Of the four to five million dogs and cats euthanized in our country's shelter system it is estimated that one million of those animals are dogs labeled pit bulls. Shelter's report anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of their admissions arepit bull type dogs and because of the negative image, they often are at the shelter longer because many people are scared.
If I didn't know anything about dogs beyond what I read and hear in the news, I would be afraid, too. Fortunately, for me, I have worked with, and been around hundreds of pit bulls, including dogs rescued from the Michael Vick property.
I've been around pits I know casually and socially and around hundreds of strange dogs at pit bull awareness events. Pit bulls are dogs; they have the capacity for love and forgiveness. They appreciate human praise, they want to receive affection. So, why are there so many pit bulls?
The phrase conjures up different images. For many that image is one of the quintessential family dog; loyal, friendly, athletic, and approaches life with a vim and vigor that reminds so many of us of a fun loving childhood. For others, this image tends to portray one of toughness, and 'cool' machismo.
It is the former that has been seen in pop culture to the extent that one artist even adopted the phrase as his own moniker. Part of what creates this image is the myth of a dog born with bad blood, predisposed to violence. For those of us in the animal life saving business, this image is the toughest challenge going and has been for decades.
Compounding the negative image is an erroneous interpretation of breed identification. Being labeled as a 'pit bull' breed has become a life threatening stigma for shelter dogs.
The myths and stories have enveloped so many dogs that the "pit bull" has become a generic term for any dog that shares similar physical characteristics. These are a short coat, blocky head, and a muscular body. In 2009 Dr. Victoria Voith published a study in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine that suggests only about 12 percent of shelter professionals can visually identify a dog agreeable to DNA analysis. The term "pit bull" actually can encompass over 20 breeds of dogs not counting all of the mixed breeds.
Sadly, they are often the dog of choice for criminals. These dogs are victims of the worst sort of abuse: dogfighting. Fighting is something they are forced to do, not something they are. For years the victims of dogfighting were routinely put down. They were deemed to be too aggressive by nature, game stock. The rescue of the Vick dogs has put this misguided notion to bed.
In the winter of 2008 I worked at a large animal welfare organization that had just received custody of 22 of Michael Vick's dogs. The case made headlines nationwide. These dogs were "pit bulls" and according to media reports, and statements made by some animal protection organizations, were of the worst sort. I never really believed the hype that was going around about pit bulls, but the intensity of the headlines was stark and I clearly remember having doubts and wondering if the statements from some of the largest animal protection organizations might actually be true. Today, at least six of the Vick dogs that were saved have become therapy dogs. Many have been adopted into multi-pet homes.
WHAM 13 in Rochester, NY published a story recently that helps answer the question of why there are so many pit bulls. In many areas of the country there are a group of substandard owners looking for a menacing status symbol and perhaps a few quick bucks. The breeding is rampant and unregulated. In areas that are under economic hardship, the dogs are running loose and filling many shelters faster than homes can be found, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of innocent dogs.
What might help to solve the issue is if more families looking to add a dog to their home took a second look at pit bulls and took the time to meet them as individuals with their own unique personalities. It would go a long way to help save lives. Dogs teach us so much and the pit bull issue teaches us even more about discrimination, judgment, acceptance, individuality, and what unconditional love really means. You don't have to take my word for this. Come to the shelter and meet a pit bull.
By Ed Fritz, Executive Director of the Southampton Animal Shelter