Friday, October 28, 2011

Punish the Deed... of Breeding Pit Bulls for Cash

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.



Richard Gilbert said...

Always love your stuff on pit bulls, which I have known, loved, despised, and feared, in turn.

Is there a thingy for an RSS feed option for your blog? I do get it by email but prefer to feed it into my iGoogle page.

PBurns said...

Glad someone is reading! THANKS!

And YES, there is an RSS feed -- it's listed at the top on the right colum on the blog right under email and home pages... But it's here >>

I have become a huge fan of Google Reader as it goes straight into my cell phone. I cna "star" what looks interesting for later reading, or read it on the go. Nice thing this Internets.


Brains, Bones and Behavior said...

I read you every day :)

Gina said...

I'm so glad you included a word about how to get Animal People, and I hope a ton of people subscribe. My subscription has lapsed, and I'm fixing that now.

Viatecio said...

In reading this, I wonder about the dogs that do have problems who are not owned by the young, ignorant subset.

I pose a similar question as I did to Heather's writing on the increasing problem of aggression in golden retrievers:

At what point do we blame bad TRAINING in addition to the problem of overbreeding and bad genetics?

Over the past 40 years, we have seen the introduction of techniques and tools that, while having some efficacy, simply do not give the results attained with the commonly-termed "balanced" training. I'm fully aware that the stereotypical pit bull owner will train their dog any way they damn well please, but the people with problem dogs who try their best with their wallets buried deep in the pockets of a trainer who does not believe in aversives...and the dog ends up doing damage, intentional or not?

The only saving grace is that, for a majority of pit bull owners that take such a route, they have probably already had the dog sterilized at the vet because that is the "responsible thing to do," which eliminates them from the set that decide to subsidize their rent/beer money with a few litters.

As the idea stands, MSN of pit bulls is a wonderful idea, but it still goes back to the idea of MSN and we all know how well that works to begin with.

Who gets the right to breed, or will we continue the mantra of "Until there are none," only with a specific type of dog instead of the entire species? Who would be allowed to have possession of that coveted 10%, and how would they be determined? I don't mind owning a sterile dog until someone gets on a soapbox about how testicles and tits are not normal and need removed STAT, which make me wish that my dog WAS intact so that I could honk them off by showing I'm a responsible owner with a well-trained and socialized bitch that would never be bred. I hate the holier-than-thou attitude taken by such people (it's BAD behind the scenes at veterinary clinics) that the dog is intact and the owner doesn't deserve to own it until it's reproductive organs are cut out. But strangely, I still agree with the idea of what is proposed here, mostly because it sounds like, as you state, the most plausible idea that will hopefully reduce the massive pit bull death count.

I guess my problem is that I believe too much in the idea of responsible ownership, instead of the charade into which it's been changed, which is unfortunately the new norm.

Moochies Mother said...

Roger that Pat. I have to say, I felt a false sense of security seeing the dumpster full of dogs that look just like the dogs my neighbor has that are only a prayer away from reaching human prey. I have had near misses and also seen other people attacked. I raised pits in the 70's and in eight years, every one of them eventually snapped, be it towards livestock, other dogs or people. I would have defended to the death that my dogs wouldn't do that because I trained them so well, loved them and gave them a rightous chance to prove they were like any other dog. Well, lots of dogs get into the chickens but the way a pit bull kills and maims and is always covered head to tail with blood after the deed is not like other dogs. I finally snapped and accepted the reality. And you are right about the weed analogy. In the last 30 years they have become exponentialy more potent, violent, gang related, dangerous, bad for your health, usually associated with young dopers or just plain dopes. My other neighbor just had 15 pups out of a Rotweiler mix. The baby daddy(s?)were australian shepard mix so not agressive watch dogs. Saying that, I caught a pack of 4 surrounding a horse against a barbwire fence and a fifth one actively flanking it, the horse holding its own. I didn't have a gun so I yelled and chased them off. If it were pits, the horse would be dead, they would be covered head to toe in blood. I would silently get out of there or I'd be the one being chased. You may remember the dogs in No Country for Old Men? I see those dogs every time I walk down a street. They are usually behind a flinky fence, just waiting for the window of opportunity to be all they can be. I support sterilization or euthanasia for any public menace , potential or other wise.

Moochies Mother said...

The death of Pit Bulls is not the problem. It's the birth.

Seahorse said...

Over the weekend I saw a re-run of a "Dog Whisperer" episode, and I have to say, I don't think Cesar Millan was very fair to a man on the program. The couple had a phobic dog, and the man, an insurance agent, parenthetically had a fear of pit bulls. He had reason; he saw the results of their mishandling every day in his job. He had a real concern that Cesar would bring Daddy along, and he didn't want to confront that possibility. It almost kept him from asking Cesar for help with his fearful dog.

Cesar surprised him by bringing Junior, and pressing the man to get over his fear of pit bulls. Now, I'm not a fan of pit bulls, but I would have no problem in the company of Cesar's personal dogs. But, that is NOT the real world and I felt Cesar played breed apologist and was off-course in this instance. The man, of course, felt pressured to nod and smile and ultimately say his mind had been changed about the breed. I don't think the real issues were confronted, the problems with the breed AND the people who "love" them. And, I felt that Cesar had done a disservice to the man and had blown off his reasons for fearing these dogs. Cesar's dogs are not "real world" pit bulls, IMO. They are not the ones running loose in the neighborhood.


PBurns said...

I did not see the episode, but I will make two observations...

The first is the Cesar Millan has absolutely embraced the "discrimination" frame when it comes to Pit Bulls. He says we treat them like illegal aliens and then he goes into a pro-open borders "We are the World" spiel about how Americans don't really want to work. I was in the room, when he spoke at National Geographic, and I heard it myself.

I am not sure he really knows what he is doing here (we are not always that self-aware), but without too much wind up, Millan is no longer talking about the real world of Pit Bulls where they prove to be TOO MUCH DOG for most people about 2,000,000 times a year. Suddenly we are back to HIS story and you cannot actually talk about the problem of nearly 1,000,000 dead Pit Bulls a year (another 1,000,000 find another owner) without it being an attack on him. Is the interest of the dog being served here? No. And I suspect Millan would admit it if he was challenged in a friendly way.

What is happening to Pit Bulls is NOT being done to them by people that hate them, but by people who love them. Rather than the story of discrimination (and if Cesar Millan's story is an example of how we discriminate against Mexican illegal aliens, please explain), Cesar's take on Pit Bulls is actually a recapitulation of what he sees every day; people holding dogs hostage as a way for them to help explain the world.

For Millan, Pit Bulls are a symbol of adversity and bad odds. He sees them as a challenge, and a problem to overcome that CAN be overcome.

OK, no problem. Full agreement.

But is the fact that a third of Pit owners fail, and take their dog to the pound to be killed, a sign of discrimination?

It is not.

It is a sign that the dog is being overbred by people who say they love them, oversold by people who say they love them, acquired in haste by people who say they love them, and then abandoned at leisure by all of these same people. That is NOT discrimination! It is something else.

--- More to follow ....

PBurns said...

OK, now to come back to the man with the fear of Pit Bulls. You use the world "phobia." A phobia is a strong irrational fear, bordering on panic, and YES the way you treat phobias is to put the person (or dog) in contact with whatever is making the person phobic, often slowly, so that their brain gets a chance to rewire itself and realize that the object is not going to klill them/fall out of the sky or whatever.

There is a HUGE difference between having a true phobia and simply being cautious. I have spent time in some pretty bad neighborhoods and never had a problem because I recognize that even in the worst neighborhood (South Central LA, East LA, for example), 95 percent of the people are just trying to make a living and are fine if you respect them. The other 5% are mostly fine if you respect them, and they are sober, and you do not look like you are an easy mark.

Notice the word RESPECT.

Respect means you do not presume friendship, but you do not presume hate or combat either. Respect is neither one -- it is a quite authority that nods to an equal authority. So you address people politely, without too much noise, assuming we are all just people and we are all fine and doing our own thing. You do not look like you are new here, or are out of control. You are not talking too much, but you are not unnaturally silent either. You are not overly friendly but you do not shrink in fear. You realize you are (at least visually) out of place and now in "their" world. But no problem so long as you have respect. This recipe works everywhere for all people, and it does for dogs too.

Now imagine you are clueless and "Valley girl friendly" in East LA or South Central. You are engaged in nonstop talk, you are loud, you are throwing your hair around and your purse, you are not dressed right, and you are generally signaling all over the place (not that you are even aware of it). You are going to look like a mark -- someone that can be pushed over -- and that will happen. By the same token, if you act terrified or phobic, you are also going to look weak AND you are going to be insulting. Nothing good can come from that.

--- More to follow...

PBurns said...

So what about this phobic man?

If he was indeed phobic, his phobia did not make him safer, but more prone to attack. He is sending the wrong vibe, same as if he was phobic of black and hispanic folks and was walking around South Central. While 95% of South Central is fine, the other 5% are subadults or are potted a quarter of the time, and ready for a fight, a robbery or whatever disorder that might happen and look fun. There's a lot of poor public intoxication and poor socialization in bad neighborhoods, and if you walk around phobic you are eventually going to attract the wrong element. You literally call the wolves in on your own position, which reinforces the phobia.

So was Millan working to get rid of this phobia a good thing?

Without a doubt.

But if his message was that Pit Bulls are always just like all other dogs (I doubt he said that), then that's simply not true.

And is the problem with Pit Bulls discrimination? Yes, it is "a" problem with Pit Bulls, but it is not THE problem with Pit Bulls.

Since Millan makes the analogy, let me say that the BIG problem with Pit Bulls is the same as the BIG problem with illegal aliens; there are simply too damn many of them.

People want a puppy, but they GET a full sized dog, just like they want a cheap worker, but they GET a human being with a family that needs schools, housing, and a place to hang out.

Both molosser dogs and foreign workers are harder to handle than we imagine, and that is especially true in bumpy times, so we tend to kick both to the curb. But we deport illegal aliens, and we KILL Pit Bulls. A slightly different outcome. But do we hate Mexicans and Pit Bulls? Nope, We just fail to understand, until it is too late, that "free puppy" and "cheap labor" are oxymorons. Both can easily become expensive and problematic, which is why we need to go slow, put adults in charge, and stop overselling.


Seahorse said...

Good post regarding phobias vs. fear, but I said the man's dog was phobic (not the man), and that he feared pit bulls and had a concern that Cesar would bring Daddy along. The man feared pit bulls because he works in the insurance industry and sees the problems resulting from pit bulls. I'd say he has cause to feel the way he does. I'd have to watch it again, but my feeling was that Cesar was simply not going to tolerate the man's position regarding pit bulls, which had nothing to do with his phobic dog, which was the reason Cesar was called in. I felt it was over-stepping by Cesar and that it did the man a disservice.


Moochies Mother said...

Fear is healthy in every dangerous situation. It encourages avoidance. Not just in south east LA and/or when in close proximity of an angry/vicious dog or man that can over power you. You don't want to show fear and you need some courage to pull it off but you may get lucky and talk, command or negotiate your way out. But if you have to fight your way out and you aren't in a healthy state of fear, you may be selected against. The dog whisperer is like the crocodile hunter only Cesar hasn't experienced natural selection yet.

Ali said...

Hi. Great info.. Are you "public" and are you on FB? I'd love to see you commenting sometimes there. But maybe I already have??

I felt a false sense of security seeing the dumpster full of dogs that look just like the dogs my neighbor has that are only a prayer away from reaching human prey. I have had near misses and also seen other people attacked. I raised pits in the 70's and in eight years, every one of them eventually snapped, be it towards livestock, other dogs or people. I would have defended to the death that my dogs wouldn't do that because I trained them so well, loved them and gave them a rightous chance to prove they were like any other dog. Well, lots of dogs get into the chickens but the way a pit bull kills and maims and is always covered head to tail with blood after the deed is not like other dogs. I finally snapped and accepted the reality.