02/01/2012 10:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Speaking Up for the Underdog

2012-01-30-PitBull.jpg At a meeting with some of our closest shelter colleagues last week, we talked about, once again, the pit bull dilemma. We all want to get to zero euthanasia of adoptable animals in our city but there are just too many pit bulls, not all of whom are "ambassadors" for the breed. And there are simply not enough adopters. Shoot, there aren't enough adopters for yellow labs, yorkies or cocker spaniels either. And pit bulls, no matter how much we promote them and try to tackle the "bad rep" that we as a society have created, are just not for everyone. They're energetic, strong, athletic dogs who need a lot of training. The media have done a bang-up job of villainizing "America's dog." Sometimes it's the dog, but it's always the owner and a good story about a dog attacking anyone makes great TV.

So where does it start? Do we discount adoptions for pit bulls? Give them away for free? Or do we attack the "supply" side of the problem? If so, how can we promote spay/neuter better than we have been doing non-stop for the past two decades? Do we educate, do litter abatement programs (spay the mom and re-home the litter), bribe, cajole, entreat?

The fact is, we've been trying to do all the above. But it's just not working. We give away spays and neuters, as do many of our colleague organizations. But we actually have trouble filling these free slots. We talk, teach and train owners to be responsible. It just doesn't work. We haven't tried paying people to spay and neuter their dogs, but that's being discussed nationally with promotions like "spay your dog and get a $20 gas card" among other ideas.

We've even talked about going out to pick up dogs for spay/neuter from people's homes. Like the rug cleaners do. If we can't get the dogs to come to us, we'll go to them. And that's the model that some of the largest spay/neuter programs, like Humane Alliance in Asheville, North Carolina, have done.

Here's an example of what we're up against. Just last week, in the middle of our weekly low-cost vaccination clinic, someone tried to sell his pit puppies in our own lobby. Unbelievable! Selling puppies at an animal shelter whose mission is to promote animal adoption over breeding as a means towards ending euthanasia and placing every homeless dog and cat in a home. Where is the message not getting across? That's like someone coming into your living room, grabbing your TV remote and changing it to C-SPAN during American Idol. If we ask people, during our outreach, if they'd bring their dog in for a free spay or neuter, they look at us as if we're completely nuts. Why would they spay a dog whose puppies they can sell off in the lobby of an animal shelter? Or why would they ever want to neuter their dog, especially if it might make him less of a guard dog (it won't).

So what's the solution? If we step back and take a broader view, I think it becomes obvious. The solution to the pit bull problem is the same as the solution to any animal problem. It's all a matter of seeing things from the animal's point of view. What if people looked at their own pit bull and saw, not a fighting dog, not a potential source of income, not a tough-dog status symbol, but a living, breathing companion with his or her own interests? What if they saw a loving, trusting, and loyal companion -- a family member, even -- whose welfare mattered and was entirely dependent on them?

Then they would be much more hesitant to turn their dog in to a shelter when he or she became "inconvenient." They would be much more forgiving of the dog's "imperfections" and realize that the burden of training lies on them. Then -- most importantly -- they would understand that their dog has absolutely nothing to gain from being bred so that her puppies can be sold on the street corner. At the cost of annual euthanasia of thousands of unwanted pits already out there.
No matter what it is, it's a big, fat problem. And one we've got to fix if we're ever going to get to zero euthanasia of adoptable dogs. I'm up for any and all out of the box ideas. But one thing I know is that we've got to convince people to stop breeding these dogs. Then we've got to make sure we place pits responsibly in the right homes. And we've got to follow up and make sure they stay there.

That's a tall order, but people's attitudes can and do change. We need a change on a societal level, but every society is made up of individuals. Everyone's opinion counts, but only if it's voiced. Yes, animal protection groups like mine have a responsibility to lead the chorus. But we need every voice we can get. And every idea, entreaty, proposal out there to encourage people to spay and neuter their pits. And for heaven's sake, don't buy a dog, especially a pit bull. Believe me, there are thousands waiting for adoption at every animal shelter.

So, I urge you to speak up for animals, even--or rather, especially--for pit bulls. When enough people do, and do so at every opportunity, the change will come. Until that happens, we'll never get to zero. And that's the only goal that matters.