Pit Bull Ad Blitz: Spay Now or Pay Later

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When the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched an advertising campaign this fall to promote its mobile clinic for pet sterilization, the group tailored its message to the dog owners most in need of access to cheap or free pet services.

In addition to both Spanish and English newspaper and radio ads, the ASPCA sponsored wall-sized ads with graffiti-inspired artwork featuring a man and his canine sidekick on the sides of buildings in Harlem and the Bronx. The “wallscapes” target low-income black and Latino men, the largest demographic of owners of pit bulls – the breed that, more than any other, fills shelters and is euthanized. Although many dog lovers maintain the breed can make friendly companions, they also can be dangerous when neglected or raised for aggression – leading overwhelmed owners to give them up. The ASPCA estimates that eight out of 10 dogs put down in New York City each year are pit bulls. So the group is trying to reduce the number of unintended canine pregnancies.

“We’re trying to encourage owners of large-breed dogs, particularly pit bulls, to come and spay and neuter at no cost,” ASPCA spokeswoman Aimee Hartmann said of the campaign, which was rolled out in mid-October. The encouragement worked: Within 10 days, the ASPCA saw a spike in the number of owners who brought in their large-breed dogs, especially pit bulls.

Through the program, pets would be eligible for free spay (for females) or neuter (for males) surgery. The only requirement: the owner be on some form of public assistance. Otherwise, the surgeries range from $50 to $200 at a discounted rate – while a private veterinarian may charge as much as $800.

“Show your boy you’ve got his back,” reads the sign. “Fix your dog, it’s all good!”

The program has worked closely with the New York City Housing Authority, which is home to an estimated 100,000 pets, according to Stacey Cumberbatch, NYCHA’s chief of staff.

Pet sterilization is not only an effective way to control the pet population, it also reduces aggression in dogs, and decreases the risk of reproductive cancers. Though it takes several years to see the effect of programs such as the ASPCA’s mobile clinics, Animal Care & Control of NYC has noticed a decrease of nearly 10 percent in the use of euthanasia: from 4,171 animals killed in 2006, to 3,763 in 2007. The drop is attributed to the ASPCA’s outreach and four mobile clinics, and similar programs run by Animal Care & Control and the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals.

Pit bulls make up 40 percent of the 12,000 dogs that end up in New York City’s shelter system, according to Richard Gentles, director for administrative services for Animal Care and Control of New York City. They are often the last dogs left in shelters, and therefore the largest group of canines euthanized.
Emelinda Narvaez, founder of Earth Angels Canine Rescue, confirms this with her own four-decade-long dog rescue experience, in which she’s taken in some 6,000 pit bull and pit bull mix dogs. “The shelters are doing the best they can,” said Narvaez. “But people need to be more educated.”

The nearly 5,000 pit bulls in the city’s shelter system remain the poster pups for the city’s difficulty in finding a balance between compassion and accountability when it comes to the animal population.

One major challenge is the attitude of pet owners themselves. Several people passing by the ASPCA wall ad at 124th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem last week said they had experience with pit bulls and aggression – but were late converts, if at all, to the idea of sterilization.

William Underwood, 29, who lives in the neighborhood and works as a party promoter, said he’s had a pit bull for 17 years. Underwood said pit bulls are about “hip hop culture, independence, honor, loyalty.” He has not neutered his dog, Select, and doesn’t want to. “They’re like humans. They’ve got to create generations.”

Bronx resident Karim Singleton, 34, displayed a scar on his arm from the pit bull he’s had for seven years. His pet, Farrel, attacked his girlfriend and then himself. “He’s at a boarding kennel now. I couldn’t bear to put him to sleep,” said Singleton. At the kennel’s recommendation, the dog also was neutered recently to quell his aggression, and is calmer now, Singleton said.

New York City requires sterilization of animals in shelters, but nowhere else. Many animal advocates believe the city is way behind in its sophistication with pet laws. Under the existing dangerous dog law, breeding, owning, purchasing or selling a dog for the purpose of fighting is prohibited. The leash law requires that all dogs in public space be on a leash of no longer than six feet. Both of these laws are not strictly enforced. However, where the city really falls short, said Jane Hoffman, president of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals, is in distributing pet care information about the importance of sterilization and proper dog licensing, for example. A few years ago the health department ran a three-month subway campaign on dog licensing, and the licensing numbers went up. Dog licensing helps the city and owner keep track of a pet, should the animal run away or get stolen, but a license also helps the city locate a dog that may have attacked another dog or a pedestrian. Currently, a pet owner must pay only $3 additional for licensing a dog that is not sterilized, raising the annual cost from $8.50 to $11.50.

For decades, the city dealt with animal overpopulation by euthanizing the majority of strays, especially large-breed dogs. That began to change in 2005 when the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC Animals received a $23.5 million grant that set the wheels in motion for the city to attain no-kill status, which had been promised to local advocacy groups for more than a decade. The grant from Maddie’s Fund, which helps municipalities finance programs to deal with animal overpopulation without euthanasia, will be dispersed to more than 140 animal rescue groups in New York City, including the ASPCA, over the next seven years. A large percentage of the funding will go to spay/neuter programs.
Some would address pit bull overpopulation by banning the breed, as in other municipalities. “We are just looking for the chance to debate this issue in City Hall,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone, who has long advocated banning pit bulls here, or at least strengthening the existing laws on animals, and large dogs in particular. While other cities, such as Denver, have enforced the ban, New York City is at the mercy of Albany and a current law prohibiting breed bans. Vallone has also tried to pass, and many local animal advocates endorse, an anti-tethering law, which would limit the amount of time a dog could be tied up in public space.

Vallone said he hears of numerous incidents involving bites and attacks by pit bulls every month. “Many of the dogs are this way because they are so mistreated,” he said.

Sometimes called “the poor man’s hummer,” these American pit bull terriers and mixed breeds carry a longstanding association with aggression, fighting and street violence. Even for the ardent dog lovers looking to adopt, the breed can be overwhelming in size and demeanor. All of this makes the dogs a hard sell for adoptions, and the occasional subjects of front-page news – as with the elderly man attacked by two neglected pit bulls on Staten Island in July, or Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick’s use of pit bulls for dog fighting.

But according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the total number of dog bites, regardless of breed, declined to 3,634 in 2007, down from the 5,300 reported in 2001. Attacks and bites can come from any breed of dog, notes Hoffman from the Mayor’s Alliance – and many people forget this.

“A pit bull could nip the pinky off of someone and it’s all over the news,” she says. “But a cocker spaniel eats the face off a baby and it’s maybe in two papers.”

At Animal Care & Control, which has a branch in each of the boroughs, about three to five cruelty cases involving pit bulls come in each week, Gentles said. These are the cases that require a partnership with law enforcement or the district attorney’s office, and often involve several dogs that have been severely abused – dogs likely not to be put out for adoption, but put to sleep.

– Jessica Firger

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