The Pit Bull Paradox

The room houses two rows of ten cages each, placed back-to back in the center. Soothing piano music fills the air through speakers, drowned out by intermittent whining and barking when the dogs get restless.

Each cage at the Animal Care & Control center in East Harlem has a form taped to its front, that lists the dog’s name, color, breed and other details, as well as the date and place the dog was taken in. Some of them have little notes scribbled on the side — ‘Looks like she’s given birth a couple times’ or ‘Do not tether.’ A dog named Zira has a little sticker that says ‘stool sample taken,’ which is ironic because she’s deposited a stool sample on the floor of her enclosure.

One of the cages in the first row is empty, which means there are nine dogs in the row. Except for Frankel, who belongs to a French breed called a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen, all the others are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. The second row tells the same story: 10 cages, 10 dogs, 8 pit bulls.

Summer Dolder, the center’s customer care supervisor, confirms what is obvious at a glance: New York City, like many others, has too many pit bulls and not enough takers for them.

According to Animal Care & Control, an animal welfare agency, approximately 4,900 of the 10,900 dogs taken in by the organization’s shelters across the city in 2013 were pit bulls or pit mixes. In general, pit bulls comprise close to 40 percent of the city’s homeless dog population.

Pit bull overpopulation is something of a paradox, Dolder explains, saying that the breed is very popular but also plagued by misconceptions. “There’s a stereotype that they’re an aggressive breed, which is not true,” Dolder says.

Over the years, the image of pit bulls as an aggressive dog of prey has been instilled and perpetuated in the public consciousness. As an elaborate explainer by the ASPCA entitled ‘The Truth About Pit Bulls’ states that the pit bull’s “intimidating appearance has made him attractive to people looking for a macho status symbol, and this popularity has encouraged unscrupulous breeders to produce puppies without maintaining the pit bull’s typical good nature with people.”

The article goes on to explain that some owners encourage their dogs to behave aggressively to present a macho image.

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Both pit bull advocates and medical practitioners, however, say that it is unfair to paint the entire breed with the same brush.  “Any animal with the right training and care is not going to be that way,” says Dolder.

Dr. Ellen Singh of the Lower East Side Animal Hospital also says the stereotype is a myth. “Most of the time they [pit bulls] have wonderful personalities,” she says. She says that pit bulls are generally friendly towards humans, and although they do show aggression towards other dogs sometimes, the tendency to do so is not significantly higher than other breeds. The present-day American Pit Bull Terrier has its ancestral origins in England, from the original ‘bulldog.’ In fact, the name itself originated from the practice of bull baiting, where the dogs were pitted against bulls, bears and other large animals for sport. They were trained to bite the animal around the face and head, maintaining their grip until it collapsed due to lack of blood.

When baiting was outlawed in 1835, the handlers of these dogs resorted to making them fight each other, and thus dog-fighting was born. And with it came the ancestors of the modern-day pit bull, as people bred their bulldogs with black or tan terriers for lighter, more agile fighting dogs.

In the United States as well, a disproportionate majority of dogs bred for fighting are pit bulls, as this graph based on data from the AARDAS Project shows:

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However, Dolder says that the instances of dog fighting the animal welfare group comes across are few and far between, and the dogs often recover fully. There was only one major incident last May, when the NYPD broke up a dog-fighting ring in the city. Seven pit bulls were rescued and brought to Animal Care & Control as a result.

Even if there are willing adopters, breed-specific legislation by governing bodies like the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) place yet another hurdle between pit bulls and homes. The legislation explicitly mentions pit bulls, along with Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers, as prohibited breeds in public housing.  Moreover, Dolder explains, several landlords don’t allow pit bulls with or without the NYCHA policy, forcing owners to surrender their dogs for adoption.

The legislation isn’t an issue for Amber Dilisio, however. Dilisio, a 28-year old bartender, says the owner of her apartment in downtown Manhattan “would prefer if I didn’t, but he can’t say no.”

She walks around the room and stops in front of Barney, whose sheet has a note saying ‘Do not tether.’ “We got him as a puppy,” says the volunteer accompanying her. “He’s really cute, really playful.”

Dilisio says she’s thinking about it. “I’m nervous because I’ve never taken care of anyone else,”she says. She does like the fact that Barney doesn’t like to be on a leash, because she wants a dog that will follow her around wherever she goes.

The animal center is doing everything it can to ensure these dogs find homes through initiatives like the New Hope Program, a network of various agencies and organizations that work with Animal Care and Control to find foster homes for unwanted animals. All seven pit bulls brought in from the dog-fighting ring raid last year were placed with New Hope partners.

However, the unfortunate reality is that not all dogs are placed. Thirty-three percent of the 5,000-odd pit bulls Animal Care & Control  took in last year were euthanized, while 46 percent were placed in homes. The rest were returned to their owners.

Dolder says there is no specific time period within which an animal is euthanized at the shelters, and says it depends on the dog’s medical and behavioral situation. “We’ve had animals stay here for months at a time,” she says. However, they are euthanized if finding a home for them proves impossible.

Besides creating more avenues for adoption, various organizations are implementing special programs that are aimed at controlling the pit bull population. Pit bulls generally have large litters of about 6 to10 puppies. In fact, two of the dogs from last year’s fighting-ring raid were pregnant when the animal welfare agency took them in and gave birth soon after, raising the total count from the raid to 23 pit bulls.

The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) runs Operation Pit, which provides free spay and neuter services to pit bulls and pit mixes, along with free vaccinations and a micro-chip that allows them to be identified in case they get lost. In comparison, the organization charges $125 per dog, unless the owner can show proof of public assistance.

Jocelyn Kessler, director of operations for the ASPCA’s spay/neuter program, says the program came about because of the rising popularity and proliferation of pit bulls. Kessler estimates that pit bulls form about 40 to 50 percent of the stray homeless animal population. “In the past decade or two they’ve become a very popular breed, but they end up in the shelter a lot,” she says.

At The Toby Project, another organization providing spay/neuter services, pit bulls are neutered for free as well. Neutering a mixed-breed animal costs $50, while purebreds cost $250 to neuter. “We sterilize pit bulls to prevent them from getting more pups that no one wants,” says Nicole Rector of The Toby Project. “City shelters are highly populated, and animals are often euthanized.”

In spite of their bad reputation, Dilisio associates pit bulls with a happy memory. She was once at a friend’s house for a party, and was upset over a recent break-up. Her friend’s pit bull, she says, seemed to sense her mood. “It jumped on me, cuddled me and it felt awesome,” she says. “They’re great dogs.”

But she still hasn’t decided whether she’s going to take one home.

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