Can victim advocacy restore integrity to the humane cause?
WASHINGTON, D.C.––The 2007 conviction of football star Michael Vick for dogfighting helped hundreds of animal welfare executives and their minions to get filthy rich.
Yet the animal advocacy groups pocketing the money did little, if anything, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the April 20, 2007 drug bust and April 25, 2007 police raid that sent Vick to prison, sent pit bull advocates laughing all the way to the bank, and––indirectly––sent tens of thousands of human and animal dog attack victims to hospitals, veterinarians, and often their graves.
Victim advocacy harks back to humane roots
The Vick case built pit bull advocacy into a multi-million-dollar-per-year industry.
The Vick case also triggered unprecedented explosive increases in the numbers of humans and animals killed per year by pit bulls and other “bully” breeds.
In response, this brought the birth of an also growing dog attack victim advocacy movement.
The victim advocacy movement may yet regrow a bona fide humane movement rooted in representing “the voice of the voiceless,” as poet Etta Wheeler Wilcox put it in 1910.
That was a time when humane societies were the standard bearers for abused and exploited children as well as animals, and had for a century stood in opposition to slavers and the Ku Klux Klan, not in defense of the dogs the slavers and the KKK bred and used to intimidate racial and ethnic minorities, between staging fundraising dogfights.
Though those dogs were often called “Cuban bloodhounds,” they were in truth oversized pit bulls, or “bulldogs, ” resembling today’s Presa Canarios.
(See When dogs mauled children outside the White House.)
Maddie: the kind of dog pits love to eat
Animal advocacy groups were conspicuously silent about the 10th anniversary of the Vick bust and the mayhem following since then.
But Maddie’s Fund, a leading player in pit bull advocacy, on April 26, 2017 issued a media release celebrating the 30th birthday of the mini-schnauzer Maddie, for whom software entrepreneurs Dave and Cheryl Duffield renamed their private foundation after Maddie’s death in 1997.
Maddie, ironically, was just the sort of small, friendly dog who has become the most frequent victim of pit bulls in the decade since the Vick bust.
Projecting from the toll of 10,500-plus dogs per year injured by pit bulls, discovered by ANIMALS 24-7 from 2013 through 2016, as many as 105,000 little dogs like Maddie have been ripped apart alive by pit bulls over the past 10 years, along with 20,000 cats and 64,000 hoofed animals, poultry, and livestock.
(See Record 32,550 pit bulls killed or badly injured other animals in the U.S. in 2016.)
$808 million per year
Maddie’s Fund, with assets of $297 million, spends $197 million per year, according to the most recent data available from Guidestar, which posts IRS Form 990 filings as a subcontractor to the Internal Revenue Service.
But Maddie’s Fund is only one of the major players in the pit bull advocacy business.
Others include the Humane Society of the U.S., with assets of $249 million, spending $195 million per year; the American SPCA, with assets of $247 million, spending $272 million per year; the Best Friends Animal Society, with assets of $94 million, spending $95 million per year; and the American Veterinary Medical Association, with assets of $65 million, spending $49 million per year.
Victim advocates win on budget of nothing
There is as yet no victim advocacy charity raising even $100,000 per year. The first victim advocacy charity, Dogsbite.org, was only formed in late 2007, about six months after founder Colleen Lynn suffered a pit bull attack on June 17, 2007 while jogging in Seattle. But the numbers of victim advocacy charities have doubled every year since.
More significantly, after pit bull advocates won legislation in 19 states prohibiting the passage of breed-specific local dangerous dog ordinances, victim advocates have mobilized on campaign budgets of nothing to stop the passage of similar laws in at least six other states.
Victim advocates have also defeated aggressive efforts to repeal pit bull bans by ballot initiative in Miami in 2012 and Aurora, Colorado in 2014, won the 2016 passage of a pit bull ban in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and obtained the introduction of a proposed pit bull ban throughout Quebec province.
(See Losing in Aurora, pit bull advocates set their dogs on us, Blue Buffalo, & Home 4 the Holidays, Christmas baby killed by pit bulls because Miami-Dade law is not enforced, and Quebec introduces toughest dangerous dog law in North America.)
Attacks promote mobilization
Every pit bull attack on a human tends to affect, and often mobilize, dozens and sometimes hundreds of family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and other acquaintances.
Every pit bull attack on an animal mobilizes smaller but nonetheless motivated numbers of volunteers.
And pit bull failures in homes, occurring at the rate of more than a million per year, typically due to dangerous behavior, also bring people into victim advocacy.
One of them was ANIMALS 24-7 social media editor and photographer Beth Clifton, a former pit bull advocate, owner, and rescuer.
(See Why pit bulls will break your heart.)
Almost a third of the total U.S. pit bull population are surrendered to shelters in any given year. More than 10 million pit bulls––three times the number still in homes––have failed in homes and been sent to shelters since the Vick case broke.
Vick case began with drug bust
The Vick case developed after police in Hampton, Virginia, on April 20, 2007 arrested Vick’s cousin Davon Boddie, 26, outside a nightclub, for alleged distribution of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute.
Boddie lived in a house belonging to Vick in Surrey County, Virginia. A multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force on April 25, 2007 raided the house, discovering what Surrey County Sheriff Harold D. Brown told media was “evidence of animal neglect and the possibility of dog fighting.”
The Vick case blew up from there.
As the criminal allegations eventually filed against Vick and several codefendants moved through the judicial system, Vick “was singled out for protests and was shunned by the National Football League,” summarized Noam Cohen and James Freed of the New York Times on November 12, 2007.
“For charities like HSUS, the ASPCA, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Vick’s long-suffering pit bulls, freed from gladiator duty, became the faces to show the public for fund-raising.”
“This isn’t medical research”
Acknowledged HSUS president Wayne Pacelle to Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle on July 18, 2007, “The ‘Donations’ section and the ‘Take Action’ section [of the HSUS web site] were down for a while. Our server couldn’t handle the weight of all the communication we were getting about this, and we’re a very large organization.
“We’re used to a lot of traffic. The gratuitous cruelty has really gotten to people,’” Pacelle said. “This isn’t medical research. You can’t argue that sacrificing these animals could save people’s lives some day.”
In view of the bloodbath that followed, and the leading role of HSUS in advancing pit bull advocacy over the past eight years, Pacelle’s words then have an ironic ring now.
But Pacelle and HSUS were then still two years from joining the other major pit bull advocacy organizations on the bandwagon.
Instead, as Pacelle explained on May 20, 2009, while introducing a reportedly repentant Michael Vick as an occasional HSUS spokesperson against dogfighting, “HSUS tried to channel the energy in the aftermath of the Vick case,” helping “to pass a remarkable 21 new laws against animal fighting, including a third upgrade of the federal law.”
Pacelle also said HSUS had helped in various ways with “more than 250 busts of animal fighting operations, both dogfighting and cockfighting.”
Indeed, 2007-2009 marked the zenith of law enforcement activity against animal fighting.
Police busted 246 dogfighting operations alone during those three years, an average of more dogfighting busts per year than have ever been accomplished in any other single year, impounding the three highest numbers of dogs and arresting three of the four highest annual totals of dogfighting suspects.
(See Pit bull crime doubled in 2016.)
Opposition to dogfighting, as of 2017, was still where Pacelle appeared to like to focus attention, for example in announcing in his personal blog on April 26, 2017 that Mexico has adopted felony penalties for dogfighting.
Of note, however, is that Pacelle did not mention that three fatal pit bull attacks in Mexico so far this year, following many others in recent years, have prompted outcry for a national pit bull ban.
Fate of the Vick dogs
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson deliberated for months over what to do with the dogs impounded from Vick: 66 in all, 48 of whom remained in custody after 13 dogs other than pit bulls were rehomed by local humane societies.
One dog believed to be a pit bull but later officially called “not a pit bull” was returned to an owner who was not charged in the case, and five pit bulls either died or were euthanized due to dangerous behavior.
“Officials from our organization have examined some of these dogs and, generally speaking, they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country,” Pacelle told Michael S. Schott of the New York Times on July 31, 2007.
“Hundreds of thousands of less-violent pit bulls, who are better candidates to be rehabilitated, are being put down,” Pacelle continued. “The fate of these dogs will be up to the government, but we have recommended to them, and believe, they will be eventually put down.”
“Very difficult to deprogram” a pit bull, Pacelle said.
“It’s very difficult to deprogram that [fighting] behavior once it is instilled,” Pacelle affirmed three weeks later to Kristi Keck of CNN. “Even if you can do it to some degree, all it takes is one lapse in the animal’s behavior to kill another animal or exhibit some other type of aggression.”
Agreed PETA spokesperson Daphna Nachminovitch, “These dogs are a ticking time bomb. Rehabilitating fighting dogs is not in the cards. It’s widely accepted that euthanasia is the most humane thing for them.”
But “After learning that the court would consider euthanizing the dogs,” reported Tim McGlone of the Virginian-Pilot on August 24, 2007, “animal welfare groups,” inflamed by e-mails from the Best Friends Animal Society, the ASPCA, and the pit bull advocacy group BADRAP, “inundated the U.S. attorney’s office and U.S. District Judge Hudson with pleas to save the pit bulls.”
$20,000 each funds care & rehab
Hudson eventually sent 22 of the Vick pit bulls to Best Friends and 10 to BADRAP, “with stipends of $5,000 for each dog considered adoptable, and $20,000 for each dog considered so aggressive that it will have to spend significant time, if not its entire life, in a special facility,” wrote McGlone.
(See Pit bull wisdom & dog pound foolishness, by Liz Marsden.)
Pacelle: “Evaluation is just one part of it”
Pacelle stuck to his guns even after more than 500 pit bulls were seized in a four-state series of raids in July 2009, about 400 of whom were sent to the Humane Society of Missouri.
Counting subsequent births to pit bulls who were pregnant, the Humane Society of Missouri handled more than 450 pit bulls from the raids in all, reportedly euthanizing about half.
“If you have 15 or 20 dogs, it’s potentially manageable to evaluate and place those who pass the test,” Pacelle told Associated Press writer Cheryl Wittenauer.
“But when you’re talking about 450 dogs,” Pacelle said, ” it strains the capacity of the adoption network. Evaluation is just one part of it. The other question is do the new environments exist?” in which to safely place pit bulls.
But at some point in the next two months Pacelle and HSUS flip-flopped into pit bull advocacy, apparently pushed by senior vice president Andrew Rowan.
Indeed, organized pit bull advocacy appears to date from July 17, 1986, when after 25 years of gradually increasing pit bull abundance and attacks, Rowan as founding director of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at Tufts University convened a workshop entitled “Dog Aggression & the Pit Bull Terrier.”
Rowan followed up on September 19, 1987 with a conference entitled “The Pit Bull Terrier Revisited: How To Break The Vicious Circle.”
Rowan had since 2002 quietly furthered pit bull advocacy as an HSUS senior vice president.
HSUS veep Rowan ignored the data
“The reason for most breed-specific bans is the reduction of dog attacks. I am not aware of data that shows a reduction in dog attacks or severity of such attacks following passage of a ban,” Rowan said at the time.
Rowan disregarded 27 years’ worth of data forwarded to him at the time by ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton, which showed that from September 1982 to September 2009 pit bulls had accounted for 1,491 of the 2,647 dogs involved in fatal and disfiguring attacks in the U.S. and Canada (56%); 149 of the 333 fatalities (45%); and 891 of the 1,447 disfigurements (62%).
The data for the decade since the Michael Vick bust should be more persuasive to anyone except an inveterate pit bull advocate.
“Bully” breeds post-Vick: 83% of deaths, 90% of disfigurements
Of 5,363 dogs involved in fatal and disfiguring attacks, 3,968 (76%) have been pit bulls, who make up 4.9% of the U.S. dog population.
Another 6% have been closely related “bully breeds,” including boxers, bull mastiffs, Rottweilers, Cane Corsos, Presa Canarios, Dogo Argentinos, Fila Brasilieros, and Sharpeis, who together account for 3.7% of the U.S. dog population.
Of 392 post-Vick dog attack fatalities, pit bulls have inflicted 261 (66.5%); other “bully” breeds have inflicted 65 (16.5%), for a combined share of 83%.
Of 3,331 post-Vick dog attack disfigurements, pit bulls have inflicted 2,819 (81%); other “bully” breeds have inflicted 299 (9%), for a combined share of 90%.
45 shelter dogs kill people since Vick
What should shock the sheltering community into belated victim awareness, if anything can or will before the victim advocacy movement hits the humane community harder than anything since the rise of “no kill” advocacy in 1995, are the numbers pertaining to attacks by rehomed dogs.
After having had no former shelter dogs killing anyone from 1858 to 1989, two fatalities by wolf hybrids in 1988-1989, and only three more fatalities until 2010, the U.S. alone has now seen at least 45 former shelter dogs killing people since 2007, including 32 killed by pit bulls, eight by bull mastiffs and close variants, and three by Rottweilers.
At least 203 former shelter dogs, including 173 pit pulls (85%), have disfigured people––and these are only the cases that have been reported by mass media, mostly because the victims took the shelters to court.
For every human killed or disfigured by a shelter dog, there have been hundreds of lesser bites, and––based on the ratios discovered by ANIMALS 24-7 described in Record 32,550 pit bulls killed or badly injured other animals in the U.S. in 2016––probably upward of 100 other pets killed in their own homes.
None of this is anything to celebrate.
Advocacy stimulates “bully” breeding
Maddie’s Fund, HSUS, the ASPCA, the Best Friends Animal Society, and the AVMA have since the Michael Vick case thrown their combined assets of more than $950 million behind pit bull advocacy.
This has included overturning breed-specific legislation that protects the public and other animals, in hopes of reducing the numbers of pit bulls killed in animal shelters.
(See Record low shelter killing raises both hopes & questions.)
The idea behind the aggressive and very well-funded pit bull advocacy done by Maddie’s Fund, HSUS, the ASPCA, and the Best Friends Animal Society is to help shelters to rehome more pit bulls, even as the onslaught of free advertising for pit bulls helps to stimulate breeding more of them.
Indeed, shelters are killing fewer pit bulls: probably about 466,000 in 2016, down since 2007 from the apparent all-time high of about 967,300. But while the numbers of pit bulls killed has declined by half, total shelter killing has declined by two-thirds.
ASPCA president Matt Bershadker on April 25, 2017 enthused in a blog post that an ASPCA-funded study done by Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine faculty Kimberly A. Woodruff and David R. Smith had discovered that “Approximately 6.5 million companion animals entered U.S. animal shelters in 2016, a decrease from 7.2 million in 2011.
“An estimated 1.5 million companion animals were euthanized in U.S. animal shelters in 2016, a decrease from about 2.6 million in 2011,” and from 4.4 million in 2007.
The reduction Bershadker reported was consistent with the directions indicated by 22 previous surveys of a similar nature, 18 of them done by Clifton in 1992 and 1997-2014.
(See Why we cannot adopt our way out of shelter killing.)
Shelter adoptions drop
Continued Bershadker, “An estimated 3.2 million shelter animals were adopted in 2016 (1.6 million dogs and 1.6 million cats), up from 2.7 million adoptions in 2011. That reflects an 18.5% increase in national adoptions.”
But it does not. The similar surveys done by between 1981 and 2014, including those of the National Council on Pet Population Study, partially funded by the ASPCA and HSUS, found that adoptions had averaged more than four million per year for approximately 30 years before apparently falling precipitously to the numbers in the range of 2.7 million to 3.2 million reported by the ASPCA for 2011 and 2014.
Despite enormously increased spending on adoption promotion, especially pit bull adoption promotion, the public began to recognize somewhere between the 2007 Vick bust and 2011 that shelters actively engaged in pit bull advocacy are not the safe places to adopt good dogs that they used to be.
The ASPCA itself appears to have recognized the potential liability risk inherent in rehoming dangerous dogs on December 2, 2015, when it announced that “Effective immediately, the ASPCA will be discontinuing the certification process for SAFER (Safety Assessment to Evaluate Re-homing),” after several shelter dogs who went on to kill people were found to have passed SAFER tests before rehoming.
The SAFER test was introduced by animal behaviorist Emily Weiss in 1999-2000, amid complaints by pit bull advocates that too many pit bulls were failing the older behavioral screening tests developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Kennels and others.
The ASPCA hired Weiss as senior director of shelter behavior programs in 2005, and on May 5, 2007, two weeks after the Vick case broke, made promoting the SAFER test part of the ASPCA program.
(See Did ASPCA discover certifying SAFER dog screening might be dangerous?)
Rae Domingues says
WOW, Sue Sternberg knew what she was doing. Whodathunkit.
Jamaka Petzak says
With gratitude! Sharing to social media, in eternal hope.
I definitely agree that the explosion of pit bull advocacy and increased ownership rates is a direct result of the Vick case. I’ve attended countless dog events held for area humane societies, and from the 90s through the first half of the 2000s, it was very rare to see a pit bull.
I don’t need to tell anyone here how much that has changed…or the downright frightening level of aggression, harassment, and stalking that too often comes along with the package.
I know I’m not the only one for whom this sea change in sheltering and humane advocacy has created a great conundrum. At the same time shelters and humane societies are doing things I very much agree with (low-cost, high volume S/N; progressive approaches to TNR, etc.), they are also engaging in some of the worst excesses relating to pit bulls. Within recent memory, I have seen among these groups lying about breed (“boxer mix,” “lab mix”); offering dogs with known animal aggression (“can NOT be in a home with cats”); agitating for a pit who killed a person to be spared and transferred to an-out-of-state “rescue;” directly encouraging people to bring their pits to dog- and child- filled charity events, etc. Just looking at the social media listings for adoptable pits at local shelters is enough to cause a headache. Just recently, I saw what appeared to be a game-bred pit with the caption that he’d probably love a home with children because “he’s so active, loves to play, and gets along with the shelter workers.”
It’s a shame I have to feel so conflicted, but I just don’t know whether I want to participate in events for our local humane societies anymore….it’s so sad, because they are indeed doing good in other respects, especially in making S/N accessible.
Very well put but if fair minded, logical people aren’t part of Humane Society policy making, it will revert back to the days when there were none of the wonderful policies you mention, merely taking in animals and destroying them after a period of time. Like everything else in the world, there are many exploitative people but in the sad ever challenging world of homeless dogs, people who care and yet are level headed are urgently needed.
People who are involved as volunteers in shelters are extremely valuable and it is folly to think that any of them benefit from the over abundance of pits and mixes. The volunteers are merely (hopefully) people who care greatly that their community give proper attention to the plight of homeless dogs and cats and that the old ways no longer prevail of employing people who had no interest in animals but were there to have employment.
Merritt Clifton says
If people who volunteer for animal shelters and rescues were genuinely regarded as “extremely valuable,” at least 50 volunteers would not have suffered disfiguring injuries at the shelter or rescue premises over the past 50 months, 41 of them disfigured by pit bulls, five by dogs of undisclosed breed, one by a bull mastiff, two by Lab mixes, and one by a beagle in an incident also involving a pit bull. This is not the record of an industry which genuinely cares about both human and animal safety; this, relative to hours worked by volunteers, is the record of an extractive or exploitive industry such as logging, mining, milling, and slaughtering animals for human consumption. Unfortunately, apparently only the ever-lengthening numbers of lawsuits filed by injured volunteers, and ever-increasing amounts of payout, appear likely to persuade the animal sheltering community that volunteers should never have unsupervised contact of any sort with dogs of dangerous breed or history, and that supervised contact should be done only under the supervision of appropriately trained animal care & control professionals, with the knowhow, experience, and equipment to stop dog attacks within seconds––or, better yet, prevent them.
Connie Mogull says
There are so many contributing factors to dog bites and dog maulings that no test will predict.
Merritt Clifton says
Precisely. This is why examining breed characteristics –– the purposes for which specific breeds were created –– is of paramount importance. Disregarding breed-specific characteristics is like ignoring the differences between compact sedans and pickup trucks.
I adopted dogs from shelters three times between 1984 and 1999. There were zero pit bulls in those shelters. Those same shelters now are filled to capacity with ONLY pit bulls. That happened in 17 years, barely more than a single dog’s lifespan. It is the single most striking thing about sheltering, and yet, nobody talks about it and nobody is studying it. The new guard, who don’t realize it’s abnormal to be unable to house multiple dogs in the same run because one might be dead in the morning, certainly don’t realize it even happened. The old-timers are mum on the topic as well, though they had to have noticed their kennels went from a wide variety of dogs to a single breed.
This past week walking back from the mailbox I paused in the carport to toss into the recycle bin the unopened envelope saying that it contained my HSUS membership form. Then I sat down at my computer and read your article on HSUS and felt even more justified in continuing my boycott of HSUS.