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Wednesday, August 4,2010

Expendable species

Breeding for quantity, not quality: pit bull overpopulation in Lansing

by Jane Alexander

Inside the Ingham County Animal Control building in Mason, past the adoption application desks and the occasional sleeping dog, Jamie McAloon-Lampman consulted a file drawer in her office. The drawer was stuffed with cases of animal cruelty.


Easily half of them involve pit bulls or pit bull mixes, McAloon-Lampman, director of Ingham County Animal Control, said.


She pulled out a file on a man found with eight pit bulls locked in his house. The dogs were covered with scabs and puncture wounds. Some were so aggressive that they had to be sedated multiple times just to be removed from the scene.


Another file details a couple who locked 29 abused pit bulls in crates in their basement.


Roughly 60 percent of the nearly 2,000 dogs brought into the Ingham County Animal Control in 2009 were pit bulls or pit bull mixes. According to Animal Control, pit bulls are the No. 1 dog to be stolen, abused, abandoned or used for dogfights in Ingham County and particularly Lansing.


Moreover, the difference between the number of pit bulls that McAloon- Lampman sees and how many are licensed in Ingham County indicates the size — perhaps enormity — of Ingham County’s pit-bull problem.


Of the 20,650 dogs licensed in Ingham County, about 950 of them are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Dogs are licensed for either one year or three years.


That’s about 100 less than the number of pit bulls McAloon-Lampman said she sees on a yearly basis. Or, pit bulls and mixes make up about 5 percent of licensed dogs in Ingham County, but represent about 60 percent of shelter space.


Officials say pit bulls often are adopted for reasons that contribute to a culture of violence and expendability.


“Generally speaking, nine out of 10 people looking for pit bulls are looking to adopt an animal for the wrong reason,” McAloon-Lampman said. “They’re not necessarily looking for a pet to cuddle with and sleep in bed with. They’re looking for a status symbol, a guard dog, a fighting dog, something to protect them … all the wrong reasons.”


An overpopulation of pit bulls in Ingham County means a constantly full shelter for McAloon-Lampman. The shelter took in 1,957 dogs last year, down about 6.5 percent from 2,095 the year before. Ingham County is one of the few shelters in the country to take in fewer dogs during a time of economic struggle, she said, but pit bulls and pit bull mixes still outnumber every other breed taken in by three to one.


The shelter attempts to “re-home,” or rehabilitate, as many of these dogs as possible, but sometimes they are beyond rehabilitation. In 2009, the shelter euthanized 601 dogs: 14 were court-ordered, 241 were euthanized for health reasons or due to lack of space in the shelter, and 346 were put down for “temperaments unfit for re-homing.” The shelter does not keep track of which breeds of dogs are euthanized.


Pit bulls are often used for illegal dogfighting due to their strong, powerful genetic makeup. Fighters breed dogs for quantity, not quality, McAloon-Lampman said. They breed as many pit bulls and pit bull mixes as possible, fight them and dispose of them once they’re no longer useful. They usually end up on the streets or in McAloon-Lampman’s care.


“Dogfighting, in Lansing as everywhere, is a type of gambling,” said Maria Iliopoulou, an MSU animal studies doctoral student and veterinarian. Iliopoulou studies animal well-being and humananimal bonds, particularly in pit bulls and pit-bull fighting.


“The main reason dogfighting is popular is it offers the opportunity for a significant amount of easy money. Unfortunately, the dogs are caught in the middle and suffer because our society blames the dogs and does nothing to protect them from abuse,” Iliopoulou said.


McAloon-Lampman said raising vicious, expendable animals is deeply engrained in the dog-fighting scene.


“They engineer these dogs to be vicious. If they’re not violent, they’re no good. They just get rid of them,” she said. “These dogs are just wired. It’s like they’re on speed.”


Dogfighting is an involved system with weight classes, extensive rules, strict training regimens and, of course, lots of mistreated pit bulls. McAloon-Lampman knows horror stories of pit-bull living conditions. She keeps a binder of photos showing some of the more gruesome incidents — some dogs kept in a shed and forced to stand in 18 inches of their own feces, a dog with over 400 bites on its body and one case of a dog swollen to twice its normal size.


It is extremely difficult to convict a person on dogfighting charges, a felony in all 50 states, because participants often monitor Animal Control activities or can easily say they are not involved while at the scene, McAloon-Lampman said.


She has not seen a change in the number of dogfights in Ingham County but has noticed an increase in the number of people calling in cases. Last year, the department received approximately 18,000 phone-in tips of animal cruelty. Their six officers acted on nearly 6,000 calls.


The department began a new program this year to answer the overpopulation problem, called PIT STOP. The program is funded by donations and offers low-cost spay and neuter services to low-income pit-bull owners in Lansing and Lansing Township, where population problems are more pronounced.


McAloon-Lampman does not have any data yet on the program’s success. Spay and neuter services usually cost between $80 and $200.


When Erica Kaplan first met her 3-year-old pit bull Phe, she didn’t see anything to fear. The Lansing resident came across Phe as a puppy while she was working at a dog daycare.


Phe had three or four previous owners, and while she was trustworthy of humans, she was not so toward other dogs. “But I saw in her that there was still that good dog, and I knew I could get her back on track,” Kaplan said.


Kaplan sees mixed reactions to Phe from the public.


“I have heard all kinds of things, and I have seen how people treat me just because she’s a pit,” she said. “I have seen people physically cross the street and I have seen people cringe when they see her. And then there are people that love her. They ask to pet her, they have to give her some water on the walk, so there are both extremes.”


Low-cost spay and neuter services and more owners like Kaplan are the goal for McAloon-Lampman, and perhaps the solution to pit-bull overpopulation.


“It takes a long time,” McAloon-Lampman said. “But when you get to that one person, they’re amazing. It’s like the most wonderful family. It took us a long time to find them but we found them.”

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