The pit bulls sprawled around the Riverside County Animal Control office this week were an unusually tranquil lot -- more fluffy the cat than hound from hell.
Each had been sedated before its turn on the operating table to get fixed, part of an ambitious project aimed at putting a dent in their exploding population here.
“We always knew we had a lot of pit bulls, but when we analyzed the data we saw that half our population was dominated by this breed,” said Robert Miller, director of Riverside County Department of Animal Services. “It’s a problem born out of community decisions. Sometimes it’s machismo or the dogs are highlighted in the latest rap video or some young men think it’s cool to own them.”
Pit bulls have been responsible for a number of vicious attacks, including one Monday in which three children were badly mauled.
The high-energy, powerfully built dogs can be difficult to handle. Males will leap 6-foot-high fences to mate with females, who can bear as many as 14 puppies. The result has been a pit bull boom.
In 2008, Riverside County shelters euthanized 3,000 of them.
That led Miller to launch the Pit Bull Project last month to try to stem the tide. Under the new program, county residents with a pit bull or pit bull mix can have it spayed or neutered for free, but must pay for a license and microchipping if they haven’t already.
So far more than 300 people have signed up and 60 dogs have undergone the free surgery.
“Lots of people are calling but we don’t have the staff to get back to all of them so we are asking them to be patient,” said John Welsh, an animal control spokesman. “If you call, we will get back to you eventually.”
Welsh said most pit bulls in the shelters were found roaming the streets.
“They languish and they are not adopted, not even those with the sweetest dispositions,” he said. “The average person walks in and takes a look at the pit bull and says, ‘That’s a big dog,’ and they have heard bad things about them so they go for the Labradoodle.”
The puppies are often sold at swap meets for as little as $20.
“In my neighborhood, at the age of 12 or 13 it’s almost a rite of passage to give a boy a pit bull,” said Chris Alderson, a veterinary technician from Riverside who was prepping a woozy pit bull for surgery. “They buy it at the swap meet. Then the boy gets tired of it and ties it to a tree in the backyard.”
The Inland Empire is awash in dogs, many of them feral.
In the Coachella Valley, thousands of ragged canines roam rural areas, especially Indian reservations where they scavenge for food and occasionally menace residents. Many are pit bulls or pit bull mixes.
The dogs are often found in low-income areas, where many are used to guard people and property.
A Fontana family walking to a park Monday was attacked by five dogs, including a pit bull and pit bull mixes, leaving 5-year-old Destiny Colon on life support at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
Her two siblings were badly injured and required hundreds of stitches. Police had to shoot one pit bull at the scene.
In January, 3-year-old Omar Martinez of Apple Valley boy was killed by the family’s pit bull. And a Hemet woman, who was attacked along with her dog, recently asked the City Council there to ban the breed, as cities such as Denver have done.
Last year, the city of Lancaster adopted an ordinance requiring owners of pit bulls, Rottweilers and mixes of the two to have the dogs spayed or neutered.
“Pit bulls are a macho dog,” said Cynthia Comer, operations chief for Riverside County animal services. “They can be trained to be quite aggressive. Most are very friendly toward people, but they are a pack animal. If you get two or three together and one is aggressive the others will jump in with it.”
Dr. Terry Maltz was busy in animal control’s operating room doing his bit to change that behavior. He was working on his eighth dog of the morning: a pit bull on its back, a ventilator in its mouth, its legs curled. “There are multitudes of advantages to this and almost no disadvantages,” he said.
“It makes them less aggressive and less likely to roam. I don’t think they are any more difficult to manage than any other large breed. The ones with the temperament problems are the ones that are tied up all day.”
George Hernandez and girlfriend Charlene Holt of Riverside brought their dog, Frankie, in for spaying.
“I don’t want Frankie to have a lot of puppies who then wind up in dysfunctional homes,” Hernandez said.
Like many pit bull owners, he blames the way a dog is raised and not the breed for its sometimes aggressive behavior.
“She gets along great with kids and I have a 3- and 7-year old,” he said. “Besides chewing on the table leg, she’s awesome.”
Any Riverside County resident interested in getting a pit bull sterilized can call 951-358-7387 or 951-358-7135.