7:54 a.m., June 19
When I open a kennel door at the County animal shelter in Carlsbad, the dog inside usually can't get out fast enough. She often springs forward in a frenzy of uncontrollable excitement. But on August 21, I met a dog so unfamiliar with human contact, she was happier within the confines of her safe, lonely kennel. Nancy was a two-year-old pit bull mix, cowering in the back of the kennel, with wide-open eyes, scars on her face, and pendulous nipples, a sign that she had recently given birth.
No amount of coaxing or offering of treats could get her to come out. She didn't even seem to know what a piece of beef was. But she quickly caught on. Having been a shelter volunteer for ten years, I had a few tricks up my sleeve. I left the backside of the kennel, and went around to the front door, where I could reach her. I pressed a piece of meat through the steel bars, which she accepted greedily. Knowing she was food-motivated, I went back to the enclosed side, where employees and volunteers exit the dogs, and approached her with an outstretched hand, filled with treats.
After ten minutes, I got her to creep toward me, but it took a few more minutes before she got close enough for me to snag her neck with a loop-leash and rush outside. I like to move fast, before a fearful dog has time to think about biting me.
Pit bull attacks are frequently sensationalized in news headlines, but little is said about what human beings do to them. Dog experts consider them to be the most abused breed in America. Often "bad dogs" are euthanized because they have spent their lives tied up in backyards with little or no socialization, have been left with children unsupervised, or have not been spayed or neutered. Pit bulls used for fighting purposes are treated even worse. They are deprived of food and water and hung in closets to make them better fighters.
Nancy's condition is not unique. But she is certainly not the most ill-treated pit bull I have seen either. On a daily basis, dogs enter San Diego's three County shelters, located in Carlsbad, Mission Valley and Bonita, with injuries consistent with being beaten, kicked and burned with cigarettes. Ears are often cropped to the skull so that the dog's fighting opponents have nothing to latch onto. One pit bull had been shot; the nine pellets remain in her body to this day. A recent intake was covered with untreated mange; another was dragging locks attached to chains around his neck to make him "tougher."
Eighty percent of the department's dogs, make it out of the shelters. Most of them are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. Due to the stigma associated with the breed, it's difficult for them to get adopted. Dawn Danielson, Director of the County Department of Animal Services, opposes mandatory spaying and neutering to solve the overpopulation problem. She says, "...until there is an infrastructure in place where people can get their animals altered for no cost, mandatory spay/neuter (laws) is putting the cart before the horse."
After a month of confinement, shelter dogs break down due to Kennel Neurosis. They literally go "kennel crazy." They lose their ability to focus, bob in their kennels for hours, bark continually and creep along walls when taken out of their kennels. The public often rages because shelter animals are euthanized. To those of us on the inside, it's seen as a mercy.
While walking across the shelter parking lot, Nancy nearly tripped me. She had never been trained to walk on a leash, so she meandered from side to side. Once we entered a dog run, she wilted like a rose when I looked at her. I knew that her shyness alone, would make it difficult for her to get adopted. Her back leg shook from fear. After a dose of baby talk and gentle petting, she responded by following me around the run and relaxing on the fake grass for a massage.
That day was one of Carlsbad's muggiest days of the summer. The temperature was in the upper 80s and the high humidity was taxing. I took Nancy into the air-conditioned building, to avoid the heatstroke that the veterinarians on staff warn us about. It took six Q-tips to swab the dirt out of her ears. I doubted that she had ever been inside a house; and, I discovered that she wasn't housetrained. I asked a woman who worked behind the counter, for information as to why Nancy had come into the shelter. The report on file said that Nancy had been found in a garage, shaking a neighbor's cat. Officers had brought her to our shelter on Palomar Airport Road, in an effort to contact the owner and let him know that he could pick her up. He said that she escaped often and that he didn't want her anymore. In my opinion, he's the one who ought to be euthanized. With proper exercise and a secure yard, she wouldn't have become an escape artist.
His rejection turned out to be the only good choice he ever made for the dog. I was telling Nancy's story to another volunteer who said, "Well, she seems to be very content with you." Her words worked magic. I realized that Nancy had been sending signals to say that she needed me. So I did what any red-blooded owner of two dogs would do. I shelled out the 69 bucks that allowed Nancy to adopt me and finally get the loving home every pet deserves.
After three days at my house, Nancy was no longer a shy dog. She does flinch when I throw a toy near her head, or say "no!," which suggests she is used to being struck; but otherwise, she's doing well. She's learning to sit and loves to wrestle with the 1 1/2-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix I adopted from the shelter in January. He's been frustrated lately, because my 10-year-old Labrador Retriever no longer wants to play.
The Terrier Group, which includes the American Pit Bull Terrier, was originally bred to kill rodents and vermin. This means that Nancy is high in prey drive. Her instincts tell her to chase and kill small animals for food. Since I no longer have cats and there are currently none in my neighborhood, I don't have to worry that she will kill a beloved, feline pet. But I'll always have to watch her around small dogs at the dog park, unless she gets extensive training.
Once Nancy settles into a routine, I'll take her back to the shelter for a visit. Stories like this one are morale boosters, for the staff and volunteers who work doggedly (pun intended) to see that every animal gets a fair shake. Although some of us have been there for years, we never cease to be amazed by what a little love can do.