teach dogs to be dogs, as Gorant rightly notes.  In the process, we learned a lot about rehabilitating fighting dogs, and the dogs thrived.

We’ve been putting that knowledge to good use ever since.

On Saturday, the Humane Society of the United States brought us 10 of 200 pit bulls they got from a suspected fighting ring in Ohio.  Like Vick’s Bad Newz Kennel dogs, these dogs came in scarred, both externally and internally.

But as with Vick’s dogs, a few days at our facility, with its supportive environment and patient, compassionate staff, have had an almost magical effect. 


Coolridge, a large yellow male with an odd nervous grin, is scared of everyone. In the past, any contact with people was a precursor to a terrible experience—hence, the nervous grin when anyone approaches.  But now he is learning that he doesn’t have to be afraid.  For instance, the first time you touch his paw, he cringes and freezes in fear.  But the second time you do it, he’s ok with it.  That’s the beginning of trust.

Even Lincoln, a petite all-black female who has been totally shutdown (unresponsive, won’t eat, hides: essentially, a dog who has given up) crawled out of her crate on her belly to say hello to a trainer this morning.  As small as the step was, it was cause for rejoicing.

Slowly and quietly these dogs are beginning to show us all the qualities that make dogs such wonderful beings. And in the process, I like to think that the chance to help them is bringing out the best in us. 

It’s not often that life gives you the opportunity to be a part of such a complete rescue and recovery.  I find that the work goes both ways: we help the dogs become happy and loving companions, and they help us become better people.