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Bring breeders of high-risk dogs to heel

On January 5, the first regular business day of 2004, New York City Center for Animal Care and Control director Ed Boks and actress-turned-animal advocate Bernadette Peters tried to make pit bull terriers more adoptable by announcing that henceforth they would be offered for adoption as “New Yorkies.”
The scheme lasted less than three days.

Having worked long and hard to rehabilitate the image of New York City, the tourist industry wanted no part of any potential association with gangs, drugs, and hostile behavior. “ I think it would create a bad image for New Yorkers,” public relations executive Howard Rubenstein told Heidi Singer of the New York Daily News. “Our bark is worse than our bite. With pit bulls, their bite is worse than their bark.”
Representing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, casino baron Donald Trump, hotelier Leona Helmsley, and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, among others, Rubenstein, 67, is among the acknowledged New York City power brokers. When Rubenstein speaks, City Hall listens.

Animal shelter experts around the U.S., called for comment, remembered the 1996 attempt by the San Francisco SPCA to re-invent pit bulls by calling them “St. Francis terriers.”

About 60 “St. Francis terriers” were placed during the next few months, after extensive screening and training, but then-SF/SPCA president Richard Avanzino reluctantly suspended the program after several of the re-dubbed dogs killed cats.

The SF/SPCA still adopts out pit bulls, unlike many shelters which have seen liability insurance premiums soar with each new pit bull attack. But the fallibility of the SF/SPCA program was illustrated on November 23, 2003, when SF/SPCA volunteer dog training instructor Anna Klafter, 27, illegally allowed her four-year-old pit bull Nettie to run off-leash in Golden Gate Park. Klafter was seen by mounted police sergeant David Herrera, who shouted to her to retrieve and leash Nettie. Nettie, who was adopted from the SF/SPCA, bit Herrera’s horse, named AAA Andy, on the legs and along his rib cage. Bleeding from multiple wounds, AAA Andy bucked Herrera off, kicked Klafter in the face as she tried to recapture Nettie, and bolted for half a mile with Nettie in hot pursuit. Police sergeant Peter Dacre finally stopped Nettie with two gunshots. Nettie survived and was eventually returned to Klafter, who was fined.

At least two women in the greater New York City metropolitan area were killed by adopted dogs during 2003. Nancy Delaney, of Cortlandt Manor, New York, adopted a two-year-old pit bull from the Mount Vernon Animal Shelter on April 6. Five weeks later, Briarcliff Manor SPCA president Mimi Einstein described the pit bull to Marcela Rojas of the White Plains Journal News as “very friendly, sweet,” with “no sign of aggression whatever.”

That was after he killed Delaney’s housemate Bonnie Page, 75, on May 16, attacking from another room for no evident reason and without visible warning, inflicting multiple bites to Delaney as well as Page when Delaney tried to stop him.

The second fatal attack, not witnessed, came on September 7. Valerie DeSwart, 67, was killed at her home in Medford, New Jersey, by a three-year-old Doberman she had adopted 10 days earlier from the Associated Humane Societies shelter in Newark, New Jersey. Associated Humane received the dog from a woman who said he had bitten her and paid $55 to have him euthanized--which was not done, apparently because someone at the shelter thought he was an adoption candidate.

DeSwart was only the third person killed by a Doberman in the 22 years that ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton has recorded breed-specific data on life-threatening and fatal dog attacks in the U.S. and Canada--during which time pit bulls and pit bull mixes kept as pets have killed 75 people, Rottweilers and Rottweiler mixes kept as pets have killed 50, and wolf hybrids have killed 17. All other breeds combined have killed just 60.

By coincidence, Boks and Peters announced their “New Yorkie” project just as Clifton e-mailed to American SPCA president Ed Sayres a suggestion that the ASPCA should reverse a 20-year-old policy of opposition to breed-specific regulation.

Then-ASPCA president John Kullberg, now deceased, introduced the policy in 1984, when the New York City health department first tried to ban the possession of pit bulls. Although a pit bull ban was eventually declared, it was never effectively enforced, and was eventually enforced only in public housing.

Borrowing arguments long made on behalf of Dobermans by the American Kennel Club, Kullberg argued that breed-specific legislation would unjustly discriminate against stereotypes, rather than responding to actual behavioral traits.

Following the lead of the ASPCA, the Humane Society of the U.S. soon adopted a similar policy, which became the prevailing view of the animal advocacy community, despite many expressions of contrary opinion from animal control agencies and local humane societies.

By 1993 pit bulls kept as pets, exclusive of dogs trained to fight, already accounted for more than half of all life-threatening dog attacks. Rottweilers accounted for 20%. Over the past decade the number of life-threatening pit bull attacks was up 789%; attacks on children were up 876%; attacks on adults were up 490%; fatalities were up 388%; and maimings were up 1269%. The percentage of total life-threatening dog attacks committed by pit bulls did not go up only because the number of life-threatening Rottweiler attacks leaped 2000%; attacks on children were up 1000%; attacks on adults were up 1700%; fatalies were up 2500%; and maimings were up 2500%. Rottweilers now account for 25% of all life-threateningdog attacks.
No other common breeds present an even remotely comparable actuarial risk factor. Yet among all the major U.S. animal advocacy groups, only PETA has favored a breed-specific approach to dog regulation.
Wrote PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk in a January 2000 syndicated column, “From San Jose to Schenectady, many shelters have enacted policies requiring the automatic destruction of the huge and ever-growing number of ‘pits’ they encounter. This news shocks and outrages the compassionate dog-lover.

“ Here’s another shocker: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the very people who are trying to get you to denounce the killing of chickens for the table, foxes for fur, or frogs for dissection, supports the pit bull policy, albeit with reluctance.

“ Pit bulls are perhaps the most abused dogs on the planet,” Newkirk continued, citing examples, but concluded that “Those who argue against the euthanasia policy for pit bulls are naive...Many are loving and will kiss on sight, but many are unpredictable. An unpredictable chihuahua is one thing, an unpredictable pit another.

“ People who genuinely care about dogs won’t be affected by a ban on pits. They can go to the shelter and save one of the countless other breeds and lovable mutts sitting on death row through no fault of their own. We can only stop killing pits if we stop creating new ones. Legislators, please take note.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett sought middle ground at the 2002 Conference on Homeless Animal Management and Policy in Hartford, Connecticut.

“ I believe that pitbulls have a more negative reputation than most members of the breed deserve,” she wrote afterward. “Because I feel very sorry for these dogs and also felt that pitbull rescuers deserved a forum, I put together a panel on pit bulls. It was meant to be balanced, so people with more conservative views on pitbulls were on the panel as well as those who had extreme views. The result: the pitbull rescuers insulted the people--animal rescuers all--who had any reservations about the breed whatever. I expressed mixed feelings about pit bulls, and so was labeled ‘enemy.’ Mind you, no one on the panel, and certainly not me as the panel moderator, favored arbitrarily killing pit bulls.

“ I have an uneasy feeling that a lot of people claiming to be pitbull rescuers are pitbull breeders,” Bartlett continued. “Otherwise why would they oppose breeding bans that would not affect dogs already born? I think it is unethical to breed any dogs, or cats, so long as they are being killed for population control. I would rather dogs, as well as cats and other animals, were not bred at all for human purposes. Since pit bulls clearly can be more dangerous to humans and other animals, and are more difficult to handle than most other dogs, and--most importantly--since they attract ‘owners’ who only want to exploit and abuse them, then for the dogs’ own good, why do their purported rescuers not want to see an end to breeding them?”

Actuarial risk

Clifton recommended to Sayres that the ASPCA should favor regulation which takes into account actuarial risk. Actuarial risk is the payout per insurance claim relative to the investment of insurees, and is the foundation concept that makes the insurance industry possible.

Most dog attack claims are paid through homeowners or renters liability policies, and are settled for under $5,000, but settlements in attacks causing death or maiming typically exceed $500,000. Pit bulls and Rottweilers do three times more killing and maiming than all other dogs combined, meaning that their actuarial risk is approximately 3000% higher than that of the average dog, yet because actuarial risk has not been calculated on a breed-specific basis, guardians of pit bulls and Rottweilers have rarely been asked to pay premiums higher than anyone else. Thus everyone who insures a home or rented premises in effect subsidizes the possession and proliferation of pit bulls and Rottweilers.

ANIMAL PEOPLE has pointed out since 1993 that if the humane community does not accept and encourage breed-specific legislation in a manner that takes the profit out of pit bull and Rottweiler proliferation, pit bulls and Rottweilers will proliferate until they pose an actuarial risk so high that the insurance industry responds in a much more sweeping and deadly manner.

This has now happened. Sidestepping confrontation with animal advocates over breed-specific policies, at least nine major insurance companies now red-line all dogs they consider comparable to pit bulls and Rottweilers, whether or not their breeds pose actual comparable risk.

By arguing that pit bulls and Rottweilers behave like any other dog, animal advocates have persuaded much of the insurance industry that any large dog is too risky to cover, and have persuaded many other insurers that anyone who keeps a large dog should pay premiums based overwhelmingly on the deeds of pit bulls and Rottweilers.

This attitude unjustly penalizes herding dogs such as collies and German shepherds, who bite more often than other big dogs, but whose “holding” or “guiding nip” to an arm or ankle rarely does serious injury. It discriminates even more unfairly against Labradors and golden retrievers, who register in bite counts at much less than their proportion of the dog population.

It is time to stop pretending that all dogs are created equal, and instead take the lead in seeking legislation which recognizes that some breeds are in fact enormously more dangerous than others--just as legislation recognizes that a puma or African lion or even a 20-pound bobcat must be regulated differently from a ten-pound tabby. This is what would be most fair to all dogs and all people who keep dogs.

The humane community should also stop promulgating claims that “canine profiling has not been proven effective in preventing dog bites,” and that insurers “should look at the individual bite history of each dog when deciding whether to provide coverage.”

First, “preventing dog bites” is not at all the same issue as preventing actuarial risk, since most bites do not even result in insurance claims, and confusing the two does an enormous disservice to the overwhelming majority of dogs.

Second, encouraging insurance companies to “look at the individual bite history of each dog” is unrealistic in considering actuarial risk, since most life-threatening and fatal attacks by pit bulls, Rottweilers, and wolf hybrids are the first known incidents involving those dogs.

There is a close analogy here to insuring motorcyclists. Motorcyclists, on average, are no more likely to be involved in an accident than anyone else who drives. They pay much higher insurance premiums simply because it is an actuarial fact that a motorcyclist who is in an accident is far more likely to be killed or injured. As it is not fair for every driver to subsidize the extraordinary risk incurred by those who choose to drive motorcycles, motorcyclists pay premiums at two or three times the rate of other drivers.

Clifton forwarded to Ed Boks these arguments and many pages of supporting data.
“ We have decided to scrap the ‘New Yorkie’ idea for a variety of reasons, and your data helps substantiate our decision,” Boks responded early on January 8. That was an about-face in the right direction. Moving decisively to discourage breeding pit bulls, Rottweilers, and any other dogs of demonstrably high actuarial risk should be next, to help the tens of thousands of other large dogs in shelters find homes, to help those now in homes to stay there instead of becoming uninsurable, and most of all, to keep future generations of high-risk dogs from ever entering shelters, by keeping them from being born.