Pit bulls pose quandary as they swamp Sacramento shelters

02/22/2012 12:00 AM

02/22/2012 11:28 AM

As a former narcotics cop and Sacramento's chief animal control officer, Daniel Torres has seen the ugly side of pit bull terriers. He has fought past them to enter the homes of drug dealers, documented their vicious attacks on other animals and witnessed the human carnage they can inflict.

But when Torres goes home at night, he gets nothing but love from his pit bull, Riley.

"Believe me, I would never have her if I thought she was dangerous," he said. "I raised her correctly, and she is as gentle as can be."

Are pit bulls a menace, too corrupted as a breed to be salvaged? Or the victims of abuse and misunderstanding? The discussion is playing out across the country as pit bulls, largely as a result of unscrupulous breeding, fill shelters in unprecedented numbers.

On any given day in the Sacramento area, as many as 70 percent of dogs in shelters are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Strong and muscular, they are the dog of choice in illegal fighting rings. Locally, the breed is the one most commonly blamed for attacks on humans and animals.

Just last month, Sacramento County sheriff's deputies shot to death a pit bull that mauled a boy after he wandered into its backyard. In an incident two weeks earlier, a man fatally shot an unleashed pit bull that he said charged his pet dog.

Community leaders from Florida to California are experimenting with various methods of dealing with pit bulls and their owners. In some cities, including Miami, owning the breed is a crime. Others, including San Francisco, have made spaying or neutering of pit bulls mandatory.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advocates an outright ban on breeding pit bulls.

"Most pit bulls in our society are being bred for status or fighting, or to guard," said Teresa Chagrin, the group's animal care and control specialist. "They are the most abused breed in the country. They are trained to be aggressive, and let's face it, they were bred to bait bulls. They are tenacious. When they snap, they cause damage."

While local advocates also want to see less breeding of pit bulls, they are taking a different approach. Rather than pushing for a ban, they are targeting pit bull owners to try to change their views on how the animals should be raised.

"We're trying to change the dog's image, but we're also working to change the mentality of the people who have them," said Torres.

"Yes, sometimes you do have a vicious dog. But the blame for aggressiveness usually is with the owner."

The "Sacramento Neighborhood Pit Bull Days" events target low-income areas where pit bulls are most commonly reared, offering free veterinary services, dog training and education.

"We are meeting with people where they live, offering them services and encouraging them to be responsible pet owners," said Jean Rabinowitz, a veterinarian who is working with area shelters and nonprofit groups.

"Our hope is that we can build rapport in these communities," halt irresponsible breeding and curb fighting and neglect of the animals.

The SPCA also offers free spaying and neutering of pit bulls at its clinic on Florin-Perkins Road. It soon will offer dog training classes geared specifically toward the breed.

Cities elsewhere in the country are making parallel efforts to stem the population explosion of pit bulls being bred for fighting, said Eric Sakach, senior law enforcement specialist with the Humane Society of the United States.

"Pit bulls are a terrific breed in the hands of the right kind of person. They are extremely loyal and can be very gentle," said Sakach.

"But these days we're seeing them given up at a very fast rate. They're being bred in backyards by people looking for a fast buck, or sold for fighting. If they don't have the temperament that thugs are looking for, they are killed or abandoned."

The abundance of pit bulls at shelters has reached a crisis stage, said Sakach. In California, "the ratio of pit bulls to other breeds is now 50 percent to 90 percent," he said. Many are considered unadoptable because of their backgrounds or the breed's reputation and are put to death.

Last year, 63 percent of the 5,468 dogs brought to the Front Street shelter in downtown Sacramento were pit bulls or mixes, said shelter manager Gina Knepp. The breed accounted for only 8 percent of dog adoptions and 53 percent of euthanizations.

Of the 358 dogs that were quarantined at the facility last year because of reports of biting or viciousness, just under half were pit bulls.

Shelters and nonprofit groups are "taking it to the streets" to change their fate, said Tara Diller, Sacramento County's shelter manager. In the past two years, the county and city shelters, along with the Sacramento SPCA and other groups, have sponsored special pit bull events in Oak Park, Rio Linda and south Sacramento, with future ones planned for Del Paso Heights.

The neighborhoods are chosen based on the ZIP codes of residents who surrender pit bulls or areas where they are picked up as strays or injured animals. Besides having a higher population of pit bulls than other areas of the city, those neighborhoods also have a disproportionate number of all types of dog-bite cases, said Rabinowitz.

According to city shelter statistics, more than 1,000 stray dogs came into the facility last year from just two south Sacramento ZIP codes, and more than 40 percent of the animals were pit bulls.

The pit bull events, the latest of which was held at Colonial Heights Library in south Sacramento on Sunday, have collectively drawn hundreds of people who come with their dogs to take advantage of free vaccinations, tags and microchipping, and vouchers for spaying and neutering. Volunteers counsel owners on proper training.

Val Masters, the SPCA's community services director, said dogs and people generally are on their best behavior at the events, although minor scuffles have erupted.

"We understand the breed, and we do crowd control," she said. "We make sure that dogs don't hold eye contact too long with other dogs, and we are prepared with citronella spray in case we need it. But we've never had to use it."

Like Torres, Masters has owned pit bulls, and has seen their public image morph from Buster Brown mascot to monster. But she believes the breed can reclaim its status as a coveted pet.

Masters began keeping pit bulls as pets long before they acquired their terrible reputation, she said.

"It seemed like one day I could walk my dog through the neighborhood and no one would notice," she said. "Then suddenly, in the same neighborhood, people were crossing the street whenever they saw me with my dog."

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