We Can Save All The Pit Bulls

Most people in the animal welfare movement believe pit bulls are overpopulated and massive shelter killing is unavoidable. The ridiculously inaccurate “1 in 600 pit bulls make it out of the shelter alive” meme frequently appears on Facebook. Merritt Clifton, who is well-known for his discredited pit bull bite data, argues shelters can’t save any more pit bulls without banning breeding and 60% is the highest pit bull live release rate a shelter can hope for. Even certain pit bull rescue groups believe too few homes exist for pit bulls and adoption prospects are bleak. Are these claims true and should we just accept shelters killing pit bulls in droves?

Some Shelters Are Already Saving All of the Pit Bulls

Required save rates for no kill may be lower for pit bulls. No kill requires only irremediably suffering animals and dogs who present a serious danger to people be euthanized. The 90% save rate standard is the threshold for shelters to achieve no kill. In theory, pit bulls should have a lower save rate due to these dogs above average size. Simply put, an untreatable aggression issue may be forgivable in a small dog, but not a larger dog. Thus, no kill for pit bulls may potentially be achieved at a lower save rate than other dogs due to pit bull type dogs larger size.

Many open admission shelters are on the verge of, if not already, achieving no kill for pit bull type dogs. Over a decade ago, which was before many advances in shelter medicine and behavioral rehabilitation, Nathan Winograd saved 86% of all pit bulls at Tompkins County SPCA in upstate New York despite not adopting out pit bulls with dog or cat aggression. Lane County, Oregon’s Greenhill Humane Society saved 91% of the nearly 150 stray pit bulls taken in over the most recently available 12 month period (March 2013 – February 2014).  Salt Lake County Animal Services saved 90% of its impounded pit bull type dogs in both 2013 and the first four months of 2014. During KC Pet Project’s second year in control of Kansas City’s animal control shelter, the organization saved 86% of its over 1,000 impounded pit bull type dogs. Amazingly, the primary facility is small and outdated and Breed Specific Legislation (“BSL”) is prevalent in the area. Most importantly, both KC Pet Project’s and Salt Lake County Animal Services’ live release rates increased significantly in recent years and greater than 90% save rates for pit bull type dogs seem very possible in the near future.

Mathematically speaking, shelters with very high dog save rates and pit bulls comprising a reasonable percentage of dogs will save 90% plus of pit bulls. For example, shelters will automatically save 90% or more of pit bulls with the following statistics:

  • 99% dog save rate with pit bulls equaling 10% or more of dog impounds assuming all dogs euthanized are pit bulls
  • 98% dog save rate with pit bulls equaling 20% or more of dog impounds assuming all dogs euthanized are pit bulls

In reality, even the best no kill shelters typically euthanize 1-2% of animals for medical reasons which makes the pit bull 90% save rate even easier to achieve. Thus, open admission shelters with very high dog live release rates are likely automatically saving 90% plus of their pit bull type dogs.

Other open admission shelters are likely saving 90% or more of their pit bulls. Long Island’s Southampton Animal Shelter’s dog save rate is 97% and pit bulls make up 24% of impounded dogs. If Southampton Animal Shelter euthanizes only 1% of its non-pit bull dogs, the pit bull save rate will equal 91%. The pit bull save rate increases to 94% if 2% of Southampton Animal Shelter’s non-pit bull dogs are euthanized. Colorado’s Longmont Humane Society saves 97% of its dogs and pit bull type dogs made up 8.1% of impounds in the recent past. If Longmont Humane Society euthanizes 1.3% of its non-pit bulls, the pit bull save rate would reach 90%. Monmouth County SPCA states “over a third” of its impounded dogs are pit bull type dogs. Based on pit bulls making up 35% of impounds and assuming all euthanized dogs are pit bulls, the pit bull save rate would equal 96%. If we were to assume the 35% of impounded dogs only applied to local canines (i.e. excluding dogs transferred in from other communities) and all dogs euthanized were pit bulls, the pit bull save rate would be around 90%. Thus, many shelters are likely already saving 90% plus of pit bull type dogs.

Pit Bulls Can Leave Shelters Alive Quicker Than Advertised

The length of time an animal spends in a shelter is critical to saving its life. Reducing the average length of stay in a shelter increases the number of animals a shelter can save. Additionally, reducing the length of stay decreases the chance an animal becomes mentally or physically ill. Also, reducing length of stay decreases the cost of care, such as feeding, cleaning, veterinary treatment, etc. As a result, shelters must do everything they can to get animals out of shelters alive as quickly as possible.

Recent research detailed the length of stay of bully and other major breed groups. Brown, et al. conducted a study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science on factors impacting the time it took dogs to get adopted at two upstate New York animal shelters. Both animal shelters, Tompkins County SPCA and Humane Society of Yates County, serve as the animal control shelters for dogs and are no-kill. 84% of the data came from Tompkins County SPCA, which is the shelter Nathan Winograd used to run, and was collected from 2008-2011. Several major dog groups were evaluated, which included “bully” breeds (150 American pit bull terriers, 1 American Staffordshire terrier, 1 Staffordshire bull terrier, and 3 American bulldogs), as adults (12 months and older) and puppies (under 12 months).

The study’s results detailed below proved pit bull type dogs do not take that much longer to get adopted than other breeds. Adult pit bull type dogs only took a week longer to get adopted than adults of other breed groups. Additionally, pit bull type dogs length of stay until adoption fell into the medium of the range of dogs around their size (i.e. companion, sporting, hound and guard). Also, pit bull type dogs were adopted quicker than both hound and guard dogs. Similarly, pit bull puppies under a year old took only slightly more time to get adopted than most other breeds and were adopted much quicker than guard and terrier puppies. Furthermore, the 49.3 and 27.5 days it took on average to adopt pit bull adults and puppies is not a long time for shelters to care for dogs.

LOS Study Table

The pit bull adoption length of stay figures are consistent with Greenhill Humane Society’s performance with stray pit bulls. Over the most recently reported 12 month period (March 2013 – February 2014), Greenhill Humane Society’s stray pit bulls took 41 days on average to get adopted. Given most strays are likely not puppies, this figure probably contains mostly adult dogs. As a result, the 41 day pit bull adoption length of stay is actually 8 days shorter than the adult pit bull adoption length of stay from the two upstate New York open admission no kill shelters.

Pit bulls actual length of stay at shelters may be lower due to rescues/fosters and owners reclaiming lost pets. For example, dogs may get pulled by rescues or fostered by volunteers long before the normal time it takes to get adopted. Similarly, owners reclaiming their pets tend to do so shortly after the animal arrives at the shelter. Additionally, animals euthanized due to severe medical or behavioral issues may occur long before the typical time it takes to get adopted. Thus, pit bulls actual length of stay at shelters may be lower than the length of stay until adoption figures from the study above.

Pit bulls have short lengths of stay at several other high performing open admission shelters. Salt Lake County Animal Services adoptable pit bulls, which have a 100% save rate, average length of stay is 30 days. Longmont Humane Society’s pit bulls only stay 38 days on average at their shelter. Greenhill Humane Society’s stray pit bulls had an average length of stay of only 16 days over the most recently reported 12 month period. Southampton Animal Shelter’s pit bull length of stay was 65 days in 2011 and 73 days in 2012.

We can also roughly estimate the pit bull length of stay at other open admission shelters with high pit bull save rates. KC Pet Project reports pit bulls make up around 25% of impounds and 40% or more of the shelter’s population. Additionally, they report most dogs get into playgroups after their 5 day stray hold period and take 9 days on average to leave the shelter via adoption or rescue after entering playgroups. Given we know the following formula for estimating a shelter population size, we can use simple algebra and math to estimate the pit bull length of stay:

Shelter Population Size = Daily Intake * Length of Stay

Using this formula, we can determine pit bulls length of stay is approximately 2 times longer than other dogs assuming pit bulls are 25% of dog impounds 40% of the shelter’s dog population. Based on some basic math and knowing most stray dogs not returned to owners stay 14 days at the shelter, we can estimate stray pit bulls not returned to owners take around 22 days to leave the shelter. Assuming owner surrenders enter playgroups after 3 days and dogs returned to owners happen in 5 days on average, I estimate the KC Pet Project’s overall pit bull length of stay is around 19 days. This estimate assumes pit bulls euthanized and those not entering playgroups do not have significantly different lengths of stay. Additionally, the estimate assumes pit bulls and other dogs are similarly represented in strays not returned to owners, owner surrenders, and returned to owner figures. While this is admittedly a rough estimate, it does provide a reasonable view of how effective this shelter is at getting its pit bulls safely out the door.

Monmouth County SPCA reports “over a third” of its impounded dogs are pit bulls and pit bulls are around 50% of the shelter’s population. Based on the shelter’s reported 54 day average length of stay for dogs and assuming 35% of dog impounds and 50% of the shelter’s population are pit bulls, I estimate pit bulls stay 77 days on average at Monmouth County SPCA.

Pit bulls with behavioral issues can also have a relatively short length of stay at shelters. Austin Pets Alive, which pulls dogs off of Austin Animal Services kill list, reports a 52 day average length of stay for its large dogs with behavioral issues (pit bulls represent a significant portion of such dogs). In other words, Austin Pets Alive is able to rehabilitate and place many pit bull type dogs in a reasonably short period of time.

Successful Shelters Use a Variety Strategies to Save Pit Bulls

Playgroups are used by most of these shelters who successfully save pit bull type dogs. Aimee Sandler created playgroup programs to efficiently exercise dogs at the Southampton Animal Shelter and Longmont Humane Society. Subsequently, KC Pet Project and Salt Lake County Animal Service implemented Aimee Sadler’s program.

Playgroups improve the care of dogs at shelters and help get dogs adopted. In a large shelter, taking out and walking every single dog is time-consuming. Additionally, many pit bull type dogs are high energy and require a lot of exercise. Aimee Sadler estimates a 30 minute playgroup session equates to a 2 hour walk. Given large shelters may have over 100 large dogs, the cost savings becomes immediately apparent. Time spent walking dogs can be devoted to cleaning, marketing, off-site events, fundraising, etc. Additionally, dogs in playgroups tend to overcome many pre-existing behavioral issues, such as fear, anxiety, dog aggression, and reactivity. Playgroups also help dogs act calmer in kennels which increases adoption chances. People are frequently drawn to playgroups and are more likely to adopt a dog who is having fun. Also, dogs who play together are more likely to share a kennel peacefully which increases effective shelter capacity and the dog’s mental well-being at the facility. Finally, playgroups provide lots of information about the dogs and help shelters properly match dogs with adopters. Thus, playgroups are critically important to help pit bull type dogs live in shelters and safely get out of these facilities.

Greenhill Humane Society and KC Pet Project use differing strategies to save their pit bull type dogs. Greenhill Humane Society relies on a very high return to owner rate of 68% to achieve impressive pit bull live release rates and reduce these dogs length of stay. On the other hand, KC Pet Project uses a customer oriented, retail business philosophy, to promote adoptions. For example, KC Pet Project uses “open adoptions” which focuses on educating adopters and making great matches verses overzealous screening. Additionally, KC Pet Project set up adoption centers in a strip mall outlet and a local Petco. KC Pet Project also transfers some large dogs to colder rural areas, which have high demand for these dogs, due to local rescues not wanting to take such dogs.

Salt Lake County Animal Services uses a balanced approach for its pit bull type dogs. Several years ago the shelter formed the Salt Lake County Pit Crew program to increase the pit bull live release rate. The program utilizes a variety of programs, such as community support and education, and also promotes adoptions. Community support programs include free spay/neuter, microchipping and leash and collar exchanges. As a result of these programs, pit bull intakes decreased and the pit bull return to owner rate increased over the last several years. Additionally, the percentage of dogs adopted, fostered/rescued increased significantly since the Salt Lake County Pit Crew program started. The shelter uses an “open adoptions” process to make great matches for adopters. Additionally, the shelter adopts pit bulls out at a retail location called the Best Friends Sugar House Adoption Center and does many off-site events. Finally, the Salt Lake County Animal Services’ adoption fee for large dogs is only $50 and discounted adoption fee programs are also offered.

Longmont Humane Society, Southampton Animal Shelter and Monmouth County SPCA use other strategies to save pit bull type dogs. All three organizations invested in facilities which make the dogs stay at the shelters more pleasant and create an atmosphere where the dogs are more appealing to adopters. Additionally, all three shelters have qualified behaviorists to treat and rehabilitate dogs. Also, both Southampton Animal Shelter and Monmouth County SPCA provide free spay/neuter for pit bull type dogs.

Challenges Can Be Overcome

Recently, Dr. Emily Weiss of the ASPCA hypothesized high pit bull intake rather than too few pit bull adoptions results in large numbers of pit bulls killed in shelters. Dr. Weiss concluded shelters were doing a good job with pit bull adoptions due to pit bulls being the 5th most common dog admitted to Banfield Animal Hospitals (i.e. a measure of overall popularity) and the third most frequently adopted dog at animal shelters. The five major flaws in this analysis are as follows:

  1. Pit bulls tend to have more owners who are poor and lack resources to take dogs to animal hospitals (i.e. understating pit bull popularity)
  2. Most shelters do a poor job at adopting dogs so adoption potential is much greater than current level
  3. Pit bulls having more restrictive adoption polices
  4. Overly strict temperament testing for pit bulls reduces the number placed for adoption
  5. Pit bulls were the most frequently impounded dog which suggests the shelter adoption numbers are due to high intake rather than successful adoption efforts

That being said, pit bulls do tend to have above average lengths of stay at shelters. At the high performing shelters above, pit bull type dogs had a length of stay about 2-3 times the average of non-pit bull type dogs. However, these shelters non-pit bull type dogs length of stay is short so the 2-3 times longer length of stay for pit bulls is still reasonable. Also, the study above suggests pit bulls length of stay until adoption is not much different than other large breeds. As a result, pit bull adoption/foster/rescue efforts should be prioritized as these are the primary ways pit bulls not returned to owners leave shelters alive.

Over the longer term efforts to reduce intake and end BSL are key to saving pit bull lives. BSL restricts pit bull type dog ownership in some communities. However, the bigger problem are landlords and/or insurance companies preventing tenants from owning pit bull type dogs. Animal welfare groups need to advocate for legislation requiring landlords to allow pets. The New Jersey Animal Welfare Task Force Report issued a decade ago argued for this and used precedents of Federal Section 527 public housing and New Jersey subsidized senior citizen housing projects requiring landlords to allow pets.

Until the housing availability disparity between pit bulls and other dogs disappears, animal welfare groups should step up efforts to prevent pit bulls from ending up at shelters. Pet owner prevention programs are especially beneficial for pit bull type dogs where housing options are more limited. Downtown Dog Rescue in South Los Angeles is a great example as this organization prevented 2,622 pets from entering the shelter system over the first year of its pet owner support program. Similarly, increased efforts by animal control officers and shelters to return lost dogs to owners are particularly important for pit bulls. Additionally, free pit bull spay/neuter programs may help reduce pit bull intakes over the longer term.

At the end of the day, we can save all the pit bulls. We just need to enact proven successful policies and do the necessary hard work.

CNN Takes An Inside Job To Defend High Kill Shelters

CNN’s “Insight Man” featuring Morgan Spurlock, who is best know for his “Super Size Me” documentary, aired a show this week about the Animal Rescue League of Berks County, Pennsylvania (“Berks ARL”). The program had Mr. Spurlock volunteer at this shelter and showed various aspects of its operations. Berks ARL and Mr. Spurlock should be commended for bringing the shelter killing issue to a large audience. Unfortunately, this documentary perpetuated the myth that open admission shelters have no choice in killing and the killing is the irresponsible public’s fault. No kill shelters were falsely labeled as only being no kill by significantly limited admissions.
Berks ARL serves Berks County, Pennsylvania which has a population of around 413,000 people. The shelter claims to kill more than half the animals it takes in. Based on the shelter’s claimed intake of around 9,000 – 10,000 dogs and cats, this equates to a per capita intake rate of 22-24 dogs and cats per 1000 people. This per capita intake rate is significantly lower than many no kill open admission shelters, such as Washoe County Animal Services – Nevada Humane Society (36 dogs and cats per 1000 people) and Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter in Texas (38 dogs and cats per 1000 people), which save 90% plus of their impounded animals. Both shelters boast extremely short length of stays despite these 90% plus save rates. For example, Williamson County Regional Animal Shelter’s dogs and cats stay on average 11 and 15 days at the shelter.
Shelter Policy on Impounds and Adoption Show Misguided Priorities
Berks ARL makes surrendering animals easy, but adoption difficult. During the episode, Berks ARL revealed the shelter has an after hours “drop-off” area. Apparently, Berks ARL views pets value so low that the animals should be discarded like a piece of trash in the middle of the night. Similarly, their animal control officers are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to pick up animals. On the other hand, the shelter is closed for adoptions on Wednesdays and Sundays and is only open from 11-3 on Saturdays. As a result, the shelter is only open for four hours on weekends, which is the busiest adoption time, but allows people to surrender pets anytime. Additionally, the adoption process involves all sorts background checks, such as veterinarian calls, verifying homeowner and landlord information in databases, as well as having all children and other household dogs present. Also, don’t think about adopting an animal if its 15 minutes before closing time either. Additionally, a dog adopted during the show was not altered which forced the adopter to come back a second time to pick the animal up after surgery. While the shelter does bring dogs to occasional events for “meet and greets”, offsite adoptions are apparently not generally done. As a result, people who do not want to visit an animal shelter because it is sad or otherwise unpleasant can’t usually adopt from Berks ARL. The adoption procedures contrast sharply with KC Pet Project, which made Kansas City’s outdated open admission shelter no kill in a year and a half.  Thus, Berks ARL makes surrendering an animal easy and adopting one a pain.
Berks ARL should manage intake if it cannot adopt out the animals received fast enough. Mainstream animal welfare groups, such as Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA, advocate managed intake for shelters who would be forced to kill animals to make room for others. Managed intake serves many useful purposes for shelters. For example, pet owners who must make an appointment or wait a week may reconsider their decision. Additionally, that time could be used to implement solutions provided by the shelter through a pet owners surrender prevention program. Also, these programs ensure animals are vaccinated before intake, which reduces disease at the shelter, and manages the flow of animals to reduce costs and increase save rates.
Berks ARL also impounds cats at will and killed 4 out of 5 of them during the 2010 kitten season. As the mainstream animal welfare groups proposed, shelters should not impound stray healthy cats unless TNR is done. Apparently, Berks ARL’s former Board President did not hear of this strategy in 2010 as he provided no other viable solution at the time. Now, perhaps the shelter’s viewpoint has more recently changed, but I doubt cat save rates are very high now (I cannot find the shelter’s recent cat statistics anywhere). During the show, one of the shelter’s staff had a very lackadaisical attitude about Morgan Spurlock taking a newborn kitten home to foster. Unlike many shelters which have robust kitten foster programs or nursery wards which save 90% of neonatal kittens, the Berks ARL staff member nonchalantly stated its “50-50” he survives the night and gave the highly vulnerable kitten to Mr. Spurlock who never fostered a kitten before. Not surprisingly this kitten eventually died, but this was after Mr. Spurlock got the kitten through that first vulnerable night. Additionally, the shelter apparently only refers people to other organizations for trap, neuter, release and such programs are apparently done on a small scale. Thus, Berks ARL is not doing the right thing with feral cats or their kittens.
Frightening Evaluation Used to Kill a Dog
The shelter’s behavioral evaluations were done under unnatural conditions. During the show, the canine evaluator took a grey pit bull from his cage into a room literally a few feet away. Speaking as someone who has done many behavioral evaluations, I would never evaluate a dog without taking them for at least a 5 minute walk. Behavioral evaluations in stressful shelter environments often provide incorrect results. Taking a dog straight from the cage and into an adjacent room is not an accurate way to gauge an animal’s behavior in more normal circumstances. Another pit bull was taken straight out for a face to face meeting with an “aggressive” dog. While this pit bull passed the dog to dog evaluation, that is no way to introduce dogs, particularly ones stressed out in a shelter environment.
Berks ARL’s canine evaluator displayed a warped mindset on adoptability. Most interestingly, the canine evaluator never did a formal evaluation. She just observed some body language and felt the dog was neglected and labeled him unadoptable. The dog was killed during the documentary, but the killing was not shown. In a blog post by the shelter, they claimed they did their duty by holding the dog the legally mandated 48 hour hold period and the dog “displayed aggression.” The type of aggression, and the possible reasons (such as temporary stress, health condition, specific trigger) were not mentioned. While this dog may have been unadoptable, the time devoted to and efforts at rehabilitation were virtually nonexistent. Even the ASPCA states their SAFER test, which Berks ARL says is part of their behavioral testing protocol, should be used to develop a plan for rehabilitation and not a thumbs up and down life or death test. Given shelters taking in stray dogs under animal control contracts/adoption guarantee agreements, such as Animal Ark in Hastings, Minnesota, and UPAWS in Marquette, Michigan save 98%-99% of animals, behavioral euthanasia should be quite rare. Similarly, Austin Animal Services, which has a lower overall save rate, only reports around 4% of adult dogs euthanized for behavioral reasons.
Berks ARL used other questionable adoptability criteria. Dog park safety is apparently one of their criteria for “adoptability” per their blog post which likely relegates a large segment of the nation’s dog population to death if they end up at Berks ARL. Additionally, the dog evaluator stated on the show that resource guarding and animal aggression may also lead to killing. Given that research finds 50% of resource guarders in shelters don’t display such behavior in a home environment and most owners don’t care about it, using food aggression as a make or break adoption criteria is highly questionable. Additionally, a very large percentage of dogs display some animal aggression, whether it is towards other dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. Simply using that as an excuse for killing is unacceptable. Clearly, Berks ARL are using temperament tests as a reason to kill.
“Overwhelming” Number of Animals Due to Berks ARL and Not the “Irresponsible Public”
Berks ARL must take responsibility for the “overwhelming” number of animals entering their shelter. Based on the documentary, Berks ARL typically houses 170 dogs and cats (presumably its capacity) and takes in 9,000 -10,000 dogs and cats which equates to animals needing to get in and out of the shelter within 6-7 days. However, Berks ARL’s per capita intake of around 22-24 dogs and cats per 1000 people is far less than many open admission shelters who achieved no kill status. This tells me the shelter over contracted for its capacity and that is the shelter’s and not the public’s fault. No one forced Berks ARL to contract with nearly every municipality in Berks County. If the number of animals coming in under those contracts is too much, they should do some or all of the following:
1) Enter into less contracts so they can service their contracts properly (i.e. save lives and not take them)
2) Build enough kennels and cages to house animals long enough to get them adopted (the shelter has 10 acres of property)
3) Get rid of overnight drop off area which encourages pet abandonment
4) Stop impounding stray cats unless they do TNR and/or implement a robust barn cat program
5) Build a large foster program to expand effective shelter capacity
6) Do offsite adoptions in multiple high traffic locations each day
7) Start large scale dog playgroups where nearly every dog participates to enrich dogs lives and increase adoptability
8) Animal control officers should search lost pet reports, ask people in area about impounded pets, post fliers and scan microchips in the field to increase owner redemptions
9) Develop appointment system and pet surrender prevention programs to manage intake and help owners solve fixable problems
10) Work with local and national animal welfare groups to get volunteers to effectively target high impound areas with free spay/neuter, identity tags, microchips and pet owner retention efforts (Beyond Breed, Downtown Dog Rescue, and Spay/Neuter Kansas City are great examples)
11) Conduct behavioral evaluations properly to solve issues instead of looking for reasons to kill
12) Fully implement all other parts of the no kill equation to reduce length of stay
If Berks ARL wants to stop the killing, it will need to enact these changes instead of complaining about “pet overpopulation” and “not enough homes.” The data shows enough homes exist and other large open admission shelters ended the killing with much greater challenges. The question is does Berks ARL have what it takes to end the killing or will they use CNN’s Inside Man to rationalize the killing?