DeMarcus Cousins pitches in to save pit bulls, shelter animals

DeMarcus Cousins admits it. He is something of a human version of a pit bull terrier. Tough on the outside. Questionable reputation in some circles. But under the right circumstances, gentle and loyal as a Labrador.

“I can relate to it,” Cousins said in an interview. “It’s a fact.”

So the star center for the Sacramento Kings, who is the proud owner of four pit bulls that he calls “big babies” and “lap dogs,” is going to do his part to try to save more of the much-maligned breed that routinely crowds Sacramento’s animal shelters.

It begins at Friday night’s game against the Lakers at Sleep Train Arena, where Cousins is promoting adoption of animals at the city’s Front Street shelter. He is donating a signed jersey, which will be raffled off at the game, and singing the praises of a breed of dog that he has owned since he was a child.

“They’re the only dogs I really cared for. I grew up loving them,” he said.

Such celebrity endorsements can make a big difference for Sacramento’s animal shelters, where on any given day as many as 70 percent of the dogs are pit bulls or pit bull mixes, said city shelter manager Gina Knepp. The breed’s reputation for viciousness and fighting makes the task of finding them new homes difficult at best, said Knepp and others.

“DeMarcus could really help increase adoptions, not only for pit bulls but for all of our dogs and cats,” said Knepp. “Plus, he’s got a lot of expendable income. Maybe he’ll give us some of it!”

Cousins, 23, who recently signed a four-year, $62million contract with the Kings, has made no long-term commitment to a campaign for the shelter, he said. He got involved with the Friday promotion after reading a supportive tweet from Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Athletes and pit bulls hardly are strangers to one another. NFL quarterback Michael Vick did prison time for staging dog fights. More recently, pit bull mixes owned by Oakland Raiders cornerback Taiwan Jones reportedly killed a pet chihuahua taking a walk with its owner, and a pit bull owned by another NFL player, Plaxico Burris, allegedly attacked a woman who said she suffered serious injuries.

After his release from prison, Vick campaigned against dogfighting, and he has promoted animal welfare programs for the Humane Society of the United States.

Former Sacramento Kings player Ron Artest, who legally changed his name to Metta World Peace in 2011, helped the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals promote its spay and neuter programs after he was accused in 2007 of neglecting his dogs and allowing them to run free.

“He was very supportive of our programs,” said executive director Rick Johnson. “He donated money, and brought lots of attention to the issue. He is a member of the SPCA to this day.”

By attaching his name to the city shelter’s promotion and sharing photos of himself romping with his dogs, Cousins could do something similar for the Front Street shelter and pit bulls, Johnson said.

At the very least, said Knepp, it could be a small step toward reforming the breed’s reputation.

Pit bulls were bred as fighters, according to the American SPCA, and have a documented history of attacks on canines and humans. According to a website that tracks the issue, pit bulls and Rottweilers account for the vast majority of serious injuries and deaths from dog bites across the country.

Yet despite their powerful jaws and muscular bodies, pit bulls can make excellent pets for people who are willing to train and manage them, shelter officials said.

Shelters in the Sacramento area test all dogs, including pit bulls, for temperament and behavioral issues before placing them up for adoption, said Johnson. “We see how they react to other dogs, to people, to food,” he said. “We would never put up a dog that is fighting with other dogs in the kennel. The dogs we put up are outstanding dogs of that breed.

“The biggest problem with pit bulls is that there are just too many of them,” he said.

Pit bulls tend to have litters of 10 to 16 puppies, said Johnson. When the puppies reach a year old or so, “often they are just too powerful, just too much for most people to handle. We tell people that they have to be very attentive to providing direction and training to these big terriers, and we stress spaying and neutering.”

Cousins said he bought his four dogs – Sosa, Gotti, Capone and Blu – from breeders and trained them with a gentle hand. When he walks his pets in his neighborhood east of Sacramento, he said, people tend to be wary at first.

“The first question is, ‘Does he bite?’” said Cousins. “But that is not an issue with my dogs. My dogs can interact with anybody. Pit bulls are strong dogs, and they do have an aggressive nature. But they are what they are trained to be.”

Apparently some pit bulls, like some towering basketball giants, can make stellar companions.

“I would tell people to just give these dogs a chance,” Cousins said. “Don’t just go off their reputation, because it’s not fair.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Dec. 4 to correct DeMarcus Cousins’ dog’s name from Dottie to Gotti.

To purchase tickets for the Front Street shelter promotion at Friday night’s King’s game, go online to www.kingsgrouptickets.com/FrontStreet.