Pit bull terrier initiatives progress

In April of 2007, the world changed for pit-bull-terrier-like dogs. That was when Michael Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels were busted. Quite literally overnight, the public’s awareness of the plight of dogs enslaved by dog fighters went through the roof, and the graphic account of how Vick and his associates dispatched under-performing dogs shocked even the most hardcore investigators.

The sad irony at that time was that it was standard practice for law enforcement, with the blessing and support of traditional national and regional animal welfare agencies, to automatically kill the surviving canine victims of such fight-ring busts. Sound bites such as “ticking time bombs,” “damaged goods” and “bad by birth” were tossed around as preemptive cover to simply kill the close to 50 dogs who were part of the fighting operation, regardless of age, disposition or history.

At first, it appeared that this would be just another black mark against a type of dog that had once been hailed as “America’s dog” and the “nanny dog” for their gentle demeanor around children as typified by Petey, the famous pit bull mascot of the “Our Gang” kiddie comedies. However, we saw it as an opportunity to leverage the notoriety of the case to the benefit of the dogs because we knew from years of experience that dogs, like people, are individuals, and this was a chance to demonstrate on a very public stage how wrong the stereotype of pit bull terriers was.

Since this was a federal case, the local jurisdictions that took custody of the dogs, could only act with approval of federal courts, and Best Friends petitioned the court to save the victims in the case. The ASPCA and BADRAP, a pit bull group in Oakland, California, were called in to conduct behavioral evaluations, and all but one of the dogs qualified either for immediate placement with rescue groups for adoption to the public, or for qualified rehabilitation. The 22 most abused and shy of the Vick dogs came to Best Friends for rehabilitation.

As we had anticipated, their stories, and how they overcame the stereotypes placed upon them, provided a strong case study for the Best Friends pit bull terrier initiatives and have helped to alter public misperceptions.

Shelter intake numbers for these very popular dogs were, and in many cases still are, terribly high at urban and rural shelters across the country. Stereotypes aside, many were not ready for adoption owing to prior neglect and lack of training, as is the case with many larger breed dogs. Working with Salt Lake County Animal Services, we helped build the Pit Crew program. The idea is simple: Pit bull terriers are popular. Lots of pit-bull-terrier-type dogs are coming into the shelter, and, in turn, were being killed. The program works by offering free spay/neuter surgeries, training classes for these dogs to prep them for a home, experienced foster homes, special adoption events and a fantastic team of volunteers dedicated to helping these dogs get ready for their next stop in life.

In Salt Lake County, the numbers prove the efficacy. The live release rate for 2013 (and through the first four months of 2014) is over 90%! Other cities took note, and now pit crews have been established all across the country all seeing similar numbers.

While some of the work of the initiatives centers around changing perception and helping individual dogs, we also take a much higher-level path with our legislative work where we’ve been able to affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of dogs all across the country. Just this year, we spearheaded laws to get rid of breed discrimination in South Dakota and Utah.

A Best Friends–commissioned study found that 84 percent of people polled believe local, state or federal governments should not infringe on a person’s right to have whatever breed of dog they choose. That’s a pretty powerful statistic, and one that has supported our work on breed-discriminatory legislation (BDL) preemption bills. These statewide bills prevent any local municipality from enacting any kind of BDL. Setting aside the issues associated with breed identification, these dogs are individuals, and should be treated as such. To date, 19 states have enacted these laws, ultimately saving thousands of dogs every year from automatic judgment and immediate death.

Our fantastic pit bull terrier initiatives team also works on other types legislation, such as promoting bills that focus on reckless owners, and laws that guarantee any dog from a fighting case have the chance to be evaluated for placement, a reasonable measure that, seven years on from the Vick case, is still not a sure thing for victims from these terrible cases of cruelty. Indeed, Best Friends is currently spearheading a bill in Delaware to get rid of the stigma placed on fight-bust dogs there.

Thanks to national attention generated by the Bad Newz Kennels bust and the success of the canine victims of that horrible case, the landscape for pit-bull-terrier-like dogs has changed dramatically, but there is still much work to be done.

Together, we can Save them All.

Gregory Castle