The pit bulls of Berkeley … and maybe elsewhere, too

May 11, 2008

Ever since no-kill flame-thrower Nathan Winograd knocked our collective socks off here with his book, “Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America,” we’ve watched poorly run, old-school shelters and even well-run, old-school shelters do nothing but bad mouth the possibility that there could be another way besides killing pets for population control while blaming everyone but the shelter industry.

We’ve watched large, wealthy national animal groups lay on the “yeah but …” excuses for why no kill won’t work while failing to get off their own wealthy butts to push for shelter reform — with some groups actively working against it.

One of those “yeah buts … ” you hear all the time involves pit bulls, which may in all their incarnations (AmStaffs, Staffordshires, AMPT, pit mix, etc., etc.) be the No. 1 breed in the country and certainly seem to be the No. 1 breed in the shelters. And the pit bull “yeah, but …”? Here it comes:

“Yeah, but … maybe no kill would work if all we had to place were fuzzy, floppy-eared little poodle mixes, but pit bulls? Hopeless. We just gotta kill them, because even if they were safe, nobody wants them. Except the people who do want them, who will use them for bad things.”

Or so the story goes.

Well, guess what? When a community works together to take on a pet placement problem, even one as challenging as the breed with the worst PR ever, change can happen. From the BAD RAP blog:

Ten years ago, the 60 runs at open-admission Berkeley Animal Care Services were depressingly full, sometimes doubled up, and staff was forced to euthanize for space…up to 600 dogs a year. But in 2007, the number of dog euthanasias was down 90%, with only 50 dogs put to sleep. Check it: BACS Stats

Since last summer, the number of dogs coming in to BACS has dropped so much that almost one half of the runs are now consistently EMPTY. Last week, an all time low with 34 empty runs. It’s almost too quiet in there! What’s going on? We have to credit a combination of efforts: Successful Marketing of Shelter Dogs, Owner Education including Free Training, Volunteerism, Rescue and Voluntary Spay/Neuter Programs. In short: The community kicked ass to make some changes.

Go read. I gotta tell you, it made my whole weekend. Bully to you, BAD RAP. Bully, I say.

More: Tip of the hat (again) to BAD RAP for pointing out this piece on Caveat, who completely dismantles some of the “yeah, but …” crap on “pit bulls,” this bit put out by the head of a municipal animal control agency. Arrrrgghhhhhhh!

Filed under: pets, connected — Gina Spadafori @ 7:21 pm


  1. Am I reading this correctly, cats Put to Death had an increase from 2006 to 2007?

    It’s great that overall there is a decrease since 1997, however it makes me very sad that cats have an increase in death count… while part of the shelter is unused.

    Too bad it couldn’t convert some of those empty runs for some of those cats?

    Comment by rose-aka the Drew fan club — May 11, 2008 @ 7:51 pm

  2. My guess is that there was some event in 2007 that caused a blip in cat deaths.

    There could have been a hoarder raid that yielded forty or so extremely sick cats, a mass delivery of ferals, or a disease outbreak in the shelter that necessitated a wave of euthanasia for either the sake of the individual animals, or because of an epidemiological triage. Given the huge overall drop in cat intake, I doubt it was for space reasons. Perhaps an intrepid pet columnist could call and get an answer?

    BTW, it’s important to subtract all the DOA’s from the totals when tracking progress. A shelter can’t save or kill an animal that arrives already dead. The drop in DOA’s most likely reflects a change in institutional practices — like the shelter telling the road maintenance department to stop bringing them all the road kill, but to take it directly to the incinerator. Though I would love to think that it also reflects fewer animals killed on the road, etc., due to fewer roaming animals.

    I have to admit to feeling a bit nervous about the empty runs. Not because the empty runs aren’t a GOOD THING. But because we now have something that calls itself the “sheltering industry.” There are people whose jobs depend on the runs being occupied.

    What will the shelter “industry” as a whole, and individuals seeking to keep their jobs in particular, do to justify their continued employment, budgets, etc. as the runs empty?

    It would be wonderful to believe that they could increase the quality of their community programs for things such as husbandry and training, improve their adopter education, provide better care for the animals they do shelter — all the while gradually downsizing to a scale that is appropriate to the population they serve.

    But people are so prone to grasp and blame when their sinecures are at stake. It can be easy to fool oneself into a firmly-held conviction that everything one is doing is “for the animals,” especially if there is social support and groupthink.

    I worry about shelters setting impossibly high standards for adopters in order to *keep* the runs full and justify their existence. Or warehousing truly unadoptable animals, ones whose behavior makes them dangerous or whose health problems are so severe and expensive that it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to take them on.

    I worry about shelters conducting mass imports of Third World strays in order to fill the runs and “meet demand” — while at the same time, carrying on the screed about how evil all breeders are, and pushing legislation like AB 1634 to fix “pet overpopulation.” I worry that there will be an increasing push to “public-ize” (“de-privatize?”) every transaction in which a pet animal changes hands, by force of law if they can get it.

    In short, I’m apprehensive about how bureaucracies are going to execute the imperative of self-preservation. It’s something that bears watching, even as we can applaud the successes that lead to the empty runs.

    Comment by H. Houlahan — May 11, 2008 @ 11:37 pm

  3. 90% decrease in dog euthansias – wow! Congratulations to the community for doing the hard work and getting the great benefits.

    Comment by slt — May 12, 2008 @ 7:06 am

  4. Thanks for the mention Gina. This is hard work, and while we don’t worry about empty runs creating a panic about lost jobs (these are city jobs, after all) we do worry that other communities may never care enough about ‘pit bulls’ to knuckle down, learn the breed and make the fundamental changes needed to help their own populations. Too few cities, too few dog people are willing to stick their necks out for these dogs right now.

    They’re definitely the white elephant standing in the living room – or, the white elephant in the euthanasia room, I should say – and they’re simply NOT going to stop pouring off the streets until we humans take our hands away from our eyes and figure our sh*t out. I think they’re actually great teachers that way.

    Leave it to the bulldogs to give us a real challenge!

    Comment by Donna — May 12, 2008 @ 8:45 am

  5. This is a great accomplishment for Berkeley and the pit bull rescuers there.

    Can we use it as an example of why MANDATORY s/n is not needed?

    On the worry about “empty kennels”.. well, it’s a long way before that’s really a “problem” (I suppose Berkeley could offer empty kennel space for dogs from less successful cities?) There are models for organizations that achieve their goals, aside from the nightmare scenario H Houlihan describes. The March of Dimes is the classic example.. you can read about how they changed their focus to take advantage of their successes when they accomplished their original mission, rather than disbanding (or secretly infecting chldren, which I guess would be the equivalent nightmare scenario..)

    Comment by EmilyS — May 12, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  6. > Can we use it as an example of why MANDATORY s/n is not needed?

    You could. But the whole model is useless until and unless communities (outside of our wonderful east bay bubble) are willing to pour resources into increasing adoptions of treatable pit bulls and supporting their owners so they succeed in the homes. That requires a monumental shift in how society looks at this breed. No-kill – if that’s what you really want – hinges on whether pit bulls are allowed to have a seat on the bus.

    Comment by Donna — May 12, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

  7. Donna wrote:

    No-kill – if that’s what you really want – hinges on whether pit bulls are allowed to have a seat on the bus.



    Comment by Gina Spadafori — May 12, 2008 @ 2:39 pm

  8. No-kill – if that’s what you really want – hinges on whether pit bulls are allowed to have a seat on the bus.

    I allow pit bulls on my bus.

    Comment by Christie Keith — May 12, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

  9. Regarding an increase in euthanasia of cats, we’d need more information, particularly how many were unweaned kittens. Some shelters do not have the resources to bottle-feed all the unweaned kittens that come in without their (usually feral) mamas, and having an empty run doesn’t solve the problem. Where I live many of them are PTS right away, there are not enough bottle feeding volunteers.

    I applaud BADRAP as always.

    Comment by Anne — May 12, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  10. Up here behind the Redwood Curtain, December and January were “dump your pit bull” months. It was nuts. We had 8-10 up for adoption at a time for weeks and were moving the ones with issues to rescue as fast as we could find placements and transport.

    There was a beautiful dark brindle pit pup who came in at 2 months of age and went to her forever home last month, finally, at 8 months. Needless to say, her temperment is rock solid after coming of age in the craziness of a county shelter. Yep, six months and there was never any question that she’d go out on four paws.

    Every one of those pits, except for a couple of really, truly serious bite/attack cases, either were adopted or went to rescue.

    The call went out, dogs were doubled up if necessary, but there was no killing for space. We all hung in there, from the shelter director on down, knowing that the homes were out there. It just took some time and we made it! If a rural county, average income $38,000 a year can do it, anyone can, but you gotta want to. And isn’t that really the issue in the end?

    NB-April seems to have been “dump your lab” month, so life goes on.

    Comment by Susan Fox — May 12, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

  11. Building a “no kill” (i.e. “low” kill) community, especially for pit bulls, is HARD work. But as you’re finding, all the pieces go towards building communities of like minded people who care, and who then model for the rest of those who don’t care as much and who may change. So it not only lowers the amount of killing, it has other positive effects. Compare/contrast to mandates such as MSN or breed bans, which are divisive and DONT work.

    Comment by EmilyS — May 12, 2008 @ 6:23 pm

  12. I hear a lot of really nice stories about lowered dog euthanasia rates and higher adoption rates – even for maligned breeds like pit bulls. I think it’s great news.

    But I’m not hearing anything about cats. Where is there a shelter with a 90% reduction in cat euthanasia rates? Where every black cat and plain tabby is finding a home – even older ones? And I don’t mean very small shelters or rescues that only take in a very few cats per year, I mean large scale operations and community efforts like in this example. Can anyone point me in the right direction here, because I’d love to see what those shelters are doing to up cat adoption rates.

    Comment by Tara — May 13, 2008 @ 3:33 am

  13. I don’t know if this is what you are looking for but Chicago has several large no-kill cat rescue organizations. Several of them have placement rates of almost 4xs what their maximum capacity is. And that doesn’t include the cats that will be lifelong residents because no one adopts them.

    Here’s a couple of links:

    Felines Inc has space for 140 cats – they placed more than 400 in 2007.

    Tree House is another high volume shelter though they don’t state their statistics:

    Hope this helps

    Comment by 2CatMom — May 13, 2008 @ 9:29 am

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