by Liz Marsden
On April 29, 2015 I testified before the Rhode Island House Health, Education, and Welfare Committee against a bill, H. 5585, which if passed would require law enforcement agencies to transfer dogs impounded in raids on suspected dogfighters to “The SPCA” for adoption to the public or transfer to an “appropriate rescue organization.”
Impounded dogs are not the property of law enforcement agencies to transfer until either surrendered by their legal owners, usually as part of a plea bargain, or forfeited as result of a criminal conviction. Thus it is highly likely that any dogs who might be affected by H. 5585, seized from suspected dogfighters, will in truth be fighting dogs and/or offspring from “gamebred” fighting lines.
My testimony is applicable to many other items on legislative calendars at both the state and local levels throughout the U.S.
Worked with Michael Vick dogs
I have perhaps a unique perspective on the topic of dangerous dogs and fighting dogs, as I spent nearly 30 years working with humane societies and animal rescue organizations, and for ten of those years I was a professional dog trainer.
I worked for the Washington Animal Rescue League in 2007 when eleven of the Michael Vick pit bulls were kept there for several months, pending permanent resolution. So I have much more experience with this topic than the average person. From this experience I strongly believe we need more restrictions on pit bulls and other dangerous breeds of dogs, not fewer. But I will focus my comments on the issues pertaining to offering fighting dogs for adoption.
Existing law in Rhode Island, and probably most other jurisdictions, states that a fighting dog is automatically designated “vicious,” and includes a requirement that “No person shall possess with the intention to sell, or offer for sale, breed, or buy or attempt to buy within the state a vicious dog.”
Rhode Island H. 5585, and similar legislation introduced in Louisiana, would say the exact opposite––again, that fighting dogs seized by law enforcement agencies are to be sent to “The SPCA” and then be placed into adoptive homes or with an “appropriate rescue organization.”
Is the point not to keep the community safer?
Is the point of designating a dog “vicious” not to keep the dog out of circulation and keep the community safer? How is selling any different from “rescuing” and “adopting” when we are discussing known dangerous dogs?
The term “SPCA” is vague, since that is a generic acronym for “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.” WHICH “SPCA” is going to be accepting with open arms all of the vicious dogs in the state?
Will any government body be monitoring the whereabouts of vicious dogs turned over to the generic “SPCA?” There are now several hundred documented cases of adopted pit bulls––not necessarily known fighters, mind you, just pit bulls adopted from animal rescues––who have mauled and killed members of their adoptive families only days, weeks, or months after being adopted.
Imagine how much worse it could be if the dogs come from known fighting stock?
If such legislation passes, close monitoring of groups that “rescue” fighting pit bulls and other known dangerous dogs is essential for public safety. Who will pay for this monitoring program? The taxpayer? And what agency whose primary commitment is to maintaining public safety will do the work, accountable to whom?
“Success stories” vs. catastrophes
Proponents of pit bull “rescue” often try to point to the alleged adoption success of canine fighting “survivors.” I will refer to all pit bulls taken from known fighting situations as “game-bred pit bulls.” “Game-bred” means that the dogs come from a known line of fighters. “Game” and “gameness” are dog fighting terms that mean the dog shows the desired propensity to fight at the drop of a hat, to grab and shake and execute a killing bite, and to never give up until its opponent is dead or until the dog’s handlers pry the dog off the opponent with a “break stick.”
One can argue (and I do) that all pit bulls are game-bred because their very genetic lineage is composed of fighting dogs. But for this discussion, I will stick to the dogs coming from known fighting situations.
The number of “success” stories pit bull “rescuers” point to are paltry compared with the numbers of cases in which pit bulls kill and disfigure people every year in the U.S.––more than 600 in 2014 alone.
But let us look at the “success” stories of the 48 seized Vick dogs, who were dispersed to eight rescue organizations for adoption, “rehabilitation,” or lifetime care in “sanctuaries.”
One was euthanized due to “severe aggression.”
Twenty-two went to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah.
Twelve of those were deemed ineligible for placement in homes, and were essentially sentenced to lifetime solitary confinement at Best Friends.
In 2010, two of those dogs broke out of their enclosure and were injured in a dog fight in which a third pit bull (not a Vick dog) was killed.
Ten of the Vick pit bulls who were sent to Best Friends were later adopted out to homes, some with children and other pets. If any of them have injured or killed anyone, I haven’t heard of it. But I worked with some of these dogs when they were at the Washington Animal Rescue League, and I would not have been comfortable recommending any of them for adoption. One of them is reportedly still so terrified of new things, after all these years of “rehabilitation,” that in my opinion keeping him alive is cruel.
Another Vick pit bull was equally terrified at all times and ended up escaping from a foster home and being killed by a car.
Scattered to the winds
The remaining 25 Vick dogs, those who did not go to Best Friends, were scattered to the winds among rescue groups in several states. Keeping close track of them is not something I have been able to do. I seriously doubt that anyone involved with this case knows where all of them are, how they have fared, or even how many are still alive.
Another series of high-profile dogfighting raids occurred in August 2013. According to news sources, Federal agents raided locations in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi and seized 367 dogs, nearly all pit bulls. Many were found underfed and attached to heavy chains. Several of the dogs were pregnant. Animal welfare groups reportedly “ended up with 451 dogs by the time the puppies arrived.” According to officials, “more than half” the dogs have been adopted or are being prepared for adoption, but the remainder died from health problems or had to be euthanized because they were too aggressive toward humans.
(That’s right – animal “rescue” groups allowed 84 more game-bred pit bulls to be born while under their care. Spaying, if possible, or else humanely euthanizing the pregnant females would have prevented that from happening.)
Do the math
So, let’s do the math. Half of 451 dogs is 225. Is anyone involved with this large raid – the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the Humane Society of the United States––keeping track of where these dogs are now?
A volunteer-managed Facebook page devoted to the dogs offers only a smattering of “success” stories and adoption notices for dogs still waiting for permanent homes. These dogs are scattered throughout the U.S. among “rescue” groups. One of the dogs from this case, a female pit bull named “Tillie” who “can’t be around other animals,” is featured on a Rhode Island rescue group’s web site.
People often perceive pit bull rescuers, shelters, and animal control officers to be experts on pit bull behavior and safety. Potential adopters often believe they can rely on these perceived experts’ knowledge, judgment and temperament testing procedures to give them sound advice about pit bull safety and to match them with safe pit bulls.
But as at least 35 human fatalities since 2010, several hundred human disfigurements, and thousands of deadly attacks on other animals by rehomed pit bulls testify, that isn’t always the case. Shelters and “rescuers” often appear to place pit bulls over public safety, including in rapidly increasing numbers of cases resulting in six-and-seven-figure judgments against shelter and rescue agencies.
Dangerous dogs should be more heavily regulated, not less
When a consumer product injures and kills that many people, and generates comparable liability history, that product is taken off the market.
Yet, when a dog breed does the same thing, people try to pass laws to protect the hazard, not the victims!
We need to reverse this trend and start facing facts, not only on behalf of the human victims, but on behalf of the other animals, most often smaller dogs, who are by far the most frequent victims.
Pit bulls and other dangerous dog breeds should be more heavily regulated, not less. A good start would be requiring spaying and neutering of pit bulls. But the groups that say they are “protecting” those breeds oppose any restrictions, even mandatory spaying and neutering. Meanwhile our shelters and pounds are flooded with unwanted pit bulls.
“How it’s raised”
A second and closely related glaring inconsistency is the frequent contention of pit bull “rescue” advocates that a pit bull’s behavior is determined by “how it’s raised.”
Indeed, “it’s all in how they’re raised” is now a common belief among the general public, because people have heard this phrase repeated so many times.
But if the risk is “all in how they’re raised,” how can anyone expect a known game-bred fighting pit bull to be a safe pet?
Or a pit bull from a shelter who has no known history?
Death and disfigurement cases, now occurring at the rate of nearly two per day, show that no one can predict what an individual pit bull will do. Time and time again, pit bulls have attacked without warning, for no reason known to the victims or bystanders, and without ever having shown prior aggression. Some of these dogs literally go from licking a victim’s face to biting the victim’s face off.
Telling gullible adopters that it’s “all in how they’re raised,” when in reality breeding and genetics have a major role, is dangerous and deceitful, and must stop.
Ignoring the facts and repeating myths to get more pit bulls adopted is getting people––and other pets, especially other dogs––killed or mauled every single day.
I have spent most of my adult life working with dogs, including pit bulls. I don’t hate pit bulls and I don’t want to take away anyone’s family pet. What I want to see is a more mature, realistic response from pit bull “rescuers” to the overwhelming evidence that their breed is a public threat and needs to be seriously regulated and managed.
Phony “rescues” and “sanctuaries”
The number of phony “rescues” and “sanctuaries” that have sprung up since the Vick dog case seems to be astronomical. Two infamous cases were the Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Washington state, a “rescue” for dangerous aggressive dogs that turned out to be a windowless tin building stacked with filthy crates, and the Spindletop Refuge in Texas, where nearly 300 dogs were found warehoused in filthy stacked crates, while many others who had been sent there remain unaccounted for.
We must keep in mind that each of the Vick dogs arrived at Best Friends with a court-ordered endowment for over $18,000––money Best Friends was glad to receive. What happens in less publicized cases, involving less affluent defendants, is very different.
Who is equipped to safely and humanely keep and care for fighting dogs who usually can’t be housed with other animals?
All too often, these dogs end up in a “rescue hoarder” situation and spend the rest of their lives crated or otherwise confined and neglected.
Anyone who truly cares about dogs will understand that there are only so many safe and decent places for aggressive dogs to go, and there are far more aggressive dogs being impounded than there are shelter and sanctuary facilities available.