ENVIRONMENT
09/30/2014 09:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pit Bull Discrimination Is Never OK -- Especially For A Superhero Therapy Dog

Aladdin is such a superhero that an anonymous fan gave him a shiny green costume over the summer.

"He loves dressing up. To him, that's a sign that he's going to work," says his owner, Michele Schaffer-Stevens, who has been caring for Aladdin for about a year and a half now.

Aladdin's job is as a volunteer therapy dog. He goes to schools, nursing homes, libraries -- anywhere people may find comfort in a dog wearing a fancy outfit.

Well, almost anywhere.

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Photo credit: Valerie Bruder Photography

A Philadelphia-area hospital stirred controversy this summer after rejecting Aladdin for its therapy dog program, seemingly on account of his pit bull-shaped head.

After an outraged response from members of the therapy dog and animal rescue communities, Richard P. Miller, Virtua hospital's president and CEO, issued a statement that the hospital does not discriminate against dogs by breed. Miller said Schaffer-Stevens hadn't filled out the correct paperwork and invited invited her to try again.

Last week, Dean Mazzoni, a vice president, called to say that Aladdin is still out, "because of his breed," she says.

"They were not going to process his application because they were not going to get involved in the controversy," Schaffer-Stevens says. "They heard from both groups, the pro pit bull people and the negative pit bull people and their job was simply to care for patients."

Virtua's comment on its position comes from spokeswoman Peggy Leone, who issued this statement:

At Virtua, we have witnessed the benefits of pet therapy with hospitalized patients who are dealing with the effects of their conditions. The participating volunteers and their pets in the Pet Therapy Program have brought joy and hope to those who are recuperating and we are committed to continuing this program.

When considering the application of volunteers, whether they are human or pets, many factors are taken into account and not all volunteers are accepted. Virtua retains the right to accept or deny any volunteer application.

Our priority continues to be caring for people who are sick or injured. That priority will continue to drive our decisions in the future.

The hospital refuses to answer further questions about Aladdin or its policy toward pit bulls generally.

Those on Aladdin's side have not been so shy in sharing their policies.

Barbara Silverstein has been working with therapy dogs for a quarter-century and is the main administrator for South Jersey Loving Paws, where she essentially plays matchmaker to people with therapy dogs and groups looking for those dogs' assistance.

Silverstein was Aladdin's evaluator, back in the beginning of the summer, and says he "is phenomenal. Gentle, sweet, loving. He makes people smile."

When she learned that Aladdin had again been rejected, she sent an email around to the other members of South Jersey Loving Paws, telling them she'd removed Virtua from the database of therapy dog opportunities, because "Virtua is discriminating against some dog breeds even though they are Registered Therapy Dogs and will not allow them into their program. I cannot support or promote any facility that discriminates because of breed!

"Discrimination," the email goes on to say, "can only be stopped when enough of us stand together."

They're standing together. Silverstein tells HuffPost she knows of at least a half-dozen members who have pulled their dogs from Virtua's program.

One of them, Alan Braslow, won't allow his shepherd/Lab mix Amber to participate because "being an animal advocate, I have a very big problem with breed discrimination and ignorance," he says. "Sometimes you just have to take a stand for what is right. And I have and will continue to share my decision with everyone I know in the therapy dog and rescue community as we cannot allow this to continue."

Another, Judy Hutnik, said in an email to other therapy dog owners -- shared with HuffPost -- that her German shepherd Desi will no longer visit the hospital because "even though Desi and I love volunteering at Virtua, I have decided that doing what is right is more important than all the hard work we have gone through to be a part of Visiting Paws. If loving dogs like Aladdin are not given a fair chance at becoming therapy dogs at Virtua because of their BREED, then Desi and I wish to remove ourselves from the program."

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Aladdin at the time of his rescue

Aladdin was painfully skinny in April 2013, when he arrived at a New Jersey animal shelter, with broken legs and a broken tail, a dozen missing teeth and wounds all over his body.

"He greeted everyone with a wagging tail, but you could see the fear and uncertainty in his eyes that someone else was going to hurt him. If he thought he did something wrong or you were going to hurt him, he would drop to the ground belly-up and scream," says Schaffer-Stevens, who has a history of fostering emaciated pit bulls through a group called Lilo's Promise Animal Rescue.

She'd been called by the shelter to see if she could help with this one, and found the dog's situation to be "truly heartbreaking. For months, he would jump if you touched him while he was sleeping," she says. As he came to trust her, her three human sons and three other pit bulls, Schaffer-Stevens came to realize that Aladdin was hers for keeps.

For Aladdin to become a therapy dog, after this beginning, took him maintaining the right disposition despite all he'd been through, plus a lot of time and a lot of training.

His transformation is so striking, so inspiring, that Aladdin is the spokesdog for Lilo's Promise, and has been profiled in magazines. He's appeared in a hubba hubba anti-cruelty ad campaign featuring Jon Dorenbos of the Philadelphia Eagles.

It's all in the effort of helping those who need comfort -- and in rehabilitating the image of his kind of dog, those labeled as pit bulls, that are killed by the millions in shelters across the country every year. Even the families who will take them home face a punishingly small pool of available housing, a tough time finding insurance, laws that prohibit or restrict the keeping of pits, and a host of other obstacles that make it hard to give these dogs a good and ordinary life.

Showing this discrimination to be all the more senseless: The term "pit bull" doesn't refer to a breed of dog, but to several types of terriers, and to any kind of mutt who shares some of those terriers' physical characteristics, regardless of genetic heritage.

Schaffer-Stevens doesn't actually know what breed of dog Aladdin is. He's got the square-shaped head. The rest is a mystery.

"He has never been genetically tested, but we will be doing so this fall as a fundraiser for Lilo's Promise's medical fund," she says.

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Aladdin with his three pit bull siblings

Schaffer-Stevens is frustrated that long after pit bulls have proved themselves as therapy dogs -- just look at Michael Vick's former dog Leo -- Aladdin has to keep fighting this particular battle.

"I love Aladdin with all my heart and lately I've been grateful that he doesn't understand the hate and small-mindedness that people/corporations like Virtua perpetuate. I'm happy that all he knows now is to give and receive love because that's how the world should be," she says.

Even still, if this hospital were to come back and ask her to come in after all, she'd do it.

"Of course I would work with Virtua or any other group that would welcome Aladdin," she says. "He brings so much to people when they really need it."

Find out more on the Aladdin Nation Facebook page. And email HuffPost's animal welfare editor at arin.greenwood@huffingtonpost.com if you have an animal story to share!

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