Two 10-month-old chocolate brown dogs tentatively stepped out of a van in the parking lot of Chicago Animal Care & Control (CACC), the city pound. Sage, the smaller of the dogs, crumbled to the ground, too scared to move. She had to be carried inside the building. Her brother, Gio, resisted all the way, his owner requiring assistance to control him as they entered the facility.
Once in the reception area, the elderly man who had brought the dogs to CACC sat on a bench filling out paperwork. Sage stood close by, looking to the man and to her brother for reassurance. She was the runt of the litter, brown with a thin white line down her nose.
Why, on a sunny August afternoon when other dogs were at home or out on walks, were Sage and Gio being relinquished to the pound?
The man said he already had two pit bulls at home, and couldn’t handle four dogs. He was suffering from renal failure. His friend, who had come along to help get the animals to CACC, added he had his hands full and “already has one foot in the grave.”
Sage and Gio’s parents should have been spayed or neutered, the men agreed. But they also explained they had neither the money to pay for nor the information on who to contact to arrange for low-cost surgeries.
Left at the pound, Sage and Gio faced tough odds. The fact that they had not been well-socialized was their first strike, and that they would be classified as bully breeds or pit bulls was their second.
Bully breeds remain the most likely to languish and die in shelters. Their mistaken association with aggression toward people and their sheer numbers mean a smaller percentage of them are saved. An average of 45 bully breeds were euthanized at the city pound each week during 2014, according to data collected by CACC.
Progress is being made. In the first half of 2015, 50.8 percent of bully breeds survived the pound; up from 39.2 percent in the first half of 2013. But even with this increase in lives saved, bully breeds are 2.8 times more likely to die at CACC than other types of dogs.
At the city pound, after their owner left, Sage and Gio were placed in separate cages in long cement block pavilions. Some dogs, like Gio, stand at the front of their cages and bark at passing visitors; others, like Sage, plaster themselves against the back walls, avoiding eye contact.
Gio was found to be aggressive and was euthanized for “untreatable behavioral” issues on August 22, 2015, two days after arriving. Sage got sick while at the pound, likely suffering from the canine flu that hit Chicago earlier this year. She was fearful, urinating when spoken to, lunging at strangers and growling in retreat. She was euthanized for severe illness on August 28, but it would have been unlikely for her to have found a home when so many friendly and sociable dogs are still dying.
‘PREVENTION, PREVENTION, PREVENTION’
Like Sage and Gio, many bully breeds end up at the pound because owners lack access to spay/neuter or animal care resources. In 2015, nearly 47 percent of all the dogs at CACC were picked up as strays, 32 percent were given up by their owners and nearly 10 percent were confiscated by authorities.
To decrease the number of unwanted animals ending up at the shelter, PAWS Chicago started the PAWS for Life Outreach Program in Englewood in November 2014. PAWS staff and volunteers go door to door in Englewood, bringing spay/neuter and vet services to families. The biggest obstacles to these services in Englewood are a lack of finances, transportation and information regarding options, according to Laurie Maxwell, PAWS Outreach Manager. But when these barriers are lifted, about 90 percent of owners sign their pets up for surgery.
“People are not breeding pit bulls as part of dogfighting,” Maxwell says. “Most litters I see are just accidents. The message is simple: prevention, prevention, prevention.” PAWS data shows that out of 427 dogs encountered in Englewood, only 11 were intentionally bred. About 45 percent of the dogs in this neighborhood are bully breeds. “There’s simply an oversupply of these dogs. It’s not people actively looking to get a pit bull, it’s just that they are readily available.”
Maxwell points to Juanita as an example of how PAWS can help reduce the number of accidental litters. Juanita’s dogs Princess and Lucky had given birth at least five times. “No one she knew ever had a dog who was fixed and she didn’t know where to turn to seek assistance,” Maxwell says. “She lacks transportation and even a reliable phone.”
Maxwell was able to set up spay/neuter appointments and transportation for every dog in Juanita’s building. “She was so thrilled and relieved,” says Maxwell. “She told me, ‘My dogs are my family. They eat when I eat, they sleep when I sleep, they watch TV when I watch TV! I love them more than anything.’”
Once in a while Maxwell meets a person who resists the idea of spaying and neutering their dogs. In response, she points out some of the advantages of getting a dog fixed, including reduced aggression, marking and roaming. Changing minds takes listening and patience, Maxwell says. But once it starts, and as long as resources are available, it has a ripple effect across a community. “People tell friends and family, and they start coming to us asking for spay/ neuter services.”
THE CURRENT POPULATION
Once a dog enters the city pound system, the primary way out is through a private rescue or shelter. In 2015, about 37 percent of all dogs were transferred out of CACC to private groups, nearly 14 percent were returned to their owners and 6 percent were adopted directly from CACC.
PAWS takes in the most bully breeds from CACC, and is the pound’s largest transfer partner. “We look for a variety of dogs. We are not a breed-specific rescue,” according to PAWS Founder and Chair Paula Fasseas. The number of dogs who can be brought into the program also depends on available space in PAWS Medical and Adoption Centers.
The number of families interested in adopting bully breeds has been growing, Maxwell says. “There’s been a recognized shift in perception over the past 10 years.” Still, there are obstacles for potential adopters, including a shortage of pet-friendly housing and breed-specific bans in some communities.
In April 2015, PAWS started holding Adopt-a-Bull awareness events to address the misconceptions surrounding bully breeds. The History Channel’s Danielle Colby was PAWS’ first bully breed ambassador. Colby adopted her dog, Vida, from PAWS. “The bully breed has been mislabeled and widely misunderstood for too long,” says Colby. Chicago Bears player Matt Forte will be PAWS’s next bully breed ambassador.