It’s the pitties that break my heart. There are so many. I don’t know if it’s that they have such expressive faces or if they know their odds, but as we pass row after row of them, their sadness seeps right through the kennel fence into my soul.
On this Rescue Road Trip, we’ve had the opportunity to walk many pitbulls, to hug them, to cuddle them, to play with them off leash, even. At Newberry County Shelter, I led Kimbo (or mostly Kimbo led me) into the playyard. I threw a ball for him and he dodged after it, but then left it where it lay to come back again and again in search of my touch, so I spent most of my time ‘exercising’ him by holding him in a hug.
Hazel was so frightened I had to coax her out of the building and once outside, she wouldn’t go any further than the pile of gravel just outside the door, so we sat down in the sunshine and chatted for about fifteen minutes until Katrina, the rescue coordinator came looking for us. I could have sat there all day looking into Hazel’s sad eyes.
Talking to Katrina, and then Leslie, the shelter director at Newberry, I asked about their LRR (Live Release Rate) and got fudgy answers. I know they don’t want to euthanize these animals, but I also know that their job is impossibly hard. The public doesn’t want to know that animals die here. It takes a superhuman effort to find rescue and adoptions and answers to the problem of so many unwanted animals, especially so many pits.
When I asked about the odds for a bully breed at Newberry, Leslie said they work really hard to save them, but “it’s not fair for them to live their lives here. That’s not a life.” She’s right, I know, but I also don’t accept that answer. There has to be another option.
At Greenwood shelter the next morning, there were lots of beautiful dogs and much fewer pitbulls than we saw at the three shelters we’d already visited, despite the fact that Greenwood was the largest shelter we’d visited. They had many lab mixes, hounds, shepherds, even small dogs. Greenwood is where my Frankie came from, along with his five sisters, all purebred American Staffordshire Terriers (according to the DNA analysis of one of them). I know there are LOTS of pitties around Greenwood.
Chris, the new shelter director, told me that they euthanize for kennel space, behavior issues, and length of stay. If the pitbulls who come into Greenwood are anything like the pitbulls we’d been walking and loving at Lenoir and Newberry, I doubted they were behavior issues, but I was certain ‘length of stay’ would have been their crime and likely accounted for the low numbers we saw there.
Chris did mention that while they can house a hundred dogs, they weren’t completely full because a rescue from New Jersey (St. Hubert’s) had been there the day before and taken eighteen dogs. I asked Tammy, the rescue coordinator if any of those dogs were pitbulls, and she leveled her eyes at me and shook her head. Tammy has been with Greenwood since before the new shelter with the large staff. I know her history of fighting for these dogs, so I know the strength of her heart.
After Greenwood, we visited another new shelter, Abbeville. Abbeville’s history is a hard one. You can read some of it in these articles from 2010, 2016 and 2018. Their building is almost ready and they have a brand new director who has been there a month. Jessica is soft-spoken, young, and pretty, but she didn’t hesitate to answer my questions about how big the challenge will be here. She came from Anderson County PAWS, a leader in the no-kill movement for this area of the country. Jessica is well-trained but her greatest challenge here will be to educate a public whose current shelter is reminiscent of the classic American ‘pound.’ The county of Abbeville pays the City of Abbeville to house their dogs in their ‘shelter’. (NOTE: nowhere we traveled in or around Abbeville appeared to be a ‘city.’)
After getting a tour of the building in the final stages of construction and helping to assemble dog beds and cat condos, we went to the city shelter to meet the county dogs. We followed Jessica’s Animal Control truck down a long narrow road that required passing vehicles to negotiate which one would pull off the road to allow the other to pass.
The Abbeville City Shelter is a tiny cement building surrounded by a tall, chainlink fence with barbed wire at the top. It sits just off the road in a tiny clearing with no other signs of life in sight. If you were looking for a set for a thriller movie, it would make a good one.
The building’s only heat comes from a single heater, similar to the kind you find on restaurant porches, hanging from the ceiling in the center of the building. The concrete building is dark and worn and, to be honest, more than a little scary. I wouldn’t want to spend a night out there, especially knowing that thousands of dogs have died there over the years. There are fourteen kennels. One row for city dogs and one for the county dogs. The dogs themselves, beyond being dirty, looked pretty healthy. They were very happy to see us.
We met a volunteer, a thin teenage girl with a lovely southern accent who called the shelter director, Bryson (who was also impossibly young), ‘ma’am,’ and was there to walk the dogs in exchange for service hours. I worried for Bryson working out here all alone, handling the animal control calls and caring for the dogs. Bryson is clearly dedicated to the dogs, but her training is in 4-H, having shown cows for a decade. There are few medical protocols and no supplies beyond dog food and Dawn dish soap, plus a few skinny nylon slip leads that cut your hand when a dog pulls. I asked Bryson what would happen to the remaining ‘city’ dogs when the county dogs moved to their new shelter, and she shrugged, “They haven’t said yet.”
Our team pulled out the county dogs for attention and walks. One of our team members fell in love with a ten-month-old brown and white puppy and we made arrangements to move him to Anderson to be vetted so we could bring him home with us on Saturday to go into foster care with OPH. I spent time with Freckles, one of two dogs who had landed at Abbeville for the second time in two weeks after being picked up by Animal Control with his sister, Baby. Baby had a suspiciously-shaped belly and I asked if she was pregnant. Jessica doesn’t know, but we agreed she had ‘the look’ and it was certainly possible. Clearly, she’s had puppies before.
Baby reminded me of Edith Wharton, and I asked Jessica to let me know if her owner surrenders her. She thought it was likely that he would, when he arrives to get her and discovers that he’ll have to pay $250 for the second violation to get his dogs back. Pregnant or not, I’d love for OPH to be able to bring her and Freckles north. They were beautiful, friendly dogs who deserve better.
And they weren’t pits. Bottomline, that’s their best chance.
The judgment of pitbulls that pervades our culture is infuriating. The way our media ramps it up, always reporting the pitbull incidents and never mentioning that it’s the chihuahuas who continue to claim the spot at the top of the dog-bite list. (and yes, I know that a chihuahua bite is different than a pitbull bite, but the point is, ‘pitbulls’ are not statistically a vicious breed. They aren’t even a breed, but that’s for another post)
This is clearly breed racism. And like human racism, it is complicated and messy and wrong on every level. But unlike human racism, pitbull racism is not part of history. Pitbulls used to be known as the nanny-dog because of how great they are with children. They were labeled ‘America’s Dog’ and a pitbull named Stubby was the most decorated war dog in the US history.
I don’t know when the tide turned, but it’s time to turn it back. Of all the dogs I met this week, the ones who I’m carrying home with me in my heart are the pitbulls. Many I met will die in the shelter where I saw them. It doesn’t matter that they were sweet and playful and so very happy to see every visitor. It doesn’t matter that they are bastions of love and loyalty, who will offer devotion on a level most humans don’t deserve. They will die there simply because of a word—pitbull. A word that literally means nothing—there is no such thing as a pitbull.
There are only dogs. Beautiful, funny, friendly, strong, happy, deserving dogs.
Thanks for reading!
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Released August 2018 from Pegasus Books and available now
6 thoughts on “It’s the Pitties That Break My Heart”
Will Hazel be brought up north?? If so, I would be willing to foster her!
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She is not scheduled to be pulled by OPH, but if you apply and are approved to foster for OPH or another rescue, you might be able to persuade someone to pull her. You can also reach out directly to the shelter (Newberry County Animal Shelter) and inquire about her.
Yes, it is the pitties that break our hearts… They are sensitive souls who want and need a lot of human contact, so they don’t do well at shelters. (That lady who said it’s no kind of life for them to stay for months and years at a shelter is right, sadly. Many of them simply can’t tolerate that environment.) And there are so many of them because so many of them are still being bred, often for all the wrong reasons. And they are hardest to place, because many communities won’t allow them, and many insurance companies won’t provide home insurance if you have one. It’s an uphill battle for sure.
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At Anderson County PAWS, the director said they label them ‘mixed breed’ because we really don’t know what they are. I sometimes think that if we didn’t start with the label, many people might see the dog first – they have such easy smiles and happy hearts. Removing the label is the first step, perhaps, but it is a big problem – there are so many because of their popularity with both good and bad people. We just have to keep working to change hearts and minds.
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It can be slowed and changed somewhat, but it’s a long long team effort. When I first started volunteering at my local shelter (over 15 years ago), I would say that at least 75% of the dogs were pitties. Now it’s less than half. Spay and neuter programs (with serious outreach), education programs and low-cost training were all factors. We’re seeing an uptick on pittie surrender and strays, but it seems to be because families are being priced out of their housing (the rental market is horrible here) and being unable to find an affordable place that will allow dogs.
There is still a stigma; even in my educated liberal area. One of my neighbors, who took in a seriously disabled shepherd puppy, said she could never adopt a pit bull (but then, my husband, who got bit in the face by a German shepherd when he was a boy, said he could never adopt a GSD)
It IS better than it was 15 years ago. Then, dogs from dog-fighting busts were automatically euthanized. Now in more urban areas they are evaluated. Now pitties have a lot more media exposure of their good sides (Pitbulls and Parolees, Pit Boss, and Dog help us, Cesar Milan) They are less the demon monster dog that they were before. I am sure than in 15 years it will be better still.
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It’s encouraging to hear your insight on this. I am still learning about all the pieces. To me, they are just dogs being unfairly judged based on a few select cases. They have such big, big hearts and clever minds that want to please — that can work both for and against them. I hope the tide does continue to turn.