Monday, July 19, 2010

Lessons from the Pound

At my age it’s not very often that you get to experience something for the first time, but with mine and Kate’s recent adoption of Mara the Pit Bull, for the first time in my life I became a dog owner. In five short weeks I’ve learned a valuable lesson about the persistence of prejudice and stereotypes and the importance of confronting them head-on with everything at our disposal.

We saved Mara from what would have been certain death in the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) –- Philadelphia’s municipal shelter. At the time we took her she was one of the longest residents at the shelter; she was suffering from several ailments for which she was receiving at least three different medications daily. If it weren’t for the deep affection the staff felt towards her, she would surely have been put down long before we chanced upon her.

I confess, despite being a self-described animal lover and a lifelong cat owner I have given little thought over the years to the plight of the homeless, abandoned and neglected animals in our city. I knew that they were out there and have certainly fed my share of stray cats, but beyond that I remained aloof to the tireless efforts of the dedicated core of rescue personnel who took it as their mission to give voice to the voiceless. That all changed when I met Kate. In our time together, Kate has opened my eyes to a whole world of neglected animals and the people who save them. She is deeply committed to rescuing and caring for homeless animals and has offered herself –- both in time and money –- to the mission of reducing the world’s population of homeless animals and making life a little easier for the ones that are here. Before long I was accompanying Kate on these excursions and it was soon decided we would make the ultimate gesture of bringing a shelter dog home with us.

The first thing you notice when you visit either of Philadelphia’s two main shelters is that upwards of 80 percent of the dogs housed in the kennels at any given time are of the Pit Bull variety.

The term Pit Bull was historically used to describe one of three standard breeds: the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terrier; but the Pit Bulls mixes found at ACCT and PSPCA contain a myriad of different breeds – for instance we think Mara may have some pointer in her. These dogs vary in size and temperament but all share a short shiny coat, muscular legs, perky ears and a squat surefooted stature. Contrary to popular misconception, they are also inherently people friendly and loyal.

According to PSPCA chief executive officer Sue Cosby, the Pit Bull is presently the most populous dog in Philadelphia, and also the hardest to place once in the shelter. Most rescue workers will tell you that the perception that Pit Bulls are inherently aggressive and unpredictable makes their job that much harder. Statistics from ACCT show that nearly twice as many non-Pit Bull-type dogs get placed into adoption as Pit Bulls.

In Philadelphia’s shelters, Pit Bulls get adopted half as frequently as other breeds, which helps explain why so many of them accumulate in the kennels. Last year ACCT alone took in 4000 of them, but only about 1600 made it out alive (according to 2009 save-rate data).

“Unfortunately 80 percent of the dogs you see in [ACCT] are Pit Bulls and with the reputation that they receive most of those don’t get out because people think they are going to turn on them or bite their child, which simply isn’t the case.” said Allison Lamond, the Adoption Center Manager at The Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which often takes dogs from ACCT into its own small adoption center.

In fact most studies show that Pit Bulls are no more aggressive to people than any other dog breed. The American Temperament Test Society (ATTS), a nonprofit group that tests and compares hundreds of dog breeds for a number of different attributes, assesses dogs on ten different variables, ranging from attitude toward a “weirdly dressed stranger” to reaction to gunshots. A dog is deemed to fail if it shows unprovoked aggression, panic without recovery, or strong avoidance to any of the stimuli. According to ATTS data, all three recognized Pit bull breeds had a higher than 80 percent pass rate when given the test.

So what’s with all the misinformation? Karen Delise, Founder and Director of Research at the National Canine Research Council, blames the media for sensationalizing Pit Bull aggression and propagating the stereotype.

She says that over time the bad press (which began in the late 1970s and kicked into ‘overdrive’ in the 1980s) became a self-fulfilling prophesy that actually led to more irresponsible behavior. All the media attention had an unexpected consequence.

“Demonizing certain breeds only furthers their appeal to the most extremely abusive of owners while feeding into a public hysteria and frightening off any potential suitable owners for this breed of dog,” she writes in her book, The Pit Bull Placebo. “Dogs portrayed in negative functions (fighting, guarding drug stashes, etc.) will only serve to increase their popularity with unsuitable owners who seek out dogs to increase their status as a person of power or intimidation.”

As a result of the bad press, she says, the “wrong people” started acquiring Pits at an alarming rate and a vicious cycle ensued. For a time, for many young urban males the Pit Bull became an accessory, not unlike a pair of sneakers, and the perceived viciousness of the dog determined whether you were wearing Nike Airs or Pro Keds. As former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders summed up in his defense of Michael Vick following Vick’s arrest for dog fighting:

“Some people enjoy proving they have the biggest, toughest dog on the street…It reminds me of when I wore a lot of jewelry back in the day because I always wanted to have the biggest chain or the biggest, baddest car. It gives you status.”

It’s that very attitude that made Kate and I decide the only dog for us was a Pit Bull. The way we see it, if you are open-minded and planning to rescue a dog in Philadelphia (or just about any other large city), it’s your duty to adopt a Pit. Because in the end it will be up to those of us who are responsible, compassionate and intelligent dog owners to reverse the negative image and give the hundreds of Pit Bulls languishing in poorly ventilated shelters a chance to prove that they can be the loving people-friendly animals we know them to be.