False sense of security
PATCHOGUE, New York––Stephen Neira, 40, of Patchogue, Long Island, New York, on September 3, 2015 happened across an online ad for a pit bull named Alex.
Housed by Animal Care & Control of New York City since August 30, 2015, Alex was said to have had just 22 minutes left to live.
“Shelter documents show the city shelter system had transferred ownership of Alex to a Vermont group, Carolyn All Breed Rescue, which had highlighted Alex’ plight on the rescue website Urgent Pets on Death Row,” reported Dean J. Hampton and Ellen Yan of Long Island Newsday.
The entity referenced by the shelter documents referenced by Hampton and Yan appears to have actually been All Breed Rescue, operating in Williston, Vermont since 1996. One longtime board member is named Carolyn.
Neira, his wife, and their three children rushed to the Animal Care & Control of New York City’s Harlem shelter.
“It was Neira’s first time taking in a pit bull, and he felt like a proud father when he decided to foster the dog and welcomed the 42-pound addition home on Sunday,” Hampton and Yan reported on September 7, 2015. “But moments later, Alex sank his teeth into Neira’s teenage daughter Briana’s face and throat. She used her arm to protect her throat, and Alex bit her elbow.”
Briana Neira was hospitalized to undergo facial surgery.
“Alex was tranquilized by Suffolk police and taken by the Brookhaven Town animal shelter,” recounted Hampton and Yan.
SAFER than what?
Alex, before being offered for adoption by Animal Care & Control of New York City, had passed the American SPCA-developed SAFER test––like the pit bull who killed Joshua Phillip Strother, age 6, on July 7, 2015, three weeks after the dog was rehomed by the Asheville Humane Society, and like hundreds of rehomed shelter dogs, mostly pit bulls, who have run amok since.
The era of standardized shelter dog behavioral screening appears to have begun with the Assess-A-Pet protocol developed in the mid-1990s by Sue Sternberg. A shelter management professional since 1981, Sternberg bought a failing boarding kennel in upstate New York in 1993 and founded Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption.
Within a few years Sternberg’s Assess-A-Pet protocol caught on among other shelter professionals and became the default standard dog behavioral screening method.
Sternberg, then and now, adopts out pit bulls obtained from animal control shelters, and opposes breed-specific legislation. But as the volume of pit bulls entering animal shelters rose from about 5% of the incoming dogs to upward of 30%, pit bulls conspicuously often flunked the Assess-A-Pet test. By April 2002 Sternberg and Assess-A-Pet were hounded online by a coterie of vehement critics, including some former Roundout Valley Animals for Adoption employees.
Used to save Michael Vick pit bulls
Behaviorist Emily Weiss meanwhile introduced the SAFER test, short for Safety Assessment For Evaluating Rehoming, in 1999-2000. The American SPCA hired Weiss as senior director of shelter behavior programs in 2005, and on May 5, 2007 the ASPCA made promoting SAFER an ASPCA program.
Of note is that the ASPCA and Best Friends Animal Society were at the time scrambling to save 66 pit bulls impounded ten days earlier from football player and now convicted dogfighter Michael Vick, after the Humane Society of the U.S. had recommended them for euthanasia as too risky to rehome.
[In fact, while some were eventually rehomed after extensive remedial training, most were not.]
From the first dogs rehomed by U.S. shelters in 1858 until May 2003, only two former shelter dogs––a wolf hybrid in 1988 and another wolf hybrid in 1989––had ever killed anyone.
Page, Whitehurst, & DeSwart
On May 19, 2003, however, a pit bull named Mr. B killed Bonnie Page, 75, and injured her landlord, Nancy Delaney, about 40 days after Delaney adopted him from the 120-year-old Mount Vernon Animal Shelter in Mount Vernon, New York.
Mr. B, who had been at the shelter since March 2002, had cleared behavioral assessment, but what assessment protocol was used does not appear to have been identified in news coverage of the case.
Next to be killed by a shelter dog who had cleared behavioral screening was Tori Whitehurst, 4, mauled in November 2007 by a pit bull adopted from the Arizona Humane Society. Arizona Republic reporter John Flaherty profiled the Arizona Humane Society screening procedures, but not in enough detail to clarify whether Assess-A-Pet, SAFER, or some other test was used.
Two months before Whitehurst was killed, a Doberman named Luger killed Valerie DeSwart, 67, only 10 days after the DeSwart adopted him from the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey. Luger had not cleared formal behavioral screening, and had actually been surrendered to the Associated Humane Societies for euthanasia after previous attacks on other people. The Associated Humane Societies said Luger was rehomed, after 87 days in custody, as result of a mix-up.
Repetitively predictable pattern
The Page, Whitehurst, and DeSwart deaths all might have been considered just tragic accidents, resulting from fluke combinations of circumstance––except that there has been no subsequent fatality closely paralleling the circumstances of the DeSwart case, while the Page and Whitehurst cases, involving dogs who passed screening, have become a repetitively predictable pattern.
Forty-one shelter dogs have participated in killing thirty-seven people since 2010, including 30 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, two Rottweilers, a Lab who may have been part pit bull, and a husky.
All 41 of the shelter dogs who have killed people since 2010 had reportedly cleared some form of systematic behavioral screening.
And fatalities are the least of the dog attack mayhem that has become epidemic among shelter dogs since standardized behavioral screening came into vogue, along with the notions that dog attacks are mostly the result of human behavior and that people of dog handling expertise should never be injured by a dog, or allow others to be injured.
Cases involving failures of behavioral diagnostics by people deemed by shelter or rescue management to have expertise appropriate to the circumstances made headlines throughout summer 2015.
First came a $1.3 million judicial award issued on May 18, 2015 to boarding kennel operator Amber Rickles, of Spring, Texas.
Rickles was mauled on February 7, 2013 by a pit bull named Gus, whom she was keeping for Janet Romano of Maggie’s House Rescue. An online campaign waged to save Gus led to his being transferred to the Dog Psychology Center, operated by celebrity dog trainer Cesar Millan.
Rehomed in September 2014, after extensive remedial training, Gus mauled Florida critical care nurse Alison Bitney just six days later. Her case against Millan and the Dog Psychology Center is apparently still before the courts.
- On June 16, 2015, WSVN television investigative reporter Carmel Cafiero exposed how 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida volunteer rescuer Sarah Martin, 19, was mauled by five pit bulls when she and another volunteer were sent to pick up a pit bull named Taco in Riverview, a Tampa suburb.
- On June 11, 2015, Griswold, Connecticut assistant animal control officer Shea Cavacini was mauled by a pit bull she was fostering in her own home. Cavacini was reportedly trying to protect her young son.
- On June 23, 2015, in Southaven, Mississippi, a Southaven Animal Shelter employee and an animal control officer were injured by a pit bull. Both victims had certification in vicious dog handling, shelter director Perry Mason told Caitlin Alexander of WREG.
- Smith County, Texas animal control officer Nanette Moss was bitten twice by a pit bull named Rex on June 30, 2015 at the county shelter in Winona. A sheriff’s deputy shot Rex after he lunged at fire marshal Jay Brooks and other county staff who were coming to the rescue.
- An employee at the DeKalb County Animal Shelter was injured on July 16, 2015 by a pit bull named Waldo. “The employee was walking by, and she fell and the dog got out of the collar, jumped the gate and attacked her arm,” Karen Hirsh of the Lifeline Animal Project told Channel 2 reporter Craig Lucie.
- Bruce Rushton of the Illinois Times on July 23, 2015 described a lawsuit filed by Sangamon County Animal Protective League volunteer John Sanders after he was injured while walking a pit bull named Stewart. While Sanders recommended that Stewart should be euthanized for attacking without provocation, the Animal Protective League continued to advertise Stewart for adoption.
- 30th District Court Judge Bob Brotherton of Wichita Falls, Texas on July 31, 2015 finalized a $495,000 settlement for 4-year-old Isabella Quintana and family. Quintana was on June 29, 2013 mauled by a Rottweiler at an “Adopt a Dog” promotion inside a local PetSmart store, featuring shelter animals.
“A few weeks after the attack,” Quintana’s lawyers said, “the Rottweiler was killed by another dog during a fight.”
PetSmart, Petco, & Portland
The Quintana attack was one of at least sixteen involving human injuries or animal deaths to occur in PetSmart and Petco stories since 2005. The other 15 dogs inflicting the injuries or deaths were pit bulls.
An indicative pattern of attacks similarly emerged from an OregonLive.com map of dog bites in the vicinity of Portland, Oregon.
The three locations most frequently involved in reported bites were the Clackamas County Animal Adoption Center, with 23; the Bonnie L. Hayes Animal Shelter, with 29; and the Oregon Humane Society, which has repeatedly received perfect scores in ANIMALS 24-7 evaluations, with 37. (See The Oregon Humane Society: what a world-class shelter looks like.)
One reason for escalating attacks by shelter dogs is simply that shelters are receiving more dangerous dogs, especially pit bulls.
A second reason is that behavioral screening appears to be giving staff, volunteers, and adopters a false sense of security about being around pit bulls and other dogs of breeds frequently involved in fatal or disfiguring dog attacks.
Inured to pit bull behavior
A third reason is that some shelter management are becoming inured to pit bull behavior, in particular, to the extent of accepting it as normal.
For instance, reported Deuce Niven of the Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer on August 11, 2015, “A pit bull, accidentally let loose inside the Columbus County Animal Shelter on Sunday, killed a cat and 13 kittens before the shelter staff arrived Monday morning, animal control director Rossie Hayes said.
“This was just as friendly a dog as you would ever see,” Hayes told Niven. “I think the animal groups thought I would euthanize her, but I didn’t.”
But who could imagine that a dog, no matter how friendly, who recreationally kills a cat and 13 kittens might make a safe pet, or could be allowed around smaller animals and children under any circumstance?
A similar incident on the same day at the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association in West Virginia ended with an employee and another dog injured, and the escaped pit bull shot.
“Shelter executive director Chelsea Staley said the shelter has equipment to use during this kind of event, but that equipment was not adequate,” reported Jarod Clay of WSAZ. “The equipment was not effective and became useless after the dog bent the equipment during the attack.”
Translation: Staley and the Kanawha-Charleston Humane Association significantly underestimated what would be necessary to protect staff, the public, and other animals from a pit bull attack.
University of Liverpool Institute of Infection and Global Health researchers Carri Westgarth and Francine Watkins shed light on the human psychology involved in underestimating canine danger in “A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of female dog bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites,” published in August 2015 in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
“Expert opinion is that most bites are preventable. Intervention materials have been designed to educate people on how to assess the body language of dogs, evaluate risk and take appropriate action,” opened Westgarth and Watkins.
“The effectiveness of this approach is rarely evaluated and the incidence of dog bites is thought to be increasing. Is the traditional approach to dog bite prevention working as well as it should?”
Westgarth and Watkins “recruited eight female participants who had been bitten by a dog in the past five years,” and then interviewed them each in depth about their experience.
“Education may not prevent bites”
“The findings indicate that dog bites may not be as easily preventable as previously presumed,” Westgarth and Watkins wrote, “and that education about dog body language may not prevent some types of dog bites. The reasons participants were bitten were multi-faceted and complex. In some cases there was no interaction with the dog before the bite so there was no opportunity to assess the situation and modify behavior around the dog accordingly.”
Nonetheless, Westgarth and Watkins found, “Those bitten blamed themselves and/or the dog owner, but not the dog. Most participants already felt they had a theoretical knowledge that would allow them to recognize dog aggression prior to the dog bite, yet participants, especially those who worked regularly with dogs, routinely believed, ‘it would not happen to me.’”
Reducing the damage
Observed Westgarth in media statements about the study, “Similar reactions are also typical in other injury situations, such as car accidents; it was the fault of another driver or ‘just one of those things.’ In these cases preventive methods also focus on reducing the injury caused by an accident, such as raising awareness of the importance of wearing a seat belt. Our research suggests that we may need to incorporate a similar approach to dog bite injury.
“Nobody wants to believe that their beloved dog would cause harm, but all dogs have the potential to bite whether it be in aggression or in play,” Westgarth continued.
Westgarth herself thus repeated one of the shibboleths most often associated with underestimating and understating the damage from a dog attack, conflating the bites of most dog breeds with the all-out multi-bite mauling and shaking characteristic of pit bulls and other “bully” breeds.
But, Westgarth concluded, “Preventing the situation from arising at all may not always be feasible. Reducing the damage caused when a dog does bite, through careful pet dog selection and training, is something we should aim for.”