http://www.indystar.com/article/2009020 ... 10/ARCHIVE
Can pit bulls be saved?
Indianapolis' new Animal Care and Control chief wants to try. It won't be easy. Pit bull bites in the city are at a record high, and of 3,000 pit bulls in animal care here last year, nearly 2,500 were euthanized.
The last mayor tried to ban them. Animal control officials put them to death.
But Indianapolis' new shelter director wants to deal with pit bulls in a different way. He wants to rehabilitate them.
"I really want to give every dog the last possible chance I can," said Douglas Rae, who took over Animal Care and Control last month.
An examination of animal control records by The Indianapolis Star shows that pit bull bites are at a record high -- 282 in 2008, an increase of 33 percent from the previous year and about three times the total from 2006.
DOG BITE DATABASE: See which breeds bite the most in Marion County
In addition, an ordinance adopted two years ago to try to hold owners more accountable has failed. The new rule netted just one person who wouldn't already have been punished under previous laws. All the while, bites are increasing, and horrific maulings, such as one last week on a 68-year-old woman, keep happening.
"I know I'm going to have some very spirited conversations with people," Rae said.
An ongoing debate
The dogs' defenders -- who successfully thwarted a proposal to ban pit bulls from the city two years ago -- say they are peaceful, playful dogs that if raised and cared for properly pose no greater risk than other breeds.
Their detractors, however, note that the dogs disproportionately fall into the hands of owners who mistreat them and train them to be dangerous menaces -- powerful, vicious and capable of horrific unprovoked attacks.
The Star's review of dog bites found that pit bulls not only are responsible for more bites than any other breed, but that those bites more often cause significant damage.
One week ago, 68-year-old Brenda Hill was savagely mauled by a neighbor's two pit bulls while taking out the trash at her house on Indianapolis' Northside. She remained hospitalized Saturday and was listed in fair condition.
Not surprisingly, some are skeptical of Rae's plan to end the shelter's policy of routinely euthanizing pit bulls and to adopt out as many as he can.
Caress Garten, who was attacked by two pit bulls 16 years ago while walking in a park in Indianapolis, thinks the shelter policy of euthanizing the dogs was a "check on the numbers entering the community."
"The more pit bulls," she said, "the higher the number of maulings."
But Rae's approach is applauded by others.
Last year, about 3,000 pit bulls ended up at Indianapolis' city-run shelter -- and nearly 2,500 of them were euthanized. Rae said he will hire a full-time professional to evaluate whether dogs are docile enough to be adopted out, aggressive enough to need intermediate foster care, or so aggressive that they have to be euthanized.
"I don't treat a pit bull any different than I treat a Lab, than I treat a (Rottweiler), than I treat an Akita," Rae said. "It just wouldn't be fair."
Public Safety Director Scott Newman, who appointed Rae, has said he is open to the idea. He said the Animal Care and Control advisory board, which recommended Rae in part because of his focus on adoptions, still needs to sign off on the plan after a public hearing. Mayor Greg Ballard, who appointed Newman, was in Tampa, Fla., and unavailable for comment.
At the Philadelphia city shelter, where Rae served as chief operating officer for the past year, he said he lowered euthanizations between 30 percent and 40 percent of the animals admitted (it's 60 percent in Indianapolis), though there was no percentage available for pit bulls.
During his time, pit bull bites did not increase in Philadelphia -- and Rae said there was no record of a dog having bitten someone after it was released from the shelter.
"I actually think Doug Rae is one of the best directors of operations that I have ever seen," said Nathan Winograd, director of the Oakland, Calif.-based National No-Kill Advocacy Center. "Most of the success in Philadelphia was due to Doug's hard work."
Rebecca Huss, a Valparaiso University School of Law professor, called Rae's plan "encouraging." She is the appointed "guardian/special master" of 49 pit bulls seized in 2007 from former football star Michael Vick's dog-fighting operation.
Only one of those dogs had to be euthanized for aggression toward humans, Huss said.
But retraining an aggressive dog to be a house pet can take months -- and money. Vick's dogs, many of which are still in foster care after more than a year, each benefitted from $5,000 to $18,500 of the former NFL quarterback's money, which the court set aside for their care.
Cost isn't the only issue. Perhaps Rae's biggest obstacle is finding enough good homes.
Amy Lyon, founder of dog rescue group ASTRO, said the organization already turns away 10 to 12 pit bulls every week. The Humane Society of Indianapolis also limits the number of pit bulls and certain other breeds it will take in.
"He is going to have to come up with a lot more foster homes, a lot more places for dogs, a lot more resources as far as training," Lyon said. "Animal Care and Control has got a big challenge ahead."
A special breed
Pit bulls raise specific challenges.
For one, their strong jaws make them capable of horrific damage. More than a dozen people were killed in the United States last year in attacks by pit bulls or pit bull mixes, including a 62-year-old Muncie man.
Judith Anspach, a professor at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis who teaches a class on animals and the law, doesn't think an all-out ban is the best solution. But she understands why the pit bull gets singled out.
"If you get bitten by a cocker spaniel or a Chihuahua, you're going to have some bite marks," she said, "but you're not normally going to end up in the hospital or be killed. It's just part of their (pit bulls') thing. They tend to maul and to not give up."
Two and a half years ago, Amaya Hess, 4, was walking to a Near-Westside park with her mother when a pit bull clamped his jaws around the side of her face.
The dog had to be pried off the toddler with a hammer. A police officer wrote in his report that half her face was missing.
Another special challenge is that pit bulls have become the breed of choice for criminals and other owners who see them less as pets than as attack dogs -- or fighting dogs.
"Right now the pit bull is the hot breed and everybody wants one, so that's going to be the number one animal that's neglected," said Lt. Jerry Bippus, operations manager at Indianapolis Animal Care and Control.
"It shows status. It's cool, big, bad. When we interview a lot of these little thugs, that's exactly what they say. To them walking with a pit bull, it's macho to them. It's like having a gun."
And, in ways both emotional and intellectual, the pit bull debate mirrors the one over gun control.
Should laws focus on the dog owner or the dog? Should all pit bulls be banned when only some attack? Can cities afford to put more pit bulls back on the streets when they potentially can fall into the hands of the wrong people? And is the public willing to take that chance when children and others can be maimed, perhaps even killed?
"To put a blanket policy like all the pit bulls die just because they're pit bulls, it would be morally wrong for me," Rae said. "I got into this industry to really make a significant difference with the 4 or 5 million animals dying (through euthanasia) a year."
Giving pit bulls a chance is a welcome idea to Indy Pit Crew, a local nonprofit group that encourages responsible ownership of pit bulls. The group argues that pit bulls are no more likely to inflict damage than other breeds.
"I know that it's not the dog, I know it's how they're treated," said Larissa Mosier, 21, Indianapolis, who recently adopted Bubba, a 1-year-old American pit bull terrier from ASTRO.
Mosier and her boyfriend have a 6-month-old baby. But Mosier said she was not worried about the dog. She had watched a mistreated pit bull rescued by her brother go from skittish to docile within a year.
But those who prefer a ban -- or at least stronger laws -- say efforts aimed at dog owners have failed.
Animal Care and Control officers find an injured, suffering pit bull dumped in an alley -- telltale evidence of a dog fight -- nearly every weekend, Bippus said. But the county prosecutor's office could find records of only one dog-fighting conviction in 2008. That person was sentenced to home detention and probation.
A prosecutor working on last Sunday's mauling of Brenda Hill wishes the court could deal more harshly with owners.
"The laws are horrible," Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Mario Massillamany said. "If you don't restrain your dog and your dog attacks somebody, the most we can charge you with is a misdemeanor. It's not a large enough penalty for an attack that causes serious bodily injury."
But harsher penalties can't undo the damage.
What to do
With that in mind, cities have tried myriad approaches to prevent pit bull attacks.
Denver, Miami and a cluster of suburbs around Little Rock, Ark., are among those that have taken the most drastic step: banning pit bulls.
North Little Rock Animal Control Director Billy Grace called that decision "one of the best things we ever did."
Irresponsible dog owners cause the problem, Grace said, "but that doesn't change the fact you have some crazy, crazy dogs out there with the ability to do tremendous damage."
The ban did not do much to change North Little Rock's overall number of dog bites, he said, but maulings and severe bites dropped significantly.
Ten years after bans were enacted in Denver and Miami, Denver has very few dog bites -- fewer than one for every 1,000 people; Miami, however, has one for roughly every 200 people.
Indianapolis considered the same approach two years ago in the wake of Amaya's mauling.
Former City-County Council member Sherron Franklin, who authored the ordinance, said she was inspired by police officers' accounts of residents mistreating pit bulls and breeding them for fighting. Then-Mayor Bart Peterson threw his weight behind the idea.
Councilman Mike Speedy also supported it. He was jogging on the Southside three years ago when a pit bull -- he called the breed "ticking time bombs" -- broke from its leash and charged at him, getting within six feet before its owner called off the dog.
But a majority of council members sided with Councilwoman Angela Mansfield, who argued that the city should not focus on the pit bull breed.
"If it weren't for this dog being the one that's popular, being the one that's abused and misused, it would be another breed."
The council tried instead to crack down on owners, requiring them to securely confine any dog that displays aggressive behavior. But the new ordinance more or less duplicated existing legislation. In the two years since it passed, it has caught only one dangerous dog owner. A total of 30 people were cited under the ordinance during that time, Bippus said, and 29 of them already were being cited under older laws.
Ohio has taken yet another approach: Pit bull owners must carry $100,000 in liability insurance in case the dog attacks someone -- a not-so-thinly veiled idea that targets not just owners, but perhaps those who are less likely to be able to afford such insurance.
The Star analysis of dog bites in Indianapolis showed that pit bull attacks happen disproportionately in lower-income areas.
But even without a law change, Indianapolis will get some help this year on one front.
The Humane Society of the United States is granting the city $5,000 that Bippus said would purchase cameras and other equipment to help crack dog-fighting cases.
As for the new shelter director, he insisted that although he favors rehabilitating pit bulls, he won't jeopardize human life.
"I'm real big on protecting the public," Rae said. "The last thing I'm going to do is start putting out aggressive animals in the community."
Still, he's certain his pit bull plan won't please everyone:
"I know there are going to be a lot of people who aren't going to like me."
Star reporter Mark Nichols contributed to this story.
Call Star reporter Heather Gillers at (317) 444-6405.