pit bull looks from its cage at the Waukegan
Police Animal Control facility in Waukegan, Ill.,
on November 7, 2013. Officials at the facility
face an overload of pit bulls at area shelters.
— At Chicago’s main animal shelter, a pit bull mix
wags his tail and licks a visitor’s hand through iron
bars, eager to find a friend. In an adjoining cage, a
pit bull snarls and bares his teeth at passing
strangers. Across the aisle, another pit bull barks
bulls make up 40 percent of the dogs that come into
Chicago Animal Care and Control — and about two-thirds
of the dogs that get euthanized if they can’t be
adopted. They are flooding local shelters, prompting
animal advocates to try desperate measures to address
problem is simple, advocates say: People keep breeding
pit bulls for money, and owners can’t or won’t
handle them. So they end up as one of the most commonly
abused, neglected and euthanized pets.
bulls have been both glorified and victimized by their
reputation. They’re not a breed but a general term for
a group of dogs including American pit bull terriers,
American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull
terriers and various mixes. Known for their powerful
builds, and large, broad heads and jaws, they’re
beloved by some for sweetness and loyalty, and feared by
others for much-publicized vicious attacks.
growing numbers at shelters have run counter to what
otherwise has been a great success in animal care in
recent decades — a steady decline in impounded and
euthanized pets, due primarily to sterilizations and
adoptions. In Chicago, the number of animals put down
each year dropped by more than half from 2006 through
last year, to about 8,000. The number of pit bulls
impounded, however, went steadily up from 2010 to 2012,
with the number euthanized generally also increasing.
dogs’ fate ultimately depends on how they are treated
by humans — but just what to do is a point of
those looking to own a pet, pit bulls are seemingly
everywhere: they’re for sale on eBay for up to $1,000
each, at pet stores, in parking lots and even on ice
during breaks at Chicago Wolves hockey games. On a
typical recent day, Chicago’s animal control website
for the city showed 28 of 41 dogs up for adoption were
of the reason for the rising tide of pit bulls is their
increase in popularity, but pit bulls appear to end up
in shelters far out of proportion to their numbers. No
pit bull breed was among the top 50 most popular breeds
listed by the American Kennel Club last year.
Chicago, pit bull mixes account by far for the most
reported dog bites, which in some cases lead owners to
give up the dogs. In other cases, especially during the
recent recession, owners say they lost their home or
lost a job and can’t afford them.
most common reason owners cite in giving up dogs,
according to the American Humane Association, is that
their landlord didn’t allow the pet. That’s
particularly the case for pit bulls, which are not
welcomed in many apartment complexes, and which are not
allowed under some homeowner insurance policies.
Mark George, head of the Chicago police animal crimes
unit, said dogfighting is not as much of an issue as it
was in 2007, when NFL star Michael Vick was sentenced to
prison for it, but it still goes on. Some people get the
dogs for protection in crime-ridden neighborhoods, he
said, while gangbangers often own pit bulls as a status
symbol. Investigators run into the dogs when they search
for narcotics or guns.
the city, many suburban animal control facilities face
overcrowding issues, especially in urban areas like
Aurora and Waukegan where pit bulls are most popular.
Waukegan, Animal Control Director Susan Elliot says the
breed is popular both with "thugs" who often
mistreat them and with rescuers who fall in love with
the dogs. About half the dogs the shelter gets are
strays — the rest are simply surrendered by their
problem is, people don’t want them after they’re a
year old," Elliot said. "They’re not as
cute. Now they’re a dog, and you have to let them out.
It’s a lot of work, and people get lazy. ‘It has too
much energy,’ that’s another big excuse."
wonderful dogs in the right hands," she said.
reduce the numbers, Waukegan has instituted what Elliot
called one of harshest laws in the state prohibiting
selling of dogs by anyone except registered breeders,
with substantial fines for violators. The city also
works with nonprofit groups to provide cheap spaying and
neutering and adoptions. Elliot’s goal is for the
Waukegan, Ill., facility to become a no-kill shelter.
County Animal Care and Control Coordinator Robin Van
Sickle agreed that it’s hard to get people to adopt
pit bulls if the dogs are less than completely friendly.
bulls probably get overlooked because of the prejudice
against them," she said. "If there’s any
cause for concern, if they have a bite history, rescue
agencies have difficulty placing then, and they don’t
want to invest in an animal if they can’t adopt them
save the dogs, a host of rescue groups that specialize
in pit bulls have sprung up, with names like Pit Pals
and Chicagoland Bully Breed Rescue. Their mission is not
only to find homes for the pets but to rehabilitate
agencies often tell of horror stories about pit bull
owners, blaming them for the dogs’ bad rap. Recycled
Pits, for instance, recently reported rescuing a dog
that had severe infected head wounds from fighting.
Another dog had chemical burns over half its body, while
another was said to have spent its life on a 3-foot
chain and was used just for breeding.
find fit owners and "forever" homes for pets
that may have had a couple of homes already, Bombshell
Bullies Pit Bull Rescue in Vernon Hills has strict rules
for adoptions. It will not place dogs in homes that
already have two or more dogs, or one of the same sex.
The agency charges $250 to $300, which includes
vaccinations, a microchip and sterilization, and it
requires people who adopt their dogs to train them.
that purpose, it works with NoBull Dog Style next door,
where owner Jeff Hakanson boasts of being able to train
any dog. He recommends two or three months for basic
training while also trying to educate owners on what
they need to do.
blames breeding with other, larger dogs for creating
nervous mixes that are more likely to growl or bite over
perceived threats. For that reason, he believes in
banning sales by anyone except registered breeders but
concedes that such laws are tough to enforce.
of the surplus you see is just from ignorance among
breeders," he said. "Some breed for fighting,
some to sell puppies, some dogs get loose and
impregnated. In Waukegan, every other house has a litter
of pit bull puppies."
Will County Animal Control, where up to half the dogs
are pit bulls, administrator Leroy Schild said the dogs’
aggression can be controlled with proper training, but
most dogs he sees aren’t vaccinated, let alone
some cities have turned to bans to contain the number of
pit bulls. Denver has a long-standing prohibition, and
Miami-Dade County, Fla., residents last year voted
overwhelmingly to keep a ban. San Francisco requires
sterilization, which reportedly has led to a significant
decrease in the number of abandoned and euthanized dogs.
dogs are known for their bite, but research is limited
on the strength of their jaws. A study at one hospital
in San Antonio found that injuries from pit bull bites
were much more severe than from other dogs.
advocates argue that pit bull fears are pure hype,
breed-specific laws are discriminatory and any fault
lies not with the dogs but with owners. They say the
term "pit bull" is so broad as to include all
kinds of dogs, and have shot down many attempts at such
laws elsewhere. Last year they got Cincinnati to reverse
Elgin, Ill., after several incidents involving pit
bulls, in 2010 council member John Prigge proposed
requiring the dogs to be registered, with nonregistered
dogs declared illegal. He faced a strong backlash from
pit bull owners, who organized opposition from across
the suburbs to defeat the proposal.
the city passed an ordinance to declare any dogs
involved in fighting or attacks to be vicious and
requiring them to be muzzled in public, which Prigge
said has helped cut down on incidents.
better solution than targeting one breed, according to
the Humane Society of the United States, is to encourage
society’s Pets for Life program is designed to help
owners take care of their dogs, going into neighborhoods
in Chicago and nationwide to help low-income owners
sterilize, vaccinate and take care of their dogs.
focus is to keep all pets in the homes they’re already
in," Cory Smith said.
those in the market for a dog, PAWS Chicago founder
Paula Fasseas urged people to consider a no-kill rescue
agency like hers rather than a for-profit breeder who
will make the overpopulation worse.
many pit bulls are being put down for no reason,"
Fasseas said, "and they’re really sweet