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Lucky is a small, brown brindled pit bull who’s spent the last two years at Orphans of the Storm, an animal shelter in Deerfield. Depending who’s peering into his cage, either he’s got the makings of a steadfast companion who wants to cover someone’s face with kisses or he’s a vicious liability, hardwired to “snap” at some future moment and maul whoever’s around when he does.
Two years ago police officers picked him up in Waukegan, untagged, emaciated, and filthy. His right eye was missing, the socket infected, and his right rear leg bowed out. He trembled constantly. When shelter workers see a pit bull that looks like Lucky, they assume it has been used in dogfighting. At Orphans of the Storm a tenth of the pit bulls brought in by law enforcement are put down because their wounds and infections are thought to be untreatable. Lucky was lucky. He got a cage instead.
That same day, volunteer Stacy Goodman saw Lucky cowering in a corner of his cage, wrapped him in a towel, and took him to her house, where she already had two pit bulls adopted from the shelter. He hid in closets and under bushes when she was out and stayed close by her when she got home. But he repeatedly growled at her husband, and then he growled at her four-year-old son, so within a month he was back at the shelter.
When Goodman visits Lucky there, he whimpers and quivers with excitement. He rushes to her side when she lets him out of his kennel, sometimes throwing her off balance in his eagerness. But he still growls and barks at the male handlers and at male adopters who approach his cage. Sometimes he lunges and snaps at them too, and a few months ago he nipped someone’s hand hard enough to draw blood.
Goodman says he’s just scared. When he growled at her family, she says, “that was at the height of his distrust of people, I guess especially with men. He was just taken off the street when I had him. He just needs someone to build up his confidence and train him in how to deal with all that fear.” She and her husband have since spent over $3,000 on health insurance for Lucky, on vet bills for his eye, and on medication, including “doggie Prozac,” which he’s taken twice a day for a year. Goodman says he’s less excitable since he started the antidepressants, but he’s still hostile toward men. So in December she hired a trainer to try to curb his aggression and make him more attractive to potential adopters.
There are many people who believe Lucky should never get a chance to leave the shelter, no matter how well he responds to medication or training. In December, 19th Ward alderman Virginia Rugai introduced a proposal to ban new ownership of pit bulls or pit bull mixes in Chicago. Current owners would be required to keep their dogs at home except to go to the vet or comply with a court order, muzzle the dogs whenever they leave home, implant a special identification microchip, buy $100,000 worth of liability insurance, and take a city-approved obedience course, among other things. It’s a revision of her January 2004 proposal, under which current owners would have been forced to get rid of their dogs. The state Animal Control Act bans breed-specific legislation, but Rugai hopes to pass the revised ordinance anyway under Chicago’s power of home rule. The proposal has been referred to the City Council’s license and consumer protection committee and is awaiting review there.
Rugai and her supporters say Goodman and others who work to find homes for dogs like Lucky are putting the public in danger. “It’s not a matter of rehabilitation,” says Rugai spokeswoman Peggy Rafferty. “No one can say when a pit bull is going to snap, and it doesn’t matter what the history is. We get calls here all the time from people who were personally attacked by a dog they knew, thanking us for doing something about the pit bull problem. There was a lady who called just the other day, sobbing. She had been talking to someone on the sidewalk with her little shar-pei when a pit bull came out of nowhere and ripped her dog to shreds. There is something about their breeding that makes them snap after a certain age, and it is completely unpredictable.”
She brings up the incident in November where two ten-year-olds in suburban Cary, going door-to-door selling candy for a fund-raiser, were attacked by a neighbor’s three pit bulls. The dogs ran through a door they knocked on, which was ajar. When owner Scott Sword tried to stop them, they turned on him, and one bit off his thumb. They attacked three other men who’d come to help, one of whom was using a baseball bat to fend them off. Yet in one news account of the incident, McHenry County sheriff Keith Nygren was quoted as saying, “We have talked to many of the neighbors in the area to try to ascertain any previous problems with the animals and have found none. We had no previous calls to animal control about these dogs being loose in the neighborhood or injuring anybody.”
No hard numbers exist on what percentage of reported bites in Chicago are by pit bulls, but Rafferty says frequency isn’t the issue. “You always hear people complaining that Chihuahuas bite more than any other dog, but the media doesn’t talk about Chihuahua bites and no one wants to ban Chihuahuas. You aren’t going to die from a Chihuahua bite, and you probably aren’t even going to report it.” She points to a 2000 report released by the Centers for Disease Control that attributes about a third of all human dog-bite fatalities to pit-bull-type dogs. “That doesn’t mean that pit bulls bite more than other dogs,” she says. “That means when they bite, they bite to kill.”
Linda Widmer is a veteran volunteer with the Furry Friends Foundation, a shelter that focuses on pit bulls. She says this oft-cited statistic can’t be used to characterize the breed because it doesn’t reflect the inhumane conditions in which many pit bulls are raised and kept. A pit bull involved in an attack on a human, she says, was probably trained to behave that way by an irresponsible owner. “You never learn about how those dogs were raised in filthy cages, how they were starved, beaten, never given proper human contact,” she says. “How can we expect these dogs to be properly socialized but let people get away with treating them that way?”
No one familiar with the history of the breed denies that pit bulls have an elevated capacity for aggression. What pit bull enthusiasts and supporters of the ban disagree on is where that aggression is directed, what brings it out, and whether it can be controlled.
The pit bull is believed to have been bred from working terriers and English bulldogs, the latter named for their use in bullbaiting. When the sport was outlawed in England in 1835, dismayed enthusiasts started fighting the dogs against one another. They were bred for gameness, or the ability to last in the pit for hours without succumbing to pain or exhaustion. Most other dogs will snarl and back away after establishing dominance, but pit bulls were bred to take a challenger down.
They weren’t, however, bred to exhibit aggression toward humans. The men who reared these fighters often had to reach into a match to pull out their animal, and dogs that snarled or bit at their masters’ hands were shot on the spot, limiting the perpetuation of that type of aggression in the gene pool. While proponents of the breed acknowledge that pit bulls come with a built-in capacity for brutality toward other animals, they believe these dogs also have a keen desire to obey and please humans.
Widmer says every dog at Furry Friends gets walked twice a day by a volunteer. If during a walk, or any other time, a volunteer notices aggressive tendencies in the dog, it’s scheduled for a temperament test. This means the animal is chained up and various stimuli are marched across its path so a trainer can note its reactions. These always include another dog and a cat, and a child if volunteers think the dog might be aggressive toward people. It’s not uncommon for pit bulls to growl, bark, and strain at the other animals, Widmer says, but it’s rare for them to react badly to a human.
The test used at Furry Friends is derived from one developed by the American Temperament Test Society, a national organization that keeps stats by breed on the dogs it puts through the paces. The American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, and the Staffordshire bull terrier–the three breeds most commonly referred to as pit bulls–have passing rates of 83.4 percent, 83.3 percent, and 93.2 percent respectively. Golden retrievers have a passing rate of 83.6 percent. Standard smooth-haired dachshunds come in at 66.7 percent.
If a dog fails the people portion of the test at Furry Friends, it’s put under an intense regimen with a trainer to isolate the motivation, or “drive,” behind its bad behavior and correct the response. Of the 50 to 70 pit bulls Widmer estimates that Furry Friends received last year, 14 spent significant time with trainer Alan Rapata, the owner of K9 University. He says 12 were successfully trained and eventually adopted. One that he thought was predisposed to be aggressive toward people was trained but adopted only after Rapata screened the owner. And one was put down because Rapata thought it would be “next to impossible” to find a person who could handle its problems.
Widmer says Furry Friends placed about 100 pit bulls and pit mixes in homes last year. All adopters are required to sign up for an obedience class within three weeks of the adoption and present proof of completion within three months. Those who don’t risk losing the dog, according to a contract they sign with the shelter. Volunteers call the day after the dog goes home to inquire about any immediate concerns. They also call at the end of the first week and again at the end of the first month, and then at random intervals. If new issues arise, the dog is placed with Rapata, who tries to figure out what’s driving the behavior and correct the response.
“There’s a process in place,” Widmer says. “It would be a liability for us if we thought a dog wasn’t safe. We know these dogs, we touch them and walk them and feed them. If there’s something we notice, like the dog is food protective, we let the adopter know, ‘Just don’t touch him when he’s eating.’ If it’s something we can’t figure out, we send it for training. If training doesn’t work and there’s a genetic or psychological problem, we are willing to put the dog down. No-kill does not mean never-kill. But that’s one dog compared to 100.”
The long corridor of the dog wing at Orphans of the Storm resounds with anxious barking and whimpering. Ami Moore, a trainer from Highland Park who advertises herself as the Dog Whisperer of Chicago, doesn’t seem to notice. Moore trained both of Stacy Goodman’s pit bulls when they were less than a year old, and Goodman’s husband, Dru, says they were like “little marines” afterward. “They came back military perfect,” he says. Now they’ve hired her to train Lucky.
Moore stops in front of Lucky’s cage. She and the dog size each other up for a moment. Then without bristling, barking, or baring his teeth in warning, Lucky lunges across the cage and roars at her through the wire mesh of the thin door. Moore, a tall, stern woman with a startlingly direct gaze, stoops down and pushes her face up to the mesh. In a low voice she growls, “Siddown.” Lucky glares at her, drops to all fours, and turns away to face a corner of his cage.
Someone asks Moore if she wants him muzzled. “No muzzle,” she says.
Ten minutes later she changes her mind. One of the workers, a guy with a better track record handling Lucky than some of the others, has moved him uneventfully to an outdoor cage. Moore wants to buckle an electronic collar around his neck while keeping him in the cage, but he charges the door every time she unlatches it. Between escape attempts, he paces the length of the cage, his head snapping wildly around on his short neck, saliva flying from his jaws onto the concrete floor. She calls the same guy over to muzzle and restrain him while she fastens the collar around his neck. When she shuts the door on him again, he slams the end of the plastic muzzle against the ground.
The electronic collar, operated by a remote control in Moore’s hand, will send a shock to Lucky’s neck every time she presses a button. The intensity of the shock, she says, can be manipulated to feel as light as a quick poke with a pencil tip or as heavy as a brushup against a very hot pan. The collar is a tool of punishment: the dog is corrected whenever it does something wrong. The “reward” for stopping the wrong behavior is that the unpleasantness goes away. The trend among pet dog trainers is toward positive reinforcement, which involves rewarding good behavior with food or praise, but Moore believes it’s not an option for aggressive dogs. “No cookie pusher is ever gonna dominate a pit bull,” she says; it’s important for any dog owner to step quickly into the “alpha role,” but “with pit bulls, it’s crucial.”
Moore asks some of the male workers to walk up to the cage yelling and waving their hands. She stands to one side as they do, telling the dog in measured tones to sit. As the first guy nears the cage, Lucky bristles and raises his haunches. “Sit,” Moore says loudly and hits the remote. Lucky’s ear flicks slightly, which Moore says is a common reaction to a low-level shock, but he continues to get up. She repeats the command and sends a bigger shock. Lucky appears to hesitate, and she gives him a third command and another shock, more intense than the last two. When the man bends at the waist to put his face near the door, Lucky lunges, thrashing his muzzle against the mesh and clawing at the door. The man quickly backpedals and Lucky returns to the sit.
“He’s gonna be an ass about this,” Moore says, irritated. “His manners have got to be impeccable, more so than any German shepherd or rottweiler. At this point, every pit bull is an ambassador of the breed. One more bad dog is gonna ruin it for all of them.”
Since Lucky got to the shelter, only two people have even expressed interest in adopting him; both ended up changing their minds. It’s been four months since any pit bull or pit mix left Orphans of the Storm, where a third of the dogs are at least part pit. No other breed has seen a similar drop in adoptions. And more pits keep coming in. Two litters of puppies that arrived before Christmas are still intact. Gail Donahue, the shelter administrator, says she’s never seen anything like that. “Puppies don’t stay more than a few days, and everyone wants puppies around the holidays,” she says. “These guys almost aren’t puppies anymore.”
Donahue rattles off a litany of reasons for the trouble shelters are having finding homes for pit bulls. “It’s prejudice,” she says. She blames landlords and insurance companies with restrictions against the breed, Rugai’s proposed ban, and the widely held belief that the dogs have abnormally strong jaws with a locking mechanism that renders them unable to release after chomping down on a stick, or another animal, or your arm. Peggy Rafferty in Rugai’s office, for one, subscribes to the locking jaw theory. But pit bull advocates cite a handful of experts, including the author of a widely used dog anatomy textbook, who say there’s no such thing as a locking jaw. “It’s ridiculous,” says Donahue. “How could they eat?”
Orphans of the Storm isn’t the only place pits are piling up. After Rugai reintroduced her ban proposal, PAWS Chicago, a no-kill organization that still accepts pits, got a burst of calls from longtime owners looking to dump their pets. Founder Paula Fasseas says pit bulls take three times longer than other dogs to get adopted. The Anti-Cruelty Society stopped offering pit bulls for adoption in the 80s, when a spate of attacks were reported in newspapers. “We are a high-volume shelter,” says president Gene Mueller. “We don’t have the resources to follow through with a home visit to make sure the dog is being kept as a family pet and not being abused. Also this is a public safety issue. It’s a liability for a shelter if it places out a dog that any reasonable person would consider dangerous. We have limited room, and we try to do the greatest good for the greatest number of dogs.”
Though Anti-Cruelty stopped accepting strays of any breed in 2004, dogs still get dumped on their doorstep. Mueller says 10 percent are pit bulls. “It was more like one or 2 percent until 1995, when we saw a sudden jump,” he says. Young pit bulls with no symptoms of dogfighting are passed on to other shelters. Aggressive or older pits with scars are euthanized. “These high-intake, no-kill shelters that take pit bulls also have limited capacity. We realize that younger dogs that are nonfighters are more likely to get adopted,” Mueller says. Only 25 percent of the pits dumped at Anti-Cruelty make it to another shelter.
The city’s Animal Care and Control department doesn’t have a breed-specific policy regarding pit bulls, and it doesn’t track the dogs it receives or euthanizes by breed. But spokeswoman Melanie Sobel says it has experienced an “onslaught” of pit bulls since the mid-90s. The department takes in strays, animals brought in by the police, and dogs passed on by shelters like the Anti-Cruelty Society, among other sources. In 2005, 6,330 dogs were euthanized at Animal Care and Control. “Any pit bull with fighting scars is humanely euthanized,” Sobel says. “If it’s a perfectly nice dog with an excellent temperament, we try and place it with a rescue group or, sometimes, will keep the dog here for adoption.” But that’s rare. “If we adopted out pit bulls, our whole adoption room would be filled with them. Pit bulls have to go to people that are very experienced with animals, and we don’t have the resources to do background checks or home checks. It’s very sad.”
Both Mueller and Sobel cite Furry Friends as the kind of shelter they like to work with to relocate pit bulls, because the volunteers do careful screening of adopters and lengthy follow-ups. But in October Furry Friends put a moratorium on accepting new dogs into its boarding facility, where there are already 26 pit bulls and eight other dogs in a shelter with 30 cages; 50 more pit bulls are waiting in foster homes for a spot to open up. Altogether that’s nearly the number of dogs that Furry Friends placed in homes last year.
Moore has the next few guys approach Lucky’s cage, each time with much the same result. Lucky makes a move, she attempts to slow his response with a command and shock, and Lucky goes for it anyway. Moore now has the collar turned up to its highest setting. “That’s the thing with this breed, this goddamn stubbornness,” she says. “If he wants to, he’ll fight me like this for hours rather than give up his dominance.”
She says pit bulls often need more work than other dogs she trains, but she blames that on the owners. “I never get called in when the dog is still a puppy and I can socialize him around anything–other dogs, cats, children, whatever. I get a call when he’s full-grown and testing his boundaries, and the owner never wants to punish him when he’s acting up ’cause ‘that’s mean.’ Now he already bit someone on the street because no one ever told him he couldn’t, and there’s a court order and they’re just calling me ’cause they have to, not ’cause they want to.”
Moore believes pit bulls, more than other breeds, require a very specific type of owner. “They’re not good for first-time dog owners,” she says. “You want someone who’s physically able to dominate–so no 100-pound women with 80-pound pit bulls, please. It’s best if there are no other animals in the house. You want someone who doesn’t work 80 hours a week, ’cause they’re gonna need to spend some time working their pit bull, exhausting all that strength. An exhausted pit bull is a good pit bull.”
Moore says she’s had clients who fit all those requirements but seem to enjoy their dog’s aggressive tendencies. “It’s usually the men,” she says with a sigh. “I’ll go over there and from the first second I’ll know, in the back of my head, that something else is going on here. I can usually read it in the way the dog behaves during the training. I think, This guy is using his pit bull as an extension of his ego. He wants a macho, tough-guy dog, not a sweet, lovey, kissy pit bull. I just wait to hear about how that pit bull ended up biting somebody, and no one can understand how it happened.”
Moore estimates that she’s recommended half of the human-aggressive pit bulls she’s trained be put down. “Mind you, I’m not saying to euthanize the dog because it can’t be trained. It’s that I know the owner is not interested in doing the work. The dog is gonna see that contradiction between what I’m telling him and what his owner wants when I’m not around, and that makes him think, I’m boss of this house. The next bite is gonna put someone in the hospital. Most likely it’ll be the owner.”
So far she’s reserving judgment on Lucky. She says there are factors to consider in his surroundings at the shelter that would make training any dog hard, like the proximity of other dogs. The only way to know whether he’s truly receptive to training, she says, would be to work with him in a home, with an owner he can bond with.
The last guy to walk up to Lucky’s cage carries a shovel, which he brandishes in a threatening way. As he approaches, Lucky settles into what Moore calls a “good sit”–haunches flat on the ground, back straight, front legs tucked in–at her first command.
Terrie is among the few pit bull owners Moore says she’s worked with who did everything right. She hired Moore when her dogs were young. She keeps up their training on her own and spends at least half an hour each day “running them off,” as she calls it–throwing a ball in the yard “over and over and over and over, and over, until they get tired.” Spencer, who’s two, is training to become a licensed therapy dog for hospitalized kids, and Prudence, now 12 and graying, worked as a therapy dog at a rehabilitation center when she was younger. Terrie got the idea while visiting her mother in the hospital with Prudence in tow. The dog trotted over to a bed occupied by a child who had been in an accident. “The nurses told me he wasn’t responding to anyone, never talked, wasn’t doing too good,” she says. “Prudence went over to him and just laid her head on his hand, and his whole face lit up. We were all crying. It was so beautiful.”
Terrie doesn’t want to give her last name, because she doesn’t want readers to be able to find her address. She’s worried about her dogs getting kidnapped by people who’d sell them on the street, and that the dogfighters police confiscated Spencer from might come knocking.
Terrie became a pit bull lover by accident. Twelve years ago she adopted what she thought was a black Labrador mix from Orphans of the Storm. When she took the dog to be spayed, her vet told her that Prudence was in fact a purebred pit bull. “I didn’t really know anything about pit bulls at the time,” she says. “I guess I was lucky not to have heard all the news stories of pit bull maulings and savage pit bulls.” She went back to the shelter to inquire about Prudence’s history and now believes she had been used as a “bait dog” when she was a puppy–a smaller dog that riles up other pit bulls before a match.
After adopting Prudence, Terrie learned more about the breed and about dogfighting and started working with Midwest Rescue, a volunteer-run organization that rescued pits that were used in dogfighting or otherwise abused. The group has been defunct since the founder passed away last year. Midwest Rescue volunteers often took dogs directly from the owners, and Terrie participated in half a dozen “pickups” in the year and a half she volunteered. She says the worst situation she saw was on the northwest side: “A woman called us to say she wanted to give up a litter of pit puppies. When we got there, she looked embarrassed and didn’t really want to talk to us. The dam and the puppies were in this little closet. The dam was being fought for sure, with gashes all over her head. The pups were bloated and filthy; one had a broken leg. I don’t know why that person contacted us. That doesn’t usually happen, it’s usually a neighbor or something who’ll call in to tip us off. Why didn’t she just abandon the puppies somewhere? I guess she felt a little sorry for them.”
The volunteers placed some of the puppies in a kennel that had donated space; others went to foster homes. All but one were adopted, according to Terrie–the pup with the broken leg died a few weeks after the pickup.
Terrie believes that given the right care and training, almost any pit bull can become a great family pet. “This is a human problem, not the dog’s problem,” she says. “The media doesn’t tell the whole story, the connection between dogs that bite and the thugs and gangbangers that make them that way, the underground problem.” She laughs. “Listen to me, talking about the ‘underground,'” she says. “This isn’t a Disney movie. I’m not opposed to euthanization of any kind of animal with a genetic problem or some sort of psychological defect. But that’s not the true representation of this breed. My guys are the true reps, but newspapers aren’t interested in pit bulls that are trained as therapy dogs. They say only one in 600 pit bulls finds a forever home; real pit bulls are totally sweet, and they get euthanized for no reason at all. There might have been homes out there for them.”
When asked if she would consider adopting a pit bull known to have bitten a person seriously, she thinks for a moment. “If Ami Moore said it was OK,” she says, “and my gut told me it was OK, I would take that dog.”
“Any of those people who say pit bulls can be trained, they’re safe, they shouldn’t be banned, I wish they could be attacked by a pit bull,” says Mary Murphy-Smith, her voice thick with emotion. She checks herself and says, “Of course I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone. It’s just, most people haven’t been attacked by a pit bull. I’ve been attacked by two. You can heal from a dog bite. You never heal from a pit bull mauling.”
In January 2003 Murphy-Smith, then a midwife in her mid-40s, was jogging in the Dan Ryan Woods when she came across a body lying just ahead on the path. “They had taken Anna down just 30 minutes before,” she says. Anna Cieslewicz, who would later die, was an acquaintance. She was already unconscious when two dogs came out of the brush and attacked Murphy-Smith. They tore at her legs and forced her to the ground, and then one started on her right arm, working down from the biceps to the forearm. As the other went for her neck, she grabbed a stick and jammed it down the dog’s throat. It backed away, which gave her enough time to get on her feet, stumble down a hill, and make her way out of the woods. The dogs chased her to the very edge, turning back when she came out onto 83rd Street. They were later hunted down by officials and shot to death.
It was never discovered whether they had owners or how they ended up in the forest preserve. Murphy-Smith, whose house is close to the woods, says that about a month before she had spotted the pair eating the remains of some animal and called the Cook County Forest Preserve police to report them.
After five surgeries to repair the damage to her arm and hand, she can now make a fist, but doctors have told her that’s about all she’ll ever be able to do. Though she’s undergone therapy to deal with the emotional trauma of her ordeal, she continues to have vivid nightmares about pit bulls. But she still owns a golden retriever that she’s had since before the attack. “She’s just so gentle, she almost never even barks. And she’s just so wonderful around children.” Murphy-Smith talks about her retriever just the way Terrie talks about her pit bulls.
Sergeant Steve Brownstein runs the tiny Animal Abuse Control Team of the Chicago Police Department, which was authorized in 1999 to investigate animal abuse and dogfighting. In the last year alone, Brownstein and his partner have taken more than 650 animals from abusive environments and made more than 100 arrests, and he says the problem is still growing.
Over the years he has seen full-grown pit bulls being kept in tiny cages with open wounds and oozing infections. He’s seen puppies weaned too early and purposely underfed so they’d quickly learn to fight other dogs for survival. Emaciated dogs loaded with heavy bricks and forced to pull the weight to build up their strength, dogs kept chained up in backyards with no human contact, left out in the rain and the snow, dogs fed hot peppers, steroids, cocaine, and gunpowder to make them mean. And he says it’s astonishingly easy for anyone who wants to fight a pit bull, even a child, to get his hands on one–and no, he won’t explain how. “All you need is 20 bucks,” he says.
Opponents of Rugai’s ban say that if pit bulls are restricted or killed off, dogfighters will simply switch to another breed. Brownstein thinks this is nonsense. “German shepherds weren’t bred to fight other dogs,” he says. “Rottweilers weren’t bred to fight other dogs. Pit bulls are the only dog of choice for dogfighting. It’s in their breeding, and the people who want to fight dogs know that.”
Brownstein agrees that people, not the dogs, are the problem. But he thinks pit bull advocates like Terrie have the wrong idea about the solution. When he confiscates a dog, he turns it over to the Animal Welfare League, or to the city’s Animal Care and Control Department, where Sobel says most of them are euthanized. “Those who oppose euthanasia as inhumane and cruel treatment are ignoring the horrible reality of the abuse these animals faced and will continue to face out on the streets,” Brownstein says. “No-kill shelters that accept any dog brought to their doors aren’t facing the reality that there are thousands of dogs and far less homes. It’s unjust to the dog to keep it indefinitely. Euthanasia is unfortunate, not inhumane.”
He thinks organizations that conduct their own rescues instead of notifying the police inadvertently perpetuate the cruelty. “Unless animal abusers and dogfighters know they can be arrested, they will not have any incentive to stop these crimes of violence,” he says. “It is my firm belief that these crimes should be addressed by law enforcement, and law enforcement alone.”
Brownstein says every now and then he finds a dog with a microchip embedded in a bit of muscle that traces it back to an animal shelter or a rescue group. Somehow, despite owner-screening processes that can include long application forms, interviews, home visits, and signed contracts stating that the animal will be returned to the shelter if the owner can’t care for it anymore, the dog ended up in a situation where the Animal Abuse Control Team was forced to intervene.
“‘Rescuing’ dogs and putting them in the shelter and getting them adopted, without conducting a criminal investigation [of those responsible for the abuse] is like going up to a drug dealer on the corner, taking the narcotics out of his hand, and thinking that’s gonna solve the drug problem,” he says.
Brownstein knows there are pit bull owners across the city who will talk at length about how happy their rescued pit bull is, how they’re thinking of adopting another one, how the dog might have been put down if they hadn’t come along. He doesn’t dispute these people’s stories. He just thinks they are a tiny group among a much larger population who will continue to abuse pit bulls as long as they are available.
“Look, I’m not saying poorly socialized pit bulls can’t be rehabilitated,” he says. “You gotta understand, I have two rescued dogs of my own at home. [But] there are far too many people out there who want them for one purpose and one purpose only: fighting.”
A week after Lucky’s last session, Moore and Goodman stand at the gate to the dog run at Orphans of the Storm. Lucky is collared, muzzled, and leashed. It’s a crisp day, late afternoon, and the shelter grounds are mostly quiet while the rest of the dogs take a nap. Lucky strains at the leash and whines. He looks like he often does when Goodman visits–eager, not hostile. A Latino shelter worker passes by the dog run carrying a sack of grass seed. “Can you come over here for a second please?” Moore calls to him. He looks around, puts the bag down, and walks up to the gate. “I’m gonna tell him to sit, and then I want you to put your hand up where he can see it, and then I’m gonna say, ‘Say hi, Lucky,’ and you say hi too, and then put your hand very slowly over his head and pet him. Don’t lean over him or come in too fast. Stay where you are, and just put your hand out. OK?”
The guy shrugs, laughing a little. “I don’t think he got that, Ami. I think it might be a language thing,” Goodman says. Moore thinks for a moment while Lucky rubs his muzzle into the grass at her side. “OK, can you just pet him? Pet?” she asks, motioning in the air with her palm. “OK sure,” he says.
He scratches Lucky’s head gingerly. Lucky whimpers and softly pushes his head into the man’s palm. The worker squats and places both hands on the dog’s head. “He’d never have been able to do this before,” Goodman says. “Lucky would have been jumping all over the guy, kind of scratching and pushing.” He gives Lucky another pat on the head and stands up, dusting his palms off on his jeans. “He’s nice today,” he tells the women, smiling, and walks off.
At Moore’s request, Goodman bends down and unfastens the muzzle. Lucky stretches his square jaws, his one eye blinking as he yawns. Moore says, “Sit, Lucky,” and gives him a low-level shock. Lucky sits, and it’s a good sit. “Good boy, Lucky,” says Moore. He continues to sit while Goodman unlatches the gate. “Go play, Lucky,” Moore says, and drops the leash. He trots neatly into the run and dives under a thicket of bushes, where he hides until Goodman goes into the run and coaxes him out with a toy. He sniffs at the toy, lets Goodman rub his stomach, and beelines back to the bushes. Moore laughs. “It’s a start,” she says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.