Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why not trust a pit bull?

This is an account from about 20 years ago. At the time, the pit bull problem was not as serious as it is now, but the problem's trajectory, so to speak, was visible to those who were paying attention even then. Developments of recent years have underscored the problem, but as this account shows, the nature of the pit bull, formed over hundreds of years of deliberate breeding for merciless violence, was exactly the same then as it is now.

A dog, a pit bull terrier, allegedly killed his female master on September 3, 1992, in Cleveland. There were 180 bite marks on the dead woman's body, according to the Cuyahoga County coroner. I read that news story and revisited the horror my family experienced on Christmas Eve, 1989.

We had a pit bull. He was all white. I named him Chester, after Chester Avenue in Cleveland, where I found him in the middle of the busy street, trapped amid traffic. I could not just drive by. I stopped to shoo him off the roadway. Instead of running off, he got to the tree lawn and rolled over by a belly-rub. He had me by the heartstrings. I took him to a veterinarian for a checkup and neutering that very day.

Chester was not yet one year old, but he was big and well-muscled. He was friendly even with strangers. He spent most of his time in a fenced area with another dog I had taken in, and things went smoothly throughout that fall. When the temperatures turned cold, I brought the two dogs into the heated, finished basement of our country home.

On many occasions I let Chester sleep with my youngest daughter. (She was only three.) Chester was also allowed to mingle with my assorted formerly stray cats, and a rabbit who ran loose in the house. He never paid any attention to the other animals, but he loved the attention he got from my three daughters.

My husband always had reservations about Chester because of his breed. I, on the other hand, got used to the idea of having a pit bull, and I trusted that nothing bad would happen. After all, we were not encouraging aggressiveness. We never roughhoused with Chester. We didn't want a guard dog, and we kept a close eye on him when he was with the children.

I, an animal health technician, former zookeeper, and animal activist, believed that Chester would not be one of those vicious dogs you read about in newspaper headlines. I was wrong.

On Christmas Eve, after a family gift-opening get-together, we returned to our home. My husband was the first to enter the house. I was sleeping in the car when he shook me into reality. "Donna," he said, "it's awful. I wish I could hide this from you. I can't. Come in."

What awaited me in the house was a scene from a horror movie. Chester, greeting me in the kitchen, had long red scratches all over his face. There were streaks of blood here and there on the carpeting throughout the house. The French doors between the basement steps and the living room had been forced open. and there were dead bodies everywhere.

My rabbit was dead on my bed. One cat lay dead in the basement, another under my dresser. Two cats, locked safely in a bedroom, were unscathed. One cat survived atop the refrigerator, but a claw had been ripped from his paw. The fourth survivor was huddled on the top bunk in my daughter's bedroom, wild-eyed and quivering. It took him weeks to return to normal behavior.

My husband reluctantly shot Chester. We then went about placing presents under the tree and stuffing stockings. It was a grim Christmas morning as I watched the sun rise through tears, and I hugged my daughters a little harder that day.

Donna Robb

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1993

[Donna Robb, now a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is a vet tech who was formerly an elephant keeper at the Cleveland MetroPark Zoo.]

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A sad place for a pit bull

The Animal People organization have been working for animal rights for decades, and have been documenting their efforts along the way, and as a result, their archives are filled with relevant data. We recently came across some accounts published in the Animal People News nearly 20 years ago that we find quite relevant today. Here is one of those accounts

We had Nikki euthanized this morning. She was a purebred pit bull terrier, rescued from an animal collector here in southwest Michigan. When we responded to the call from Children's Protective Services, who had gone to the home for other reasons, we found Nikki chained to a doghouse. The chain was bolted to her collar. It was the dead of August, and Nikki had been without food or water for who knows how long. She lay in the dirt, barely moving. We were able to convince the collector that her dog was days away from death, and she finally consented to let us take her.

At our veterinarian's clinic we took photographs, in case we were able to pursue cruelty charges against the collector. Nikki was grossly underweight at 25 pounds, and was full of worms, fleas, and mange. Her age was estimated as two years. When her heartworm test came back negative, we determined that she was salvageable. I took her on as a foster project, and watched this pitiful wreck of a creature bloom into a healthy, handsome dog. It took weeks. We kept her indoors, though she was smelly and crusty from the manage. She learned about living in a home, and reveled in the constant affection she got from my husband, myself, and our two boys. Though Jon and I had been battling in court about the five dogs we already had, two more than the city limit, we grew attached to Nikki. That she was a pit bull made finding her a proper home more difficult. Most people who would adopt such a dog had no business having one at all. We intensified our search for a place in the country.

We moved to our 9-acre farm early in the fall. By now Nikki was a spayed, healthy, 60-pound success story. She and the other dogs spent leisurely afternoons with the family, walking the pastures and woods on our farm. Nikki loved to dig after the pasture critters, though she never caught any. She'd come up for air after five solid minutes of burrowing, her white face and head caked with earth, tongue lolling out, smiling a joyous, dirt-filled smile. Our other dogs, a Dane, a greyhound, and three mixed breeds, would race through the pastures, chasing and teasing. Nikki, with her great bulk, could not join them. She'd get up to a slight run, then somersault over her own feet. So she mostly tagged along with Jon and I, dashing away from us now and again to dig another hole.

In the house she was a dream dog. Perfectly housebroken, perfectly crate-trained, clean, submissive, and gentle, Nikki dispelled our image of the raging, murderous pit bill. All those pit bulls who turned on their families, well, those people must have done something to make it happen. Our Nikki was just a lover and a cuddler. Other than normal playing and sleeping with the dogs, Nikki seemed indifferent to our other animals. Then, late in the fall, a potbellied pig came to us for foster care. After the initial pig-dog introductions, we saw that there was a potential problem between Nikki and Petunia. Nikki was over-excited by the pig, chasing and biting at her in a way that was not just playful. Petunia brought out a side of Nikki that we had not seen before, and we were concerned. We decided that the two animals would never be exposed to one another.

This worked for about a month. Then, late for work one evening, I rushed out without telling Jon that Petunia was unpenned. He called me at work an hour later to tell me that he let Nikki out and she attacked Petunia, mauling her face and head. I came home at midnight to find Petunia still bleeding and frightened. Traumatized and plagued with guilt, we immediately found Petunia another home.

That dog should be destroyed, our vet said. On the most reasonable level, we knew he was probably right. But we we weren't operating from that level. Jon and I rationalized the incident. Nikki lived next to a pig farm when she was with the collector. On the day of her rescue we witnessed several other dogs fighting over the remains of a pig who had been slaughtered that morning.

They probably had to kill pigs to survive, we protested. We kept Nikki, vowing to watch her every move.


In December a pit bull mix named Mac came for foster care. Because he was heartworm-positive and a pit bull, we knew he would be a longterm project. We started his heartworm treatment and integrated him into the family. Things were uneventful for the first month. He fit into the routine easily, getting along with everyone but the cats and one unneutered male dog who stopped at our home on his way to another foster home. Otherwise Mac did not worry us. Then one evening Mac and Nikki were playing in their typical vigorous fashion, and suddenly both turned on Enzo, our Labrador mix, who was sitting nearby. Within seconds Mac s jaws were clamped on Enzo s hind leg while Nikki s were locked at his throat. The sounds of the fight were terrifying, and as Jon and I rushed to separate the dogs, I lost my footing and fell. Mac bit hard on my ankle and I screamed until Jon was able to shake him off. Jon had Mac by the collar; I grabbed Nikki s collar. We had to twist and yank with all our strength to get the pit bulls of Enzo. When we did, Enzo crawled into the corner, injured and whimpering and terrified. His leg was hurt and there were deep puncture wounds to his throat, but there was nothing that required stitches. My leg throbbed from Mac s bite, but that bite too consisted of deep puncture wounds that could not be stitched. Mac was put outside and Nikki went to her crate. Because Mac bit me, he was unadoptable by Rescue standards, and he was euthanized the next morning.

Jon and I were forced to re-evaluate our beloved Nikki. We had to face that she was a pit bull, and had the potential to act every bit like those we d read about in the papers. I spent the next day on the telephone, seeking the advice of professional dog trainers and animal behaviorists. In essence, I was told that with pit bulls and other dogs bred for aggressiveness, one blood bite would usually precipitate others. Indeed, Nikki was temporarily preoccupied with Enzo, sniffing the door to the porch where he stayed and attempting to attack him again when we went to reacquaint them several days later. We had a trainer come to our home to evaluate Nikki and her capacity for further aggression. He suggested obedience training and trying to desensitize Nikki by having her see Enzo from a distance, then gradually bring the two dogs closer together. He explained that even with training, there would be no guarantees, and he reiterated his point that dogs who have bitten are likely to bite again. My husband and I, clinging to the slight possibility that this was an isolated incident, vowed to keep Enzo and Nikki totally separate. Nikki would become a full time house dog.

Within a few days we had developed a workable system to keep the dogs away from one another. We felt that it must have been Enzo s timid, ultra-submissive personality that caused Nikki and Mac to go after him the way they did. Nikki was second highest in the pack order of our household, the uncontested alpha dog being Rita, our five-year-old greyhound. Enzo had always been at the bottom of the hierarchy. We had never seen anything between Nikki and Rita that concerned us. The two dogs co-existed peacefully, and even played sometimes, with Nikki consistently adopting a submissive posture in the games.

Jon and I watched Nikki with eyes in the backs of our heads. She ate completely by herself, and went out in the fenced yard on a cable, just in case. She was kept from Enzo, and she was crated whenever there was not an adult available to supervise her. She lost her couch privileges, since we didn't want to encourage any illusions of dominance she held. If she and Rita s play got a little too rowdy, Nikki went to her crate to calm down. We bent over backward to safely accommodate our dog. Despite this, we saw her getting worse. Within one week, Nikki broke out two windows when she saw cats outside. When she was out on her cable and saw cats, she would nearly choke herself trying to get at them. We watched, tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It was a matter of weeks before it did. My mother came for a visit. Because of deep snow, I had to move my car into the driveway. I was on my way back in when she ran to the door, screaming my name. Rushing in, I could hear the dogfight. I ran to the dining room and grabbed Nikki s collar, and tried to unclench her jaws from Rita s throat. It took several seconds for me to twist and pull her away. I immediately crated Nikki, who continued to snarl and bark at Rita from the crate. Examining Rita, I was amazed and grateful to find her uninjured.

I knew then that our time with Nikki was over. What we had dreaded most was now the only option. While we had never seen Nikki act aggressively toward any person, her behavior toward other animals was likely to result in their death. Doing the rescue and sheltering work we do, there are always other animals around. We could no longer jeopardized their safety. We spent the evening grieving.

Readers of this story might ask, God! What took you so long to put that dog to sleep? It s a valid question. Within the Rescue, we've euthanized dogs who behaved less aggressively than Nikki, and I've advised many people to euthanize their unpredictable or aggressive dogs. All I can say is that we loved her deeply. The pit bull aspect of her personality, while terribly frightening, seemed minuscule compared to the dozens of endearing things about her. People who weren't dog people loved Nikki. When people came to adopt our foster dogs, they were taken aback by Nikki s friendliness and silly antics, and often asked if they could adopt her instead. Family members who had long since stopped trying to keep track of our pets asked about Nikki regularly. When we had her before and after pictures on a Rescue donation jar, she gained fans we've yet to meet. Truthfully, Nikki was adored by everyone who knew her, and even by some who didn't know her. The goofy, smiling, happy, friendly Nikki was the one we couldn't put to sleep. Watching the pit bull take her over was like watching a loved one succumb to mental illness. We denied what was happening until we just couldn't any longer.


In the days since Nikki's death, I find myself moving between grief and anger. Grief dominates when I think I hear her barking, or when the boys, out of habit, call to her to come snuggle with them while they watch TV. My most tearful time so far was when I moved her crate out of the living room. I gathered her blankets and buried my face in them, breathing her sweet, clean smell, and my chest just ached. The anger is much easier to deal with. In sadness, I want to be left alone to cry for hours. In anger, I curse the twisted idiots who breed these lovable time bombs. I think of pit bulls who have killed people; killed children. I pity the animal lovers who, like me, feel compelled to give a pit bull the benefit of the doubt. The pain we've earned in so doing defies description. I am aware of several other instances, some within the Rescue, of other pit bulls killing or injuring animals or people. Sorrow and regret seem almost inevitable when we're talking about this breed. I myself vow never to take on a pit bull again. Should I find one crossing the highway, of course I ll stop and try to get him, or her. And if I succeed, straight to Animal Control is where I ll go. Better for me to euthanize the dog immediately and forever question myself, than to take such a dog in, grow to cherish him or her, and then face what we faced with Nikki.

I harbor no anger or blame toward Nikki. She was as much a victim as her own victims were. My regret is that I thought she was different, that she was incapable of the violence her breed is known for. Or maybe I thought we were different, that if we just gave her enough love, enough discipline, enough something, that love would override her pit bull instincts. It hurts to admit we were wrong. It hurts to think that because we took in this animal, our other animals lives were threatened. I have yet to admit to myself or to anyone else that our children could have been in danger.

I know now that pit bulls have their reputation for a reason. Fear of the breed is not unjustified. And while rescuers will be rescuers, I personally will advise my fellow animal people not to try rehabilitating pit bulls. Your chances of success are too slim, while your chances of bringing tragedy upon yourself, your children, and your other animals are too high. As unpopular as my position might be with my peers, I believe that a peaceful death is the best we can offer pit bulls.

Nikki's ashes were scattered at the Special Place, a serene wooded valley at the back of our property. It is easy to visualize her there, digging and playing and just being the goofy dog she was. Nikki loved the Special Place, and she makes the valley even more Special by being there.

Shannon Lentz
Founder and Director, Kalamazoo Animal Rescue
(Now founder/director of Grateful Acres Animal Sanctuary.

(From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1994.)