From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2000--
California "Hayden Law" debate centers on pit bulls
SACRAMENTO, Calif.--As fighting dogs proliferate, what to do with
any dog of a reputed fighting breed is a growing headache for animal
shelters. Such dogs may never attack anyone. Then again, they may be
surrendered or dumped to run at large because they have bitten someone.
Or, they may be surrendered or dumped because they didn't attack on
If the history of a pit bull terrier, Rottweiler, or similar dog
is at all uncertain, most shelters opt for quick dispatch to minimize
risk. Many opt for quick dispatch of any "fighting breed" dog--if legally
Under the 1998 "Hayden Law," however, California shelters must
hold all impounded dogs and cats for at least five days, if they are not
suffering from painful illness or injury, just in case an owner comes
The law also directs shelters to turn dogs and cats over to
nonprofit rescue organizations as a favored alternative to killing them.
Rallied by longtime Fund for Animals representative Virginia
Handley, a small army of conventional animal control and humane society
directors contend that the Hayden Law compels them to fill cages with pit
bulls and other potentially dangerous dogs who should never be adopted,
while killing adoptable animals whose holding time is up, in order to have
space for the must-holds.
Attacking the Hayden Law with proposed legislative amendments,
Handley et al also argue that it forces them to surrender pit bulls to
nonprofit fronts for dogfighting rings.
ANIMAL PEOPLE has received two anonymous telephone calls from a
nervous Hispanic-sounding individual who alleged that a pair of
Sacramento-area rescue groups have routinely supplied pit bulls and other
dogs to associates of convicted local marijuana growers, dogfight
organizers, and dog thieves Cesar and Mercedes Cerda, 26 and 25.
Arrested in 1998, the Cerdas and several co-conspirators are now doing
ANIMAL PEOPLE inquiries found no immediate substantiation of the
anonymous but detailed allegations, and no confirmed involvement of any
California rescue group in dogfighting. But similar cases have surfaced in
The Handley et al interpretation of the Hayden Law is strongly
rejected by San Francisco SPCA department of law and advocacy chief Nathan
Winograd, a former criminal prosecutor, contends that the Hayden
Law affords shelters plenty of leeway to set priorities and reject
placements of animals with rescue organizations which do not meet their
Winograd points out that the Hayden Law merely imposes the same
holding requirement in effect since 1966 under the federal Animal Welfare
Act, which governs shelters selling animals to federally funded research.
Winograd further contends that most recent overcrowding in
California shelters-- especially in the city of Los Angeles--is due to
"sweeps" undertaken to enforce licensing laws, not due to complaint-driven
pickups of dogs who legitimately menace public safety.
Winograd also has much more hope than most senior shelter personnel
that owner-surrendered and stray pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc. can be
rehabilitated and adopted.
But Winograd and Handley agree that shelters are receiving more
problematic dogs, percentage-wise, than they once did.
Suzi & Buddy
"Our shelters had mostly surplus dogs 20 years ago,"
industrial/organizational psychologist and longtime Malamute rescuer
Margaret Anne Cleek wrote in a November 1993 ANIMAL PEOPLE guest column,
"but our past efforts [against pet overpopulation] have created an
overnight change in the evolution of the dog. We are seeing not an
across-the-board reduction in the dog population, but rather a restriction
of range, skewing the distribution toward larger, more aggressive dogs.
"Let me illustrate how this demographic shift has come about,"
Cleek continued. "Neighborhoods once had dogs like Suzi and Buddy--each a
Heinz 57. Whatever breeds were among their ancestry were so mingled that
no specifically developed traits were evident. They were just plain dogs.
And they were great. But there were far too many of them, and
ever-increasing numbers of pups were destroyed. Accordingly, people like
Suzi and Buddy's owners, being caring and responsible, eventually had
them or their offspring neutered. And that was the end of Suzi and Buddy's
"Meanwhile, in the heart of the city where Queenie and Spike
lived, crime was increasing and people were scared. Tough dogs became a
symbol of empowerment and a mode of defense. It wasn't long before they
became a mode of offense, too. Queenie and Spike and other kick-butt dogs
became the dogs of choice. Their owners were not as easily encouraged to
neuter them. Due to high population density and lack of fenced yards,
random breeding was frequent. Offspring were given away and they too
reproduced. Many were marginal members of their families and became
semi-feral. Unlike Suzi and Buddy's pups, Queenie and Spike's were
fruitful and multiplied."
The outcome is that pit bull terriers, Rottweilers, and other
potentially dangerous dog breeds turn up increasingly often in animal
For example, ANIMAL PEOPLE in November 1993 tested Cleek's
hypothesis that small-to-medium-sized dogs were no longer entering shelters
much as unwanted surplus animals by looking at shelter admissions breed and
size. Cleek turned out to be right: of 1,234 purebred dogs entering four
typical shelters during the preceding year, which were the only dogs the
shelter records identified by size, 977 were large.
Further, most of the 277 small dogs in the sample were victims of
mass neglect, now called "hoarding."
ANIMAL PEOPLE wondered whether hoarders might have a particular
proclivity for keeping small dogs, so ran a breed-specific tally of all
dogs brought to shelters in 101 hoarding cases occuring since June 1982.
Nearly six times as many small dogs were victimized, 1,508 to 273--and
only three of the 101 cases involved any pit bulls. Those alleged hoarders
had 40 pit bulls among them.
As of November 2000, however, ANIMAL PEOPLE is aware of 10
hoarder cases just this year, which netted 195 pit bulls.
Dogfighting and hoarder cases between them account for just a small
percentage of pit bull intake. Through August, the Philadelphia-based
Pennsylvania SPCA alone had received 3,000 pit bulls, according to
executive director Erik Hendriks.
Philadelphia is reputedly the pit bull capital of the universe,
but the shelters serving Los Angeles are believed to be receiving
approximately as many, and Detroit shelters are believed to be getting as
many per capita.
Anecdotally, pit bulls are often said to be not only the most
dangerous breed, but also the breed most often shot by police, dragged by
vehicles, and otherwise violently injured--with Rottweilers right behind.
Much of the violent abuse, and some of the hoarding behavior, is
rationalized as "discipline," i.e. "showing the dog who's boss,"
sometimes in retaliation for attacks on the owner or the owner's family.
Police, according to the ANIMAL PEOPLE files, do seem to shoot
pit bulls and Rottweilers as often as all other breeds combined--mostly
while conducting drug raids and investigations of domestic violence, in
situations where the officers have only seconds to decide whether a
charging dog is dangerous and whether it is safe to turn away from possibly
armed and hostile adults to deal with the dog. When the dog is easily
capable of killing them, they understandably don't take chances.
But exclusive of dogfighting, pit bulls and Rottweilers seem to be
only slightly more likely to be abused than other breeds.
Among 143 dogs subjected to sadistic abuse in accounts reaching
ANIMAL PEOPLE this year were 11 pit bulls and six Rottweilers: 12%
Among 50 dogs dragged to death since 1992, three were pit bulls
and seven were Rottweilers: 20% combined.
Among 210 puppies involved in cruelty-to-litter cases, none were
pit bulls, five were pit bull mixes and 12 were Rottweilers: 8% combined.
Among the total of 403 dogs abused in the three tallies of cases,
which do not overlap, 19 were pit bulls (5%) and 25 were Rottweilers (6%),
for a total rate of abuse which may be roughly proportional to their
overall representation in the dog population.
Full-blooded pit bulls and Rottweil-ers may be less likely to be
involved in cruel litter disposals simply because they still can be sold.
The breed types most often involved in such cases were German shepherd
mixes and black Labrador mixes, known to shelter workers as the hardest of
all dogs to rehome.
Pit bulls and Rottweilers are most notorious for killing and
maiming people. Data kept by ANIMAL PEOPLE since 1982 showed by 1993 that
pit bulls and Rottweilers together accounted for 78% of all the
life-threatening dog attacks known to us, including 69% of the deaths and
maimings of children, and 96% of the deaths and maimings of adults.
Separating out maimings, however, pit bulls and Rottweilers
accounted for only 59% of the deaths--because of the disproportionately
large number of deaths caused by a third breed, wolf hybrids, whose
attacks appear to be almost always predatory dispatches of small children.
(The only adult killed by a wolf hybrid was a very small woman who was
defending two children.)
Since 1993, the number of life-threatening pit bull attacks has
increased by 352% ; maimings by pit bulls are up 589%; and killings are
up "only" 150%.
Life-threatening Rottweiler attacks are meanwhile up 1,111%,
including a 1,538% rise in maimings and a 1,450% rise in killings.
The surge in Rottweiler incidents has been so strong as to boost
total life-threatening dog attacks by 533%, maimings by 894%, and
killings by 291%--all of which if read out of context could be taken as
suggesting that pit bulls are not keeping pace with the growing ferocity of
dogs in general.
Akitas and chows are also now showing up prominently in the
statistics, after barely registering in 1993, and some exotic large
breeds who were not even on the list then, such as the Sharpei and cane
corso, have begun to make the list with occasional killings and maimings.
Still, pit bulls account by themselves for 47% of the
life-threatening attacks, including 64% of the attacks on adults.
The ANIMAL PEOPLE data mostly parallels the findings of former
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dogbite specialist Jeffrey J.
Sacks, M.D., and four collaborators, as reported in the September 15
edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Sacks et al, however, assembled much of their data
retrospectively, from online news libraries and the files of the Humane
Society of the U.S.; they went back three years farther, to 1979; and
they counted only U.S. cases. Of 304 total fatalities, they found that 238
were inflicted by specific breeds, of which 66 (28%) were inflicted by pit
bulls, 10 (4%) were inflicted by pit bull mixes, and 39 (16%) were
inflicted by Rottweilers, for a combined total of 48%.
Sacks et al differed from the ANIMAL PEOPLE findings most notably
in finding nearly twice as many deaths, and a very steady rate of
dog-related fatalities: never fewer than 22 in any two-year interval since
1983-1984, but more than 27 only in 1989-1990, when they recorded 34.
Earlier, Sacks discovered a 30% increase in the number of dog
bites in the U.S. requiring medical treatment, from 585,000 in 1986 to
830,000 in 1994.
Sacks estimated that 60% of all dog bites and 72% of fatalities
involve children, that dogs bite about 4.7 million Americans per year,
and that half of all children are bitten at least once by age 12.
Sacks put the medical cost of dog bites at a minimum of $254
million per year, including $165 million for direct medical care.
Sacks' data confirmed a survey of 1992-1994 statistics from U.S.
hospital emergency rooms, done by University of Pittsburgh and Alleghany
University of the Health Sciences researchers Harold Weiss, Deborah
Friedman, and Jeffrey Cohen.
Weiss, Friedman, and Cohen found reports of an average of 4.5
million dog bites resulting in 334,000 hospital visits and 17 fatalities
Attacks on animals
Tracking reports of dogs apprehended for attacking other animals
since mid-1998, ANIMAL PEOPLE discovered a similar pattern: of 129 dogs
identified by breed, 39 (30%) were Rottweilers or Rott mixes; 25 (20%)
were northern breeds such as huskies, Malamutes, Akitas, or their mixes;
19 (15%) were pit bulls or pit bull mixes; 16 (13%) were Labrador or Lab
mixes; and 10 (8%) were German shepherds.
Labs and German shepherds clearly made the list as a reflection of
their great numbers: according to American Kennel Club registry data,
they have been among the five most popular dog breeds for more than 20
Rottweilers, pit bulls, the northern breeds, and their mixes
were equally clearly disproportionately often involved, together
accounting for 65% of all the incidents--about 10 times as many as might be
expected from their numbers.
The likelihood that a particular breed of dog may kill or maim
someone is not necessarily related to bite frequency. Nervous small dogs
may bite often, for instance, without ever doing much harm. German
shepherds are notorious for quick, shallow, reactive bites--the "guiding
nip"--which tell a sheep, another dog, or sometimes a person to behave,
but are not meant to injure.
Tallies of which dogs bite the most, without distinguishing types
of bite by severity, tend to rank German shepherds and nervous small dogs
near the top of the list. Other popular breeds also tend to account for
many not-so-serious bites simply because there are lots of those breeds
Over time, however, as the more dangerous breeds proliferate and
fewer smaller dogs are running at large, the all-bite tallies are moving
in the same direction as the tallies of fatalities and maimings.
For instance, bite counts released in 1993 by Minneapolis Animal
Control, in 1997 by the animal control department in Palm Beach County,
Florida, and earlier this year by the department of environmental services
in Allentown, Pennsylvania, show that pit bulls accounted for only 4% of
the bites recorded from 1977 to 1992, but leaped to 9% in 1996 and 21% in
1999. Rottweiler bites over the same years went from 1% through 1992, to
9% in 1996, and 12% in 1999.
Retired Chico State University physics professor L. Robert Plumb in
January 1999 made one of the most credible efforts to date to put all
available statistics together to determine the relative risk of being
severely bitten by dogs of some of the breeds most often involved. He
expressed his findings in terms of estimated numbers of dogs per bite
serious enough to result in hospital treatment:
Pit bull 16
German shepherd 156
Spaniel (all types) 174
Terriers (small) 433
Plumb did not calculate the ratios for Rottweilers and the northern
Most animal shelters don't adopt out pit bulls, because of the
whopping liability risk if one should happen to kill or severely injure
someone. Many shelters have also quit adopting out Rott-weilers.
The few care-for-life sanctuaries with the facilities and staff to
keep pit bulls and Rottweilers took in all they can handle many years ago.
The liability issue isn't just hypothetical. The Panhandle Humane
Society of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, for instance, closed in 1991
after paying $425,000 to the family of a four-year-old boy who was killed
by a wolf hybrid three years earlier, two hours after the shelter sent the
dog to his fourth home in under four months.
The Boca Raton Animal Shelter, also in Florida, is much more
careful, and had gone 13 years without an accident as of September 15,
but still got a major scare when a volunteer dog-walker tried to lead a
supposedly docile eight-month-old pit bull past Jarred Paurowski, 6, who
was holding a puppy. Paurowski was bitten four times on the leg. All 70
volunteers serving the shelter were kept out of the kennels for the next 12
days while the shelter management revamped procedures to avoid any more
Despite the recent influx of pit bulls, Rottweilers, and other
big bad dogs, most shelters now receive fewer dogs overall each year than
the last. This makes more staff time and budget available to help dogs who
arrive with illnesses, injuries, or behavioral problems which used to
Rescuers of large and often problematic breeds are accordingly
pressuring shelters to release more dogs in the "maybe" behavioral category
to them: dogs who might behave for an expert handler in a perfect home,
but could be high risk with anyone else.
But Margaret Anne Cleek, for one, informed by her experience as a
Malamute rescuer, as well as her background as a psychologist, believes
that attempting to save behaviorally risky dogs is unwise.
"Ironically, as the shelter numbers go down, more 'thumbs downs'
might need to be given to the 'maybe' dogs," Cleek told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
"Although the scarcity of dogs available for adoption might give them a
chance of being adopted, shelters have an ethical obligation not to adopt
out dogs that the average pet-keeping family can't handle. Not taking
chances is absolutely right-especially now that many people want to train a
dog with only positive reinforcement, which may give a really dominant dog
the message that his people are wimps he can take advantage of."
St. Francis terriers
The San Francisco SPCA is among the few major shelters which
attempt to adopt out pit bulls--very carefully, following the rather
spectacular failure circa 1996 of an attempt to rehabilitate their image by
renaming them "St. Francis terriers."
The SF/SPCA thinking, at the time, was that pit bulls might be
dangerous chiefly in response to human expectations. Changing the name,
the thinking went, might change the expectations--and the dogs' behavior.
About 60 "St. Francis terriers" were placed, after extensive
screening and training, but then-SF/SPCA president Richard Avanzino
reluctantly suspended the program after several of the re-dubbed dogs
The pit bulls involved had not seemed especially aggressive. Like
most pit bulls other than those trained to fight, they appeared to be of
rather sweet and gentle disposition. But--as pit bulls are notorious for
doing--they proved to be explosively reactive, going from calm to all-out
attack without giving the series of warning signals that most dogs do, and
responding to stimuli below the threshhold of human perception.
Like the majority of pit bulls whose attacks on humans make the
ANIMAL PEOPLE log, the St. Francis terriers' first known attacks were
lethal. And no one knew they would attack before they did.
"Within the last year we have begun placing pit bulls again,"
SF/SPCA dog behaviorist Jean Donaldson told ANIMAL PEOPLE. "They are
considered special care adoptions, which entails a more blistering
interview, record check, home visit, and references from the adopter. We
are extremely aware of the elevated incidence of dog-to-dog aggression
among pit bulls, and even when the dogs check out, we thoroughly brief
owners of this potential--which sometimes emerges in young adulthood after
perfect exhibition of social skills.
"We evaluate the dogs pretty carefully," Donaldson continued,
"and openly acknowledge that the bar is higher for pit bulls. If the
sterling individuals of this breed have any hope of a future, it will be
partly due to a steady stream of 'ambassadors,' as well as getting correct
information to media and the public."