News

Pit bull problems

In the race for most maligned canine breed, pit bulls have emerged as the clear winner, each reported attack adding weight to what is becoming a morbidly obese albatross hung about the necks of the pooches.

Debates rage over how the specialty breed can one moment be seemingly playful and the next exhibit violent, suddenly lethal behavior. The dogs have polarized the nation with their erratic and headline-making assaults.

Whidbey Island is a microcosm where pit bulls have propagated at an alarming rate suggestive of spontaneous generation. Local animal shelters have become overrun with the dogs to the point of no longer accepting surrendered pit bulls.

THE SITUATION

Eleven of the 18 kennels at Whidbey Animals’ Improvement Foundation’s Oak Harbor facility currently house pit bulls. The nonprofit organization took over management of the shelter from the city in 2005 just as the pit bull situation was worsening.

“It’s continued to get worse,” said Shari Bibich, manager of the WAIF shelters.

Both the Oak Harbor and Coupeville shelters have seen an influx of pit bulls this year.

The sheer numbers of stray pits and pit bull mixes picked up has created a burden for the minimum-kill shelters. The Oak Harbor facility took in 29 pit bulls in 2006, 30 so far in 2007, and is now housing 11 of the animals.

“That doesn’t sound like a big number, but then you figure that many of these 29 spilled over into 2007,” Bibich said.

The Coupeville numbers are even worse. Forty-five pit bulls were picked up and brought to the shelter last year, with 27 in 2007. Seven of the dogs now reluctantly call the facility home.

THE CANINE ORPHANAGE

Two of the Coupeville pit bulls have been there for more than a year, the situation a telling example of WAIF’s difficult Catch-22. Very few people are adopting pit bulls because of the specialty breed’s blanket stigmatization and negative press. At the same time, not just anyone is deemed a suitable owner.

“We are very discerning,” Bibich said. “Owners don’t always understand. It’s in their breed to fight and that puts other animals at risk. In inappropriate or inexperienced homes they can be dangerous. That doesn’t mean they’re a bad dog, but people need to know what they’re adopting.”

Specific adoption guidelines at WAIF were drafted after Bibich witnessed firsthand the harm, both psychological and physical, that owners and people harboring unconditional hatred for the breed can inflict. A pit bull puppy adopted out ended up back at the shelter a short time later exhibiting strange behavior.

“His head was tilted to the side and he was spinning in circles,” the shelter manager said. “An X-ray showed that his brain was filled with buckshot. It broke my heart. I held Dan when we euthanized him. And I held him before when he was just a happy little puppy and loved everyone. I made a commitment right then to never put these animals in situations like that.”

The guidelines range from fencing requirements, to city restriction adherence, to age restrictions. Families with small children need not apply.

“We don’t know the background of the dogs,” Bibich said. “That doesn’t mean pit bulls aren’t good around kids, that just means we don’t know what their early life was like. You read too many stories. How many people say, ‘Oh, I never saw that coming.’”

Many of the injuries occur when humans attempt to intervene in a dogfight and enter the fray.

WAIF has been forced to stop accepting pit bulls that owners are unable to care for or no longer want.

“Until the situation on the island gets under control, we will no longer be taking any surrendered pit bulls to adopt out,” Bibich said.

When kennel stress becomes too much for the dogs, euthanasia is the only solution.

“We just had to euthanize Jockster, a long-term pit bull mix who was much beloved,” the shelter manager said with damp eyes. “He would have been here two years in October and time at the shelter just took its toll and we started seeing behavior concerns.”

THE CAUSE

Simple overpopulation is not the crux of the pit bull problem. Rabbits are ubiquitous in Island County. But rabbits are not heavily-muscled animals capable of disfiguring a child. In the past, Rottweilers were the media dog.

“We had some behavior concerns because of the popularity of the breed,” said Carol Barnes, Island County animal control officer. “Now it’s pit bulls. Owners are not realizing the propensity and tendencies of the breed, either because of how they were raised or because of lack of training or knowledge.”

Whether the problem lies with the breed’s predisposition, negligent owners, or simple neglect that places the dogs in a position to cause harm, could be debated ad infinitum. The physical makeup of the dog alone separates it from other breeds. In a pit bull’s case its bite is often worse than its bark.

“It’s not that they bite more often, but when they do it’s much worse. And we deal with people who really don’t think they have a problem,” said Terry Sampson, Oak Harbor animal control officer, of owners who treat pit bulls like other breeds.

The past year has seen a notable increase in pit bull attacks on other animals. And a continual flood of pit bull-related calls, part of which could be attributed to the breed’s reputation.

“They have shown aggression towards other animals,” Barnes said. “There have also been humans who have been bitten.”

A young military family with a small child purchased a 7-month-old pit bull puppy on the Internet. The experience turned into a nightmare.

“The dog was in Oak Harbor,” Barnes said. “A friend of their child just went up to pet the dog and it injured the child. The child was hospitalized with multiple bite marks on the nose.”

The burning question is whether the dogs can be blamed exclusively for the incidents. The large head and formidable jaws alone paint a target on the breed. In many cases, especially in Island County, owners are responsible for the bull’s eye. Over-breeding and inbreeding has not only produced a spike in the population, but a large group of aggressive dogs with genetic defects poised to make their own headlines.

“What you have are owners breeding these dogs who are deaf, they have entropia, and they are breeding litters with litters,” Bibich said. “So, you’re taking a specialty breed and you’re breeding out all the good qualities in them. That’s what I think is scary.”

The breed’s popularity, especially among young people using the dog solely as a status symbol, has only exacerbated the problem.

“They get them just for the mere fact of owning a pit bull,” Barnes said. “It could be an image they want to portray. They don’t have a knowledge of the breed and as a result of that, there’s usually a consequence with the dog.”

“They also buy them for the aggressive nature,” added Island County Undersheriff Kelly Mauck.

WAIF provides prospective pit bull owners information about the breed to help them properly grasp the dogs’ uniqueness.

“These are not off-leash dogs, period,” Bibich said. “For people getting these dogs, use common sense. Don’t buy them from a kid down on the corner.”

THE STEREOTYPE

The presence of pit bulls at residences adds a whole new element of danger for law enforcement officers responding to a call.

“It certainly alerts me more than other breeds,” said Island County Sheriff Mark Brown. “I know I’m not alone there.”

In March a deputy was attacked by a pit bull that came charging out of a house. Although the dog was likely protecting its territory, the man had no choice but to shoot the animal.

“He responded in the only way he could,” Brown said. “It’s a major concern to my officers responding to calls.”

The sheriff’s office uses an alert system in their Spillman system to identify the possibility of potentially vicious dogs prior to arriving at a scene.

“It’s a special alert system that can be used through I-COM,” Brown said. “It’s a valuable tool to have.

THE BACKLASH

The perceived danger of the breed and a history of violent behavior, coupled with the increasing numbers, prompted the city of Oak Harbor to impose breed-specific restrictions in 2006. Residents were, and continue to be, required to obtain a license to own American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, or any mix of the canine breeds.

“There’s no law against having a pit bull, but you must keep then in a certain way,” Sampson said. “The laws are made for people who break them, not for those who abide by them.”

Owners must keep the dogs in a proper enclosure, and muzzle the animal when outside of the enclosure. Additionally, pit bulls must be restrained by a “substantial chain or leash and under the physical control of a person over the age of 18 years who is of sufficient size and stature to restrain the animal.” An exemption from the restrictions is available if a dog has passed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen test.

Sampson said between 60 and 70 pit bulls are licensed in Oak Harbor. The numbers, however, are grossly understated.

“People tend to hide them,” he said. “Those numbers are not a good gauge of what’s out there. The problem owners are the ones not taking care of their animals.”

Oak Harbor is not alone in its implementation of regulations. Yakima and Auburn are among other Washington cities that also impose restrictions on pit bulls. In past litigation challenging municipal specialized breed restrictions, Sampson said the courts have historically upheld the ordinances.

Island County Code, although not breed-specific, stipulates that dogs not be allowed to wander or run at large.

“Our leash law is pretty black and white,” Barnes said.

Penalties for violating either the city or county restrictions can sting. In addition to canine impoundment, the misdemeanor can carry with it a fine of up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail for the city violation or up to $500 and/or 90 days in jail for the county violation.

THE OTHER SIDE

Pit bulls are a breed known for their intelligence and loyalty, the latter attribute unfortunately the source of some attacks. In the right hands, the dogs can be a wonderful companion, Bibich said.

“They have some of the best personalities,” she said. “You just love them. They’re fun, they’re athletic, they’re energetic. They just want to please you.”

The athleticism and energy have led to pit bulls escaping and running at large, not necessarily looking for a fight but a place to burn off some calories and maybe find a playmate. Both traits must be harnessed to keep the canines out of trouble.

Vicki Payne and her dog Cody are a success story. The two-year-old pit bull was surrendered when he was 7 months old. Payne, a WAIF volunteer, fell in love with the dog.

The only danger Cody represents is the potential for an untimely death by licking. But the owner is hyper-sensitive to the stigma attached to her dog’s appearance and the awkward situation it can create.

“I go out of my way to make sure people are comfortable with him,” she said. “Part of the key is letting people get to know the dog.”

Cody underwent extended obedience training, just as any breed should. Payne was careful not rush her dog and the outcome has been phenomenal.

“He loves everyone,” she said. “This breed is so people loving.”

At the same time, Payne can understand the trepidation felt by people meeting Cody for the first time.

“With all the horror stories you hear, I don’t blame them,” she said. “They’re very athletic, very strong dogs.”

A previous Rotteiler owner, Payne said Cody is even stronger than the other specialty breed.

“They don’t hold a candle to Cody,” she said with a laugh. “He’s a alittle 75-pound muscle ball.”

Bibich said Cody is a success story that could easily be written over and over again with different owners and their pit bulls.

“They are a great breed,” she said. “Unfortunately they are a victim of society.”

October is Adopt-a-Dog Month. In addition to the surplus of adoptable pit bulls and pit bull mixes, WAIF has plenty of wonderful dogs waiting to find good homes.

WAIF can be reached at 678-5816.

Community Events, April 2014

Add an Event
We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the latest Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Apr 16 edition online now. Browse the archives.