UKC Pit Bulls mated on "rape rack" in North Carolina. Current breeder web site picture.
There's no money and no glory in writing about the
numbing numbers behind animal shelter deaths
Merritt Clifton writes for a publication called Animal People.
I do not know Merritt Clifton, but I like him.
For starts he didn't show up yesterday. He's been standing for dogs and cats for more than 30 years. In my book that counts for something.
An instant expert? No, thank God.
Merritt Clifton is not in it for the money or the glory. There's no money and no glory in writing about the numbing numbers behind animal shelter deaths and the direct mail organizations that are working to raise money, ostensibly on their behalf.
So why does Clifton do it? Why does he spend the long hours and suffer all the abuse from those who find his data... inconvenient?
Well, perhaps because he thinks the data is important.
If you truly believe animal welfare is important, then it's important to make sure donations are not wasted.
If your goal really is to minimize shelter dog and cat death, then you want to know how many animals are in shelters, how they got there, who they are, and where they go in the end.
So Clifton has toiled away for decades doing the dog work (pun intended) of actually collecting the data.
If you want know how rare that is, consider this: I have challenged the Pit Bull community to document the non-molosser breed fatalities and show where Pit Bull types (aka butcher's dogs) do not ALWAYS come out on top. No takers there, even though the data is really not that hard to find (here you go) and has already been assembled by others. Instead, the Pit Bull community closes its eyes, puts its fingers in its collective ears, and chants like small children who do not want to hear bad news.
There's another reason I like Clifton; he has had to make peace with counting the uncountable. I too have spent three decades doing the same thing, first working with massive population and immigration data sets, and then with data on alcohol and drug abuse in the U.S., and now with various kinds of fraud.
People who want to do nothing will often punt back to "bad data" arguments, saying that since we don't know exactly how many illegal aliens there are, or how much cocaine is coming in, or how much fraud is costing us, or what the base line was 30 years ago, we should do nothing. Let's study the problem some more -- a little more paralysis from analysis, please!
But, of course, you do not have to have exact numbers to move on policy, do you? You just have to agree that there is a problem, and that things are getting worse.
Is there any doubt about that when it comes to Pit Bulls?
Clifton Merritt, unlike most of his critics, has worked with shelter data for a long time, and as an consequence he is as familiar with the data sets as a farmer is with his soil.
When you have been handling a data set for a long time, you no longer pay too much attention to the individual numbers. Instead, like a musician glancing over sheet music, you see the flow, the cadence, and the tone. You hear the music.
So what is the melody Merritt Clifton hears these days?
It is not all bad.
Clifton writes in the October issue of Animal People:
[T]he past 25 years have produced unprecedented improvement in the human relationship with dogs, especially here in the United States...
A dog who was impounded or surrendered to a shelter 25 years ago had just a 10% chance of being rehomed. Dogs in shelters today have about a 60% chance of being rehomed -- unless they happen to be pit bull terriers or close mixes of pit bull, whose sterilization rate is still barely 25%.
Only 3.3% of the dogs advertised for sale online are pit bulls, implying that only about 3.3% of all the dogs sold are pit bulls. Yet more than 16% of the dogs adopted from animal shelters since 2007 have been pit bulls, meaning that shelters are persuading adopters to choose pit bulls at about five times the rate that dog purchasers choose to buy pit bulls when they buy dogs from breeders.
Despite that extraordinary rate of success in pit bull placement, however, about 75% of the pit bulls and pit mixes arriving at shelters are killed, either due to dangerous behavior or simply because shelters are receiving pit bulls in ever-escalating volume. Each year from a third to 45% of the total U.S. pit bull population enters an animal shelter, a phenomenon never seen with any other dog breed....
Impoundments of fighting dogs and impoundments of neglected pit bulls both soared after the April 2007 arrest of football player Michael Vick in connection with dogfighting. Twenty-six percent of the dogs entering U.S. shelters were pit bulls. Yet, for the first time in at least 20 years, the numbers of pit bulls killed in shelters actually dropped. The Best Friends Animal Society, already opposed to breed-specific legislation, ramped up efforts to block breed-specific laws, and redoubled promotion of pit bull adoptions. The American Humane Association also became active in opposition to breed-specific legislation.
The publicity boost from the Vick case and the investment of Best Friends et al in saving pit bulls appeared to pay off, for a time, as the numbers of pit bulls killed in U.S. animal shelters fell from 920,000 in 2007 to 825,000 in 2008 and 810,000 in 2009. But the U.S. economy turned bad in 2008, causing more people to surrender pets to shelters, more people to neglect pets, and more people to try to earn a few dollars through backyard breeding. Meanwhile, the vigorous pit bull promotion appeared to hit inherent limits on just how many dogs of any one type can be adopted out. Even if every pit bull had the positive qualities of Lassie, and no problematic behavior, there are only so many people who want big dogs.
Even the Los Angeles Department of Animal Services, which appears to rehome more pit bulls than any other agency in the U.S., kills about 40% of pit bull intake, and has reported increasing pit bull intake since 2008. More pit bulls have been rehomed in recent years than ever before, but as most of the U.S. still has no effective brake on pit bull breeding, pit bulls in 2010 rose to 29% of shelter dog admissions and 60% of shelter dog killing.
The 2010 U.S. shelter pit bull toll of 930,300 was the second highest yet.
The bottom line: We are NOT going to be be able to adopt our way out of this Pit Bull mess. It's like trying to drain a swimming pool with a Dixie Cup, even as the garden hose pumps in more water.
So what to do?
Clifton says, that with the massive numbers of Pit Bulls in the U.S. today, in order to achieve a balance between demand and supply, we would need to see a 90 percent Pit Bull sterilization rate.
That may sound like a phenomenally high number, but 70 percent of other dog breeds are sterilized right now. A 90 percent sterilization rate for a single generation of Pit Bulls might actually be possible were Pit Bull owners normal people.
But they aren't.
Pit Bull owners are more likely to be criminal, young, and ignorant than the average dog owner.
Clifton is too nice a fellow to say it that way, but Pit Bull owners themselves say it, don't they?
Isn't that the subtext of the Pit Bull apologists refrain that, "it's not the dog, but the owner"?
But actually it's the dog and the owner. Put amped-up canine genetics together with sub-par human intelligence, and sprinkle denial over all of it, and you get America's Pit Bull mess.
Or, as Clifton puts it:
The central behavioral issue involving pit bulls is not a matter of "nature versus nurture," but rather a matter of inherently problematic dogs being acquired by inherently problematic people, who then keep and train the dogs in a manner that multiplies the risk factors.
But what to do?
Clifton suggests one small step in the right direction would be to stop glamorizing Pit Bulls in ads and start treating them like any other overly-promoted breed.
When Budweiser featured a Bull terrier as part of its "Spuds McKenzie" ad campaign, there was a great deal of tut-tutting by the shelter and pet community all around. Oh. My. God. Now everyone will run out and get a bull terrier like they did with German Shepherds (Rin Tin Tin), Collies (Lassie), Saint Bernards (Beethoven), and Dogue de Bordeaux (Turner and Hooch).
Stop treating dogs as cartoon characters in ad campaigns screamed the pet community!
When Disney featured Dalmatians in the live-action re-make of 101-Dalmatians, the shelter and pet community went nuts for spotlighting this cute and dramatically photogenic breed. The movie would predictably lead to over-breeding, abandonment, and the death of thousands of dogs, they said. And they were right.
When Taco Bell featured a Chihuahua in their commercials, they too got beaten up for helping foster the subsequent Chihuahua explosion.
So what happens when the dog is a Pit Bull?
Suddenly the rules change. Every commercial and movie that has a lovable Pit Bull in it is celebrated. Ditto for every Pit Bull featured in a television show or YouTube video, no matter how ridiculous the premise or the message.
Of course, ending the glamorization of Pit Bulls as "nanny dogs" and "pibbles" and "pet bulls" will not change the game. We are too deep in the mud for that.
Changing social cues might be able to prevent a very small problem from escalating, but it's not going to put out a raging fire like we have with the American Pit Bull.
And so Merritt Clifton has, very reluctantly, come to the same place I did a few years back. While generally skeptical of mandatory spay-neuter, he says we may have to impose a "pit bull exception" to break the back of commercial breeders and get-rich-quick backyard entrepreneurs.
Is Clifton embracing an across-the-board ban on breeding?
He is not. Instead, he suggests a more modest and targeted response: making it illegal to advertise or sell Pit Bulls for money. He writes in the October issue of Animal People:
[A]ctive enforcement of breed-specific legislation would be most effective if enforcement is triggered by evidence of breeding, sale, or other exchange. The act of offering animals for sale constitutes an admission both that the animals belong to the would-be seller and that they are not considered members of the family.
In short, Clifton is suggesting treating Pit Bulls a bit like some would have federal and state governments treat marijuana. You want to grow your own? No problem. You can even grow a little weed for your friends. But if you sell dope, advertise dope, or trade dope, you are going to get busted. A right to own, and even a right to breed, but not a right to sell.
Of course some will say that criminal Pit Bull dog fighters will simply ignore the law. Yep. But so what?
You see, most Pit Bulls are not being bred by criminal dog fighters; they are being bred by young get-rich-quick idiots who think cranking out two or three litters a year might be a good way to make their rent and beer money.
Make it impossible for them to advertise or sell dogs without attracting police attention, and a new calculation will be made.
Of course, some will turn around and say it is impossible to know which dogs are Pit Bulls, and so how can breeding them for sale be made illegal?
If the dog looks like a Pit Bull and is not registered as another breed by the AKC, it's a Pit Bull. Lets stop hiding behind semantics and remember that the heat is not going to be vested on the dog, but on the human who decided to breed another litter of common-as-dirt large molosser dogs for cash. Punish the deed not the breed? Damn right!
Remove the money from the equation, and let's see if things change. Clifton thinks it will, and I think he may be right.
We know denormalization campaigns work. They have worked for cigarettes, and they have worked for drunk driving. If we went one step further, however, and required people who wanted to smoke cigarettes and drink wine to grow and bottle their own, you can be sure use and abuse numbers would plummet even further.
What would the world look like if we banned the commercial sale and advertising of Pit Bulls?
You could still own the dog.
You could still acquire the dog.
The only thing that would change is that all those backyard breeders and "hump and dump" commercial kennels would have to find a new line of work.
And who would benefit? Not Merritt Clifton. Not me. Not you.
Nope, the beneficiaries would be about a million Pit Bulls a year that are now killed and shoved into land fills. A lot of those dogs would not be born, and lot more of the others would end up getting adopted. How great would that be?
* * *
A Final Note: Merritt Clifton and I do not have much in common. He is a bunny hugger and I am a hunter. He is a vegetarian, and I am a ready apologist for commercial chicken farms. It's pretty clear to me that we have come to dramatically different conclusions on a lot of things, and I am OK with that. You see, though Clifton and I may disagree on some fundamental issues, I think Clifton cares a great deal about reducing shelter animal death in general, and Pit Bull deaths in particular. I do not question his integrity; instead I give a solid hat tip to it. I do not fear his vegetarianism any more than I fear "catching gay." I suspect he thinks deer hunters are barbarians and I know he thinks my own form of hunting is beyond the pale. I am OK with that too. Who knew truth to suffer in a free and open debate? I am pretty sure deer hunting, Kentucky Fried chicken, and hunting with dogs is here to stay. I have no fear to sell, and I am not scared of animal rights folks. Not in the least. That said, I am interested in building a few bridges if it will help the dogs.
So what's my point?
My point is that if you are looking for an animal charity to support, "Animal People" is a pretty low-cost expense.
This is a tiny little outfit that, working with a few true believers, has managed to leverage a very small amount of money to help shape a better understanding of what is going on in the world of shelter dogs and cats. Not everything they produce is smooth or slick. These folks have production standards about as rough as the old Mother Earth News, but I consider that a mark of integrity. If you want to piss your money down a rat hole in exchange for glossy pictures of a guy in an expensive suit and a good haircut, go ahead and give to the Humane Society of the United States. If you want to help at the local level, give to your local No Kill shelter. But if you want to stand for animals and influence the national debate, consider subscribing to Animal People. You do not have to agree with all their goals. I do not. That said, these folks are not fly-by-night publicity whores like PeTA, nor are they purveyors of forest-killing direct mail campaigns in which 75 cents out of every dollar goes to fund more direct mail, like HSUS. No, these folks are true believers, and they have quietly stood for shelter dogs and cats for a hell of a long time. There is a principled asceticism to their actions and so, as odd as it may sound, I encourage everyone to click and treat.
|We are not going to adopt our way out of this mess, and we cannot continue to fiddle.|
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