Well, it’s October, which means it’s National Pit Bull Awareness Month again. All month we will be forced to watch, read and listen to banal anecdotal editorials and pointlessly poignant exposes’ about the world’s most misunderstood dog breed. This annual celebration comes once again on the heels of a busy September, when at least three people were mauled to death by pit bulls – Connie Storey, 62, Barrett Hagans, 1 month old, and Kathy Nichelson, 61. Not to mention numerous other serious, though non-fatal, attacks on humans. (As an aside, some victim advocates have likewise christened October 28 as National Pit Bull Victim Awareness Day as a response.)
Not to worry, though, we are reassured by the pit bull advocates who organized Pit Bull Awareness month, that pit bulls are misunderstood, and they only seem more dangerous because of “fake news” and sensationalist media. Though they have never provided any evidence to dispute that pit bulls are implicated in 60-70% of fatal and disfiguring attacks on humans, and more than 90% of attacks on other animals, these pit bull advocates still insist that the only problem is unfair prejudice and media bias. So this month-long event is meant purely to raise awareness of “good” stories about pit bulls, somehow ignoring all the relentless reports of continued pit bull-related tragedies. Read more here.
Notwithstanding the fervor over Pit Bull Awareness month, I saw something outside the usual hype and bluster of pit bull advocacy that caused me even greater alarm than this month-long propaganda parade. Apparently, a law was passed in California this week banning the sales of pets from pet stores unless those pets are provided by rescue shelters. Assembly Bill No. 485 was signed by Governor Jerry Brown, and while this seems to be a noble and necessary action to alleviate the crisis of abandoned pets, and is ostensibly aimed at “puppy mills,” I fear that the motivation behind the bill is much darker.
We do have a problem with animal rescue services in this country. It has become an overworked, understaffed and overflowing repository of abandoned animals. The system is buckling under its own weight as more and more pets are dropped off or picked up off city streets. There are approximately 3-4 million dogs entering shelters every year in the US. Alarmingly, almost half of those have to be euthanized, mostly due to overcrowding. Of course there is a growing “no-kill” movement, led in part by Nathan Winograd, that is only making matters worse, trying to ward off the high rates of euthanasia by insisting that all dogs can, and should, be saved. But this concept is unrealistic and has resulted in some pretty terrible side effects, not least of which is increased overcrowding and charges of instances of animal cruelty. See a detailed analysis of “No Kill” here, and its consequences here.
What is alarming to folks on my side of the argument is that the vast majority of residents in the nation’s shelters are pit bull type dogs. In fact, it is estimated that up to 70% of shelter dogs in the US are pit bulls. And sadly, most of these animals fail to be adopted, and must be euthanized. All in all, over 1 million pit bulls are put to sleep in overcrowded shelters every year. And I agree, that it is tragic and unfair to the dogs. But instead of focusing on how to get more of these pit bulls adopted, which is what I suspect this California bill is custom-made for, we should be focused on reducing the number of pit bulls that need to be adopted.
Another controversial proposal was made last month in Los Angeles to remove breed labels from shelter animals, an effort aimed solely at encouraging more people to adopt pit bulls. A similar measure has previously been passed in other cities, including one in Orlando, Florida, which was accompanied by a modest 12% increase in pit bull adoptions. It is clear that these animal advocates are painfully aware of the overpopulation of shelters and are trying to reduce the need for euthanasia. We can certainly admire the effort, but still criticize their proposed solutions.
Despite the lies and insults of our opponents, most people on my side of the pit bull propaganda debate are not dog haters. Most of us, in fact, are dog owners, pet lovers, and animal rights advocates. Therefore, we do not enjoy watching the suffering of other animals, even if they are primarily pit bulls. But as we have repeatedly pointed out, the overzealous advocacy of pro-pit bull organizations contributes more than anything we do to the dogs’ continued suffering by encouraging the continued proliferation of the animals. This is where we have to plant a flag and make our stand.
This California bill will ensure that most – up to 70% – of dogs available for sale and/or adoption, are pit bull type dogs. One of the reasons conscientious people go to pet stores to buy dogs is that shelters are full of pit bulls, and many conscientious people do not want to own a pit bull. This bill will have the effect of ignoring the considered preference of citizens to own a dog breed that they feel comfortable owning, and will lead to the adoption of unwanted dogs, which will inevitably lead to those same dogs being abandoned again, to make their way back to the same shelters.
There are also reasons that pit bulls end up in shelters at a vastly disproportionate rate. Undoubtedly some are abandoned by dog fighters that breed pit bulls for illegal fighting and have to get rid of dogs that have fought past their prime. The pit bull advocates want us to believe that dog fighters are exclusively responsible for this en masse abandonment. But this is absurd. Most pit bulls are owned by law-abiding citizens that buy into the relentless propaganda funded by pit bull advocacy groups, like Best Friends Animal Society and the National Canine Research Council. Many people get pit bull puppies from backyard breeders to raise them in a peaceful and responsible setting. Unfortunately, as pit bulls mature, their breed-specific instincts also mature, and adult pit bulls become much more difficult to control. Many times, although there are warning signs that go mostly ignored, a single violent incident will compel an owner to give up his beloved pit bull.
There are countless stories of people that have adopted pit bulls with full belief in the argument that all dogs are individuals and that every dog can be a loving and loyal family pet with the right training and environment. These people may even get puppies to make sure they are starting with a blank slate, and can safely raise the dog to be a model canine citizen. However, they notice small signs of territorial aggression, unpredictable prey drive, or other aberrant behavior that they write off as “dogs being dogs.” But in one instant, they see their world torn asunder when their beloved family pet unexpectedly attacks the neighbor’s cat, tearing it to shreds. Or, even more horrifying, the dog suddenly, without any warning, viciously attacks a friend or family member, causing intense damage requiring immediate and comprehensive medical attention – or worse.
Whatever the individual circumstances are that lead otherwise-responsible people to abandon their pit bull at a shelter, there is a valid generalization that may be made that pit bulls often grow to display breed-specific aggression or prey drive which can make the average pet owner feel anxious or overwhelmed. Even the ASPCA, who has been actively complicit in the spreading of pro-pit bull propaganda, admits that “pet problems are the most common reason that owners re-home their pet.” They go on to define these problems as “problematic behaviors, aggressive behaviors, grew larger than expected, or health problems owner couldn’t handle.” The responsible pet owners bring their pet to the shelter to be surrendered, while the irresponsible ones simply let their pets run away and become strays that wind up in shelters nonetheless.
Regardless of the reasons that people surrender their dogs to shelters, the real problem does not stem solely from their decision. The real problem is that we still continue to allow average pet owners to get these dogs that we know can be challenging to care for. We still allow backyard breeders to swell the already-overpopulated landscape with new pit bulls for profit. And we continue to allow propaganda that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that pit bulls are no different than any other dog breed.
Even some pro-pit bull groups seem to get it. “Save-A-Bull Rescue”, for example, admits that “there are too many [pit bulls] and not enough people willing to adopt them.” They go on to note that “[u]ntil we can educate the public and move them to spay and neuter, we’re just putting a band-aid on a gushing wound.” They additionally note that a female dog can produce two litters of 6-10 puppies per year, and that in 6 years, that female and her offspring can produce upwards of 60,000 puppies. That’s a lot of pit bulls, and there are already too many.
This California bill admits that there is a problem with shelter overcrowding, but it does nothing to alleviate that problem, at least in the long term. While there may be some initial relief for the system with increased adoptions, I predict that many of those adoptions will end badly – either with tragedy or re-abandonment. If they truly want to help the animal rescue industry, they can instead pass comprehensive legislation requiring spay-neuter with tightly controlled licensing and enforcement for breeding exceptions. This problem has to be addressed at the supply side, not the distribution side. Make fewer unwanted animals available, and you will have fewer unwanted animals to distribute. Compulsion of pit bull ownership will only make matters measurably worse, not only for the animals themselves, but for unsuspecting new owners as well. Then again, the US hasn’t been on the cutting edge of rational legislation for some time now, but hopefully we can change that trend sooner rather than later.
Until next time, I remain Your Lawscholar.