2012-03-30 / Front Page

Solving the pit bull problem?

City Council not yet sold on law mandating breed’s sterilization
By Carissa Marsh

GOOD IDEA—A large number of pit bulls wait to be adopted at the Ventura County animal shelter. Ventura County Animal Services has introduced a proposal for a mandatory spay/neuter law for pit bulls to control the population and consequently reduce the number that must be euthanized. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers GOOD IDEA—A large number of pit bulls wait to be adopted at the Ventura County animal shelter. Ventura County Animal Services has introduced a proposal for a mandatory spay/neuter law for pit bulls to control the population and consequently reduce the number that must be euthanized. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers With the goal of reducing the high number of pit bulls coming into the Camarillo shelter and, consequently, the large number that are euthanized, Ventura County Animal Services is proposing a mandatory spay/ neuter law for the often misunderstood and demonized breed.

While pit bulls carry the label of being aggressive and dangerous—particularly unaltered males—VCAS Director Monica Nolan said the law is not aimed at minimizing that risk to society, perceived or real. It is simply about population control.

The shelter wants to prevent more “pitties” from being put down.

“We are looking at this ordinance as a way to try to save the pit bull,” Nolan told the Simi Valley City Council on Monday. “They are a beautiful animal and you can help us save their lives by passing this ordinance.”

The idea was first posed during the Jan. 26 VCAS commission meeting and the commissioners—representatives from the shelter’s contract cities and the county Board of Supervisors—were asked to bring the proposal to their respective bodies for consideration.

At press time, only the Ventura City Council had indicated it would introduce an ordinance for adoption.

If consensus is reached across the cities, it will be presented to the county supervisors. If only a few cities are supportive, VCAS is open to working with those individual cities to move forward with a local ordinance, though it would be more difficult for shelter staff to manage.

After reviewing the proposal Monday, Simi city leaders decided to put off a vote on the issue in order to get more information on the effectiveness of such an ordinance as well as feedback from the community.

“(Animal Services staff) never gave us the pros and cons,” said Mayor Pro Tem Barbra Williamson, who sits on the VCAS commission. “We have to take our time and decide if this is something we really want to do.”

Councilmember Glen Becerra agreed the city must “get this right.”

“You don’t read about Chihuahuas chewing kids up. You do read about pit bulls. And we just had an incident this past week,” he said, referring to a 2-year-old toddler in Oxnard who suffered severe facial injuries after being attacked by a pit bull. “Your gut says do it. Pit bulls—you never hear anything good about them. But I’m with you, Barbra, let’s get both sides, hear the pros and cons.”

Although the intent of the ordinance is to lower the kill rate, not to prevent pit bull attacks, some residents support the law because they believe neutering will make the dogs more docile and help prevent attacks in the future.

One of those residents is Mercedes Todesco, the aunt of Katya Todesco, a 5-year-old Simi girl who died after being mauled by a pit bull in September 2008.

“I believe this ordinance is one step in the right direction,” Todesco wrote on her comment card. “I believe it should not be limited just to pit bulls but other breeds or mixes that have high bite rates.”

But some don’t think the law best addresses the pit bull population problem.

“We need more effective and affirmative marketing of pit bulls,” said Camarillo resident Diane Rowley, founder of Promote and Protect Animals, an alliance of rescue groups dedicated to lowering local kill rates. “And we need to dispose of all of the impediments to pit bull rescue, (including) our arcane, mandatory home checks for pit bulls.”

Other rescue advocates are concerned about how the shelter will determine with certainty that a dog is a pit bull, an umbrella term for all canines with the physical traits and distinguishing characteristics of the Staffordshire bull terrier, American pit bull terrier or American Staffordshire terrier breeds.

Still, some animal advocates see the law as a good start to solving shelter overcrowding and moving toward no-kill, but say a requirement for all breeds would be better. Simi resident Nancy Denton is one such advocate.

“I would like to see an acrossthe board mandate to spay and neuter all dogs,” Denton said. “You are doing a disservice to a dog not to spay and neuter.”

The pit bull problem

The bully breed problem stems from the fact that, while more pit bulls are being bred, causing a rise in the number coming into the shelter, Nolan said, they have a lower adoption rate than other breeds.

According to VCAS, from July 2008 to December 2011, pit bulls represented almost 21 percent of the shelter’s intake of dogs with a total of 5,181 pit bulls sheltered. During the same period, 5,200 Chihuahuas were sheltered.

Although pit bulls and Chihuahuas make up about the same percentage of the shelter’s dogs, their outcomes were different.

For the Chihuahuas, 58 percent were adopted or transferred, 29 percent were euthanized and 13 percent were returned to their owners.

For the pit bulls, 20 percent were adopted or transferred, 59 percent were euthanized and 21 percent were returned to their owners.

Contributing to the issue is owner resistance to voluntary spay and neuter programs, even when offered for free or at low cost.

Last year, pit bull owners retrieving their dogs from the shelter were offered free spay/neuter services. But only 36 owners, or 10 percent, Nolan said, took advantage of the offer despite the higher licensing cost associated with reclaiming their unaltered dogs.

When asked by how much the ordinance would reduce the pit bull population in the shelter, Nolan didn’t have an answer, saying the effect won’t be known until it is implemented.

While Williamson seemed unconvinced that the shelter, with its limited resources, could effectively enforce the ordinance, Nolan said compliance would be obtained through administrative citations.

“We’re working within limited budgets so we won’t be knocking on doors. So we’ll be catching them as we can” when sheltered dogs are returned to their owners, she said. “So any pit bull coming into the shelter isn’t going to leave unaltered.”

The proposal will come back before the council, at a date not yet certain, and then go out to the city’s four Neighborhood Councils for review.

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