When is a pit bull not a pit bull?
While there’s an old one hanging on my wall, and while I served as a juror once, I have little to say these days about Pulitzer Prizes.
The Pawlitzer Prizes are another matter, though, and, since they don’t really exist, I hereby bestow one on the Toledo Blade.
The newspaper’s report Sunday, asking and answering the question of how many dogs are put down at the local shelter under the mistaken belief they are pit bulls, is the kind of probing, hard-hitting doggie journalism we need more of — as opposed to celebrity dogs, costumed dogs, ugly dogs and cute dogs.
(It’s also the kind of journalism we need more of, in these times of fading newspapers and diminishing depth.)
The story raises some serious questions about how many supposed pit bulls have been and are being euthanized at the Lucas County Animal Shelter, where the decision of who’s a pit bull — as at most shelters — is based on an educated guess, or often an uneducated one, reached solely on the basis of looks.
The story shows that looks can be deceiving.
Written by Tanya Irwin, it’s a piece that should be required reading at every animal shelter. It starts like this:
Lucas is lucky to be alive.
The dog, owned by Laurie and George Hughes of Rossford, was one of the first “pit bull” puppies spared by the Lucas County dog warden in January, 2010, after the county commissioners changed a long-standing policy under which all “pit bulls,” no matter their age or temperament, were automatically destroyed.
The irony is that Lucas, who was transferred to the Toledo Area Humane Society, isn’t a “pit bull.”
As the story points out, recent changes in local and state law mean dogs designated as pit bulls will no longer get an automatic death sentence when they arrive at a county shelter. In practice, though, and somewhat less automatically, they still are often euthanized, due to factors like an overabundance of their kind at shelters.
The newspaper conducted DNA tests on six dogs that were originally labeled as pit bulls by the Lucas County dog warden. Using the Mars Veterinary Wisdom Panel Insights DNA test, it determined only one was predominantly American Staffordshire terrier and Staffordshire bull terrier. Two had some “pit,” and three of the dogs had no “pit bull” breed in them at all
“We really don’t care what breed he is, he’s a good dog and we love him,” said Hughes. “I think it’s awful what people say about ‘pit bulls’ or dogs that look like ‘pit bulls.’ It’s like racism, except against dogs.”
Two other dogs, despite their labels, were pit-free: Carly, who turned out to be an American bulldog -American Eskimo mix, and Bandit, whose breeds were boxer, Scottish terrier, Chinook, Doberman pinscher, black Russian terrier, Irish setter, Glen of Imaal terrier, and dogue de Bordeaux.
Based on factors like a large head or broad chest, dogs are being mislabeled as pit bulls – a subjective judgment that, in the case of Toledo and Lucas County, and many other jurisdictions, can determine whether a dog lives or dies. It often also determines, in communities across America, whether you can rent, the cost of your insurance, and even whether you’re allowed into town in the first place.
Then you have the “pit bull mix,” an equally dangerous designation, also used to unfairly ban, restrict or single out dogs. Is it based on having a majority of pit bull blood, a small percentage (as my dog does, according to our own experiences with DNA testing), or any at all? No. It’s also most often a guess, based on looks, that allows even more dogs to be discriminated against.
Former Lucas County Dog Warden Tom Skeldon, who departed the office amid complaints over its high kill rate and his insistence that all dogs he deemed pit bulls must be killed, said he never considered the DNA tests to be reliable, and therefore made no use of them.
Dr. Angela Hughes, a veterinarian and the veterinary genetics research manager at Mars Veterinary, told the newspaper that the reliability of the tests has increased over the past four years, and now stands at about 80 to 85 percent in the case of the cheek-swab tests.
That’s a far better record than many an animal shelter probably has. At most of them, classifying a dog’s breed is a guessing game. Dogs shouldn’t be put to death based on a guess. In Lucas County, the article notes, thousands may have been.
“It’s impossible to know how many dogs Mr. Skeldon killed claiming they were pit bulls when they weren’t, but based on the kill rate during his more than 20 years as warden, the fact that close to half the dogs at the pound traditionally have been labeled pit bulls, and the DNA tests The Blade performed, easily thousands of dogs could have been killed because they were mislabeled pit bull.”
The Lucas County dog warden’s office continues to euthanize perceived pit bulls because it is “at capacity for ‘pit bull-type’ dogs.” Dog Warden Julie Lyle told the newspaper that — despite Ohio having recently revamped a law that labeled all pit bulls dangerous – the shelter has yet to begin adopting out pit bulls.
The state’s new dangerous dog law, which brings an end to pit bulls being automatically designated as dangerous, goes into effect May 21. But even then, pit bulls, due to their numbers, will likely remain the type of dog most often euthanized.
Dr. Amy Marder, director for the Center for Shelter Dogs, has proposed that dogs adopted from shelters in the United States simply be identified as “American shelter dogs.”
The North Shore Animal League in New York has done away with the pit bull label, in part because it’s not actually a breed, anyway. Instead the league refers to dogs who have “the look” as terrier mixes.
Lucas County dog warden Lyle thinks that approach is deceptive.
“When people think of terriers, they think of small, cuddly dogs, not large dogs,” Lyle said.
She said that, unless a breed is mentioned by people surrendering a dog, she and her deputies designate what breed a dog is. Currently about 40 percent of the dogs the pound takes in are designated as pit bulls.
Lyle said she was not surprised that there were cases they had gotten wrong. Overall, she said, she thinks she and her staff have done a good job deciding who is a pit bull and who is not. She said she doesn’t see any reason for the pound to change how it identifies a dog’s breed.
I can think of three: Lucas, Carly and Bandit.
(Graphic from the Toledo Blade; photo by Lori King / Toledo Blade)
Posted by jwoestendiek March 20th, 2012 under Muttsblog.
Tags: american shelter dogs, american staffordshire terrier, animals, appearance, breed testing, breeds, bully, dangerous, dna, dna testing, dog, dog warden, dogs, euthanasia, euthanized, guessing, investigation, killed, labeled, looks, lucas county, mislabeled, mixes, mutts, pets, pit bull, pit bulls, pitbull, pitbulls, shelter dogs, shelters, staffordshire bull terrier, terriers, testing, toledo, toledo blade, warden, wrongly