Its time to consider targeted pit bull spay/neuter programs by Ed Boks

Ed Boks and Henry Kleinhans
Henry Kleinhans was mauled to death by his own pit bull. Picture: Solly Lottering

Over the course of my career I may have been responsible for safely placing more pit bulls into loving homes than any other person in the United States.

I have long been troubled by the fact that no dog in history encounters more misunderstanding and vilification than the pit bull; a canine category I define as the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and any crosses of these three. I admire these animals for their tenacious athletic ability, loyalty, intelligence, and high-energy.

Word reached me this morning that Henry Kleynhans, 50, a retired police officer was fatally mauled on February 8, 2018, and his wife Rita was critically injured, by their own pit bull in their home at Belmont Park, Kraaifontein, South Africa.

South Africa, a nation with one fifth the human population of the U.S., has had 16 documented fatal pit bull attacks in 24 months, compared to six deaths caused by all other dogs combined.

During the same period in the U.S. we saw 71 fatal pit bull attacks, with 11 deaths inflicted by other breeds.

This mean a South African is about a third more likely to be killed by a dog than an American, and somewhat more likely to be killed by a pit bull, even though pit bulls have inflicted 87% of the fatal attacks on Americans. *  

These gruesome facts prompted me to pull out an article that I had originally written in my weekly Prescott Daily Courier column.  The date was May 30, 2013.

In that article, I asked my community to consider these facts:

The increase in dogs killed in U.S. shelters in 2011 was entirely attributable to an increase of 120,000 pit bull terriers killed. The total number of pit bulls killed rose to 930,300; the highest number in three years and representing 60 percent of all dogs killed in U.S. shelters.

Although pit bulls account for only 3.3 percent of the U.S. dog population, according to a 2011 Animal People survey, they represent 29 percent of all dogs surrendered nationally to shelters or impounded by animal control. This is a 23 percent increase since 2003. 

However, pit bulls account for a whopping 51 percent (1,324) of all dogs (2,595) my organization in Arizona rescued in 2012, and 47 percent (51) of all the homeless dogs (107) euthanized that year. 

During their lives, pit bulls are more often displaced than any other breed. Pit bulls are typically surrendered to shelters by their primary caretaker, but on average, each surrendered pit bull had three primary caretakers in just the preceding 18 months. Pit bulls also account for 22 percent of all dogs impounded for abuse and neglect; 46 percent of all dogs impounded for injuring humans; 51 percent of all dogs impounded for attacking other animals; and virtually all dogs impounded in dog fighting cases.

Pit bulls are adopted in greater numbers across the U.S. than any other breed. Still the volume arriving at shelters is so high that despite intensive national promotions by organizations like Best Friends Animal Society, the ASPCA, the American Humane Association, and the Maddie’s Fund, the rate at which pit bulls are killed in shelters only fell from 93 percent ten years ago to 89.5 percent today. Even Los Angeles Animal Services, which adopts more pit bulls than any agency in the U.S., kills about 40 percent of all the pit bulls they rescue, and has reported increases in pit bull intakes every year since 2008.

Is there a way to end this disproportionate killing? Three U.S. communities have tried two different solutions. San Francisco, Denver and Miami each enacted breed-specific legislation. San Francisco requires pit bulls to be sterilized; Denver and Miami prohibit pit bulls within city limits. The latter seems onerous, if not unconstitutional; the former, however, may be a humane solution worthy of consideration.

Cumulatively, San Francisco, Denver and Miami kill about 40 percent fewer dogs of any breed than the U.S. national average. A comparison of San Francisco and Ontario, Canada is especially interesting. Ontario banned all pit bulls at the same time San Francisco mandated sterilization. Seven years later, the reduction in pit bulls is almost identical.”

I share all this information again, because it leads me to ask again the question I asked in 2013; and that is, as a humane strategy for ensuring our communities are safe, should we consider mandatory sterilization of pit bulls, a category of dog whose offspring are at the greatest risk for being abused, killed or shuffled from home to home before being abandoned at a shelter.

When I asked this question in 2013 in the local newspaper, my community responded this way:

Eighty-two percent favored a mandatory pit-bull spay/neuter ordinance.

Twenty-one percent felt mandatory spay/neuter for all dogs and cats should be required. Four people favored banning pit-bulls altogether, while two people feared mandatory spay/neuter would lead to pit-bull extinction. While this is not a likely outcome, that concern could easily be addressed with a sunset clause.

One person seriously felt mandatory spay/neuter was an attempt by our local shelter to corner a lucrative pit-bull market.  Two people felt mandatory spay/neuter ordinances infringed on their American freedoms, even though courts across the U.S. have consistently upheld a community’s right to regulate the breeding of animals considered problematic.

Four people felt mandatory spay/neuter is discriminatory, but they were equally divided – two stating an ordinance should include all dogs and cats, while the other two opposed any spay/neuter ordinance at all.  All four perhaps overlooked the prejudice currently practiced against pit-bulls and the fact that a targeted spay/neuter ordinance could help alleviate their suffering.

Three people felt education is a better approach than legislation. However, humane organizations have been promoting the virtues of both spay/neuter and pit-bulls for nearly 30 years with no metric pertaining to pit-bulls improving over all those years.

Four people felt spay/neuter ordinances are ineffective. They failed to notice the success in San Francisco where in just 8 years there was a 49 percent decline in the number of pit-bulls impounded, a 23 percent decline in the number of pit-bulls euthanized and an 81 percent decline in the number of pit-bulls involved in fatal and disfiguring attacks.

Several thoughtful responses suggested an ordinance should include adequate enforcement provisions and stiff penalties, funding to help subsidize low-cost spay/neuter and humane education and breeding permits for responsible breeders.

Two responders did not understand that our local shelter spays or neuters prior to adoption and did not contribute to or profit from this problem.  In fact, the shelter I managed at the time, invested more than $400 into every animal adopted; never fully recouping those costs with a double digit adoption fee.  Our shelter also performed a comprehensive behavioral assessment on every pit-bull prior to placing them for adoption.

In addition, per Arizona state law, owners of unaltered pets are issued a spay/neuter voucher when claiming a pet from a shelter.  Sadly, only 50 percent of those vouchers were ever redeemed, further evidence, perhaps, that a mandatory ordinance is indeed needed.

In local shelters across the United States, and perhaps around the world, pit bulls and feral cats are dying in the largest numbers.  Most of us who support “no-kill” promote TNR to solve the feral cat problem, but are too often hesitant to apply the same life saving solution to pit bulls.  Targeted spay/neuter programs for pit bulls is the most viable, humane, non-lethal solution.

Please contact me if I can help your community grapple with this challenging issue.