In a move that will mean death for thousands of stray pit bulls, the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation has outlawed the adoption of the controversial dogs and related breeds from city pounds.
The directive is designed to stem the flow of the burly fighting animals into the community, where they have attacked numerous people in recent years. The city’s first fatal attack occurred last January when a 70-year-old grandmother was mauled by her grandson’s two mongrel pit bulls.
The departmental decree, obtained by The Times this week, states that city animal shelters “shall not sell any pit bull-type dog to any person, period.” Previously, unclaimed pit bulls, like other impounded strays, could be adopted if they were not considered violent.
Animal regulation chief Robert I. Rush said the new policy was prompted by mounting concerns over public safety. He said people who adopt pit bulls put “a potentially dangerous situation right into (their) household. They call them pit bulls for a reason.”
Pit bulls--stocky, low-slung dogs with powerful jaws--have become popular mascots for gang members and drug dealers in recent years. Animal experts say the dogs can be quite gentle if handled properly from birth. But they can be trained for extreme aggressiveness.
The policy covers all dogs with pit bull characteristics, including American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers. Rush said that complaints against the breeds are increasing. They accounted for 43% of all dangerous-animal complaints heard by the department in 1989, up from 33% in 1988.
The city’s six animal shelters receive about 1,500 pit bulls and related breeds a year. Most are strays, according to Rush, although some are turned in by owners who can no longer handle them. Because of their violent tendencies, the dogs are kept apart from other breeds.
Rush said most pit bulls will be destroyed under the new policy after a seven-day waiting period. On average, he said, only 10% to 15% of pit bulls are reclaimed by owners. The department destroyed a total of 58,000 animals last fiscal year, 24,000 of which were dogs.
Reaction from the animal rights community to the pit bull directive was mixed. Lynn Exe, a community activist from Van Nuys and frequent critic of the city’s Department of Animal Regulation, said the ban on pit bull adoptions unreasonably condemns the dogs.
“If a dog is truly vicious, it should be destroyed,” Exe conceded. But she said animal regulation officers should consider behavior, and not merely the breed, when deciding whether to destroy an animal. Under the new policy, “the animals don’t have any rights,” she said.
But Ann Joly of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington said it may be unrealistic to expect agencies to use less than extreme caution in dealing with pit bulls. Joly said it is impossible to guarantee that a pit bull will not become a menace, because even the gentlest dog can be trained to violent aggressiveness by the wrong owner.
“We discourage humane societies from adopting them out at this time,” Joly said. “It’s a very hard policy, and it’s very hard to enforce for shelter workers. But we advise them to think about how terrible it would be if a dog was adopted and sent out into street fights.”
The first known pit bull-related death in Los Angeles occurred in January, when 70-year-old Marjee Lilly was killed by her grandson’s two mongrel pit bull terriers. Lilly suffered extensive puncture wounds and the flesh on both of her arms was chewed to the bone.
In 1987, a 2-year-old Northern California boy was killed when he wandered into a neighbor’s yard and was attacked by a 53-pound pit bull. An animal control officer in Glassell Park was mauled in a highly publicized attack that occurred the same year.
Just last Sunday, a 5-year-old San Diego County boy required surgery after a neighbor’s pit bull attacked him.
Jurisdictions nationwide have enacted tougher restrictions on pit bulls in the wake of widespread attacks. Owners of pit bulls engaged in many of the attacks have been prosecuted successfully for involuntary manslaughter.
Los Angeles’ new policy, adopted last month, is said by animal rights advocates to be among the toughest in the nation.
It does not apply to dogs brought to pounds maintained by Los Angeles County, where the fate of such animals is decided on a case-by-case basis. County officials concede, however, that most pit bull-type dogs are deemed unsuitable for adoption and destroyed.
Pit bulls account for about 7% of the 60,000 dogs received by the county each year, director Frank Andrews said. A recent study showed pit bulls accounted for only about 4% of the bites reported.
“Statistically, in our area, they were not involved in more bites than any other breed,” Andrews said.
Orange County shares Los Angeles County’s policy, as does the Pasadena Humane Society and the Los Angeles Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Ed Cubrda, society president, said his staff members are highly cautious in dealing with pit bulls. Those considered for adoption are carefully assessed and prospective owners are thoroughly investigated.
“We don’t feel we should discriminate against one particular breed,” said Cubrda, who sees as many as 200 pit bulls a year at his two shelters. “It’s not the dog itself. It’s how the dog is bred, kept and raised by its owners. So we don’t think we should run scared.”
Eric Sakach of the humane society’s Sacramento branch also is wary of the “breed-specific” directives. “What about an animal that appears to be a pit bull but that’s not?” he asked. “What about other breeds bred for fighting purposes in the past?”
But Rush said toughening of pit bull regulations in Los Angeles is likely to continue. A law that would require pit bull owners to obtain permits for their pets is already in the works.
FO One of the pit bulls that attacked and killed 70-year-old Marjee Lilly tears at a sign on its cage in a Los Angeles County pound.