Those of us lucky enough to live in the SF Bay Area enjoy a locale chock-full of canine variety. Big dogs, small dogs, full-breed lovelies and mixed-breed darlings – we’ve got ‘em all. Pit bulls and their blocky-headed cousins are such common sights that, in most circles, it’s weird if you don’t know one or more people who include them in their families.
In fact, pit bulls represent one of the top three popular dog breed types in California, according to stats from the largest veterinary clinic chain in the world, Banfield Pet Hospital. Congrats to us for being such an open-minded, accepting corner of the country for dogs of every head shape, size, and persuasion.
But wait. If they’re so well loved, why do so many pit bulls end up in our overcrowded animal shelters? And of course they aren’t alone. A quick peek at the listings of Bay Area shelters that use Petharbor.com shows dogs labeled “Chihuahua” edging out even “pit bull” in depressingly high intake numbers. Our shelters have responded to the small dog influx admirably, routinely airlifting large numbers of “littles” to out-of-state shelters like Idaho Humane Society, where waiting adopters empty cages almost immediately.
Pit bulls don’t get airlifts, but fortunately they have quite a bit of help at home. Thanks to an army of dedicated, dog-loving volunteers and better shelter promotion strategies, pit bull adoption numbers have been on a steady upswing. But the numbers coming in the door remain steady, too, and they’re still over represented in area euthanasia stats. Why the disconnect?
Some speculate that the dogs in our shelters reflect a human problem; that unsavory people heartlessly “dump” unwanted and sometimes abused dogs like yesterday’s trash. I’m ashamed to say that there was a time when our group operated from that belief system, too, until we took a closer look at the reasons dogs were being surrendered.
Here’s the short of it: While dogs, including pit bulls, are enjoying great longtime success with area home owners and other more affluent people, families with fewer financial resources face difficult struggles keeping their beloved pets for life. They lack affordable training classes and veterinary care, and the ever-shrinking rental market is forcing even the most committed pet owners to make heart-rending choices. Live in your car to keep your dog? Set him loose on the streets in hopes that a Good Samaritan will spare him from becoming a shelter statistic? Surrender him to a shelter and hope for the best?
There’s a human story behind every shelter dog. Many that join BADRAP’s adoption program, for example, have come from families who were devastated to have to give up their pets. Our 2014 calendar cover girl – Diamond – was surrendered to the Berkeley Animal Care Services by a family with a young boy who wept all the way back out to the car after saying good bye. They told the shelter they had to move and could not find a rental that would accept her.
We know that Diamond was well loved. Her warm, affectionate personality and love of children told us that she wasn’t unwanted; she was pushed into homelessness by circumstances beyond her family’s control.
While the Bay Area is to be commended for its love of dogs, we have not offered enough support to pet owners who face excruciating surrender decisions. Perhaps we’ve been so busy creating tools to help dogs out of the shelters that we’ve forgotten to work on preventing them from landing there in the first place.
Diamond was lucky and was later matched to local homeowners who adore her, but I can’t help but think of the broken heart of her weeping boy. It worries me that we may be becoming a culture where dog ownership is a luxury for people with means. If we value the human-animal bond, we have to work harder to keep the Diamonds out there in their first homes where the children who love them can provide them with companionship for life.
At BADRAP, we’ve been working on this dilemma in bits and pieces for several years, but recently formalized our focus with the “Keep’em Home Project.” Keeping dogs with their families and out of shelters is a key to reducing euthanasia statistics, but it’s hard work hammering back at the challenges that work against us.
The success of this program will require a lot of hardy community partners – especially veterinarians, non-profits, dog-friendly landlords, foster homes, dog trainers, and dog-loving donors. Working together, we can make sure Bay Area consistently shelters run out of pit bulls as well as Chihuahuas!
Donna Reynolds is founder and director of BADRAP, a prominent education and rescue group devoted to the rescue of Pitt Bulls. Visit badrap.org for more details about the Keep ‘em Home program.
Main article photo by: BADRAP