Risky adoptions continue
SAN DIEGO, California––So what did the major shelters in San Diego do to improve adoption safety after a two-year-old pit bull named Polo, rehomed six months earlier by the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA, on April 22, 2016 killed three-day-old Sebastian Caban?
Apparently not much, indicated San Diego Union-Tribune “Watchdog” Jeff McDonald in his December 8, 2016 column “Pit Bull Adopted from County Shelter Kills Woman’s 5-pound Yorkie.”
Different shelter, same campus
The San Diego County Department of Animal Services is not, to be sure, the same organization as the San Diego Humane Society & SPCA.
But the two entities share the same campus, Animal Services at 5480 Gaines Street, the Humane Society & SPCA at 5500 Gaines Street.
Impounded dogs who reach the end of their holding time at Animal Services may be sent next door to be offered for adoption by the Humane Society & SPCA.
And Animal Services and the Humane Society & SPCA have considerable shared experience with dog attacks.
Caban was the sixth human fatality in five years involving pit bulls from San Diego County. Five of the fatalities occurred within the county, and therefore within Animal Services’ jurisdiction to investigate.
The sixth victim, four-year-old América Viridiana, was killed in Tiajuana, Mexico, on June 19, 2012 by a pit bull her grandfather, Godofredo Cruz Martinez, 55, said he had found running at large in Balboa Park, San Diego––also part of Animal Services’ jurisdiction––just a few days earlier.
Even before Caban’s death, San Diego Animal Services should have been on high alert about screening dogs for adoption safety, after a January 2015 incident in which a dog in custody of adoption partner Labradors & Friends bit the tip of a young autistic man named Ryan Hawblitzel’s nose off.
Hawblitzel, who is not the former major league pitcher of the same name, in September 2015 sued both Labradors & Friends and San Diego Animal Services.
Hawblitzel alleged that both Labradors & Friends and San Diego Animal Services failed to disclose that the dog, less than a month before Hawblitzel adopted him, nearly amputated the fingers of a woman at a doggie daycare facility called Camp Run-A-Mutt.
The case appears to still be before the courts.
Pressure to reach “no kill”
Instead of tightening adoption screening and other procedures meant to protect the public and other animals, San Diego Animal Services has if anything escalated efforts to rehome every dog and cat, after euthanizing 6,600 animals––31% of intake, but just two per thousand county residents––in 2015.
The San Diego Animal Services euthanasia rate relative to human population was about a fifth of the U.S. national average, and significantly less than the rates in many other jurisdictions that claim to have achieved “no-kill” animal control.
Despite that accomplishment, McDonald––a longtime critic of San Diego County Animal Services––on October 31, 2016 published a column entitled “Volunteers object to animal shelter practices,” the content of which McDonald summarized as “More than a dozen current and former volunteers said animals were being killed rather than placed for adoption.”
“Yorkie had almost no chance”
Tracy Davis, whose toothless seven-year-old Yorkshire terrier Jack was the pit bull victim referenced in McDonald’s headline, contacted him, he wrote, after seeing his previous reportage.
“The 5-pound Yorkie had almost no chance,” McDonald opened. “Hours after the County of San Diego adopted out a pit bull named Lyla, the new dog in the house grabbed Jack by the throat and shook him violently. The terrier died.
“That was in August,” five months after Caban’s death, which McDonald did not mention.
Davis has learned through public records requests, McDonald continued, that even before San Diego Animal Services allowed Davis’ former roommates to take Lyla home, “a note in the dog’s file said 2-year-old Lyla was ‘not good with small dogs.’”
San Diego Animal Services spokesperson Michael Workman “reviewed the case file and said the animals [Jack and Lyla] were introduced at the Gaines Street shelter before the adoption was allowed to proceed,” McDonald wrote. “Many adopters have other dogs in the home,” he said. “So a dog-to-dog interaction is required. The dog-to-dog (meeting) in this case went well and the adopter and the roommate made the decision.”
But Davis was not the adopter and told McDonald she was not even present at the alleged “dog-to-dog interaction.”
Summarized McDonald, “Davis, who works as a hydrologist for the federal government, disputed Workman’s assertion that she was part of the adoption application. She said she did not attend any pre-adoption meeting between the dogs and never gave the adopters permission to bring Jack to the shelter to meet Lyla.”
Said Davis, “I was not involved in the adoption process. I did not and would not authorize a dog-to-dog interaction with an adult pit bull with a history of hurting small dogs.”
Returned to adopters?
Wrote McDonald, “Lyla was first relinquished to the shelter in August, when its previous owner reported that he was unable to keep the pit bull. County notes indicate the previous owner could only have a service dog because he was in the military.
“After the attack on Jack,” McDonald added, “Lyla was returned to the shelter by her adopters. Records show the dog was listed as no longer eligible for adoption and placed on what’s called a ‘last resort hold,’ meaning the relinquisher had a chance to take the animal back before euthanasia.
“Volunteer notes on the back of this dog’s kennel read, ‘Do not walk out front or around other dogs — very dog aggressive — nice with people in play area though.’”
“By the first week of September, Lyla was adopted out again, records show, although the adopters are not identified in the county records. Davis said her former roommates reclaimed Lyla a few weeks after the attack, when it became clear the county would put the pit bull down.”
Davis had already moved out of the home she had shared with Lyla’s adopters.
Victim of two myths
Jack the Yorkie, and Davis, his grieving owner, appear to have been victims of two myths current prevalent in humane work: that dog-against-dog aggression, most common in pit bulls, is distinctive and separate from the potential threat that dogs pose toward humans, and that a dangerous dog can be safely rehomed if not placed in a home with other dogs, cats, children, or whatever else the dog is said to be aggressive to.
The claim that dogs who exhibit menacing behavior toward other dogs can nonetheless become safe pets of humans appears to have originated with early 20th century dogfighters John P. Colby, of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and Charles Werner, of New Orleans, who broke with the prevailing custom among other dogfighters of their era to sell their “curs,” or pit bulls lacking adequate “gameness” to win fights to the death, as pets.
History belies the claim
Based on Colby and Werner’s sales pitches, other pit bull sellers eventually concocted the story that dogfighters bred their dogs to be dangerous only toward other dogs, not toward their handlers in fighting pits.
Colby, however, who also introduced the term “Staffordshire” to disguise the origins of his pit bulls, produced dogs who in 1909 killed his own two-year-old nephew, Bert Colby Leadbetter, and later severely injured several other children.
(A more detailed review of the relevant history, including an account of a 1976 dogfight in which both handlers were mauled, appears at http://thetruthaboutpitbulls.blogspot.com/2012/01/culling-manbiters-and-desecrating-truth.html.)
The second myth, that dangerous dogs can be safely rehomed if not sent to homes with other dogs, cats, or children, springs from the fallacy of the first myth. This myth presupposes that a rehomed dangerous dog will never be out in public, never escape from the adoptive home, and never visit other homes where other animals and/or children reside. It also presupposes that the rehomed dangerous dog will live in a home where children and other animals never come to visit, even just trick-or-treating at Halloween or selling cookies.
“To protect health, safety, & welfare”
Under Dawn Danielson, a 35-year veteran of San Diego Animal Services, department director since 2004, and pit bull advocate, Animal Services has declared as “Our mission: to protect the health, safety & welfare of people & animals,” with a vision “to become: An animal services organization known for its transparency, and effectively promoting the humane and responsible care of companion animals, reducing the euthanasia of sheltered animals, and responding to the needs of the community.”
Not rehoming animals who may be dangerous to humans or other animals does not rate an explicit mention.
San Diego County, a hotbed of pit bull advocacy for more than 30 years, and of organized political pressure to achieve no-kill animal control for about 20 years, is represented by seven California state assembly districts.
One of the current San Diego County state assembly members, Republican Brian Maienschein, authored a bill––AB 1825––which “prevents dogs seized from criminal fighting operations from automatically being designated ‘vicious,’” and instead allows animal shelters to rehome them, described Jeremy B. White of the Sacramento Bee after California governor Jerry Brown endorsed the bill into law in July 2016.