Under fire from a petition that sought the firing of Madera County’s animal control director, the county animal shelter has changed its policy on adoption of pit bulls.
Madera County’s animal control division had restricted adoption of pit bull-type dogs for more than a decade. The policy, which was unwritten, prohibited any pit bulls, dogs similar to them or mixes that had similar features, to be adopted if they were more than six months old.
Only rescue organizations could take dogs over six months. Otherwise, the dogs, whether strays or turned in by an owner, would be euthanized if they weren’t claimed.
The petition was done through change.org, which had more than 4,000 petition signatures. The petition was spearheaded by a Bay Area woman, who assailed Madera County for its breed-specific focus.
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Kirsten Gross, the animal shelter director, said the policy was changed to allow anyone to adopt a pit bull as long as they were a homeowner. A renter, she said, needs a recommendation from a landlord. The new policy went into effect last Saturday.
We don’t know if the dogs have been socialized or trained to do anything specifically that’s aggressive.
Kirsten Gross, Madera County animal control director
Gross said county lawyers were concerned about potential lawsuits. The former policy, she said, goes back at least 15 years and precedes her employment at the Madera shelter.
The more restrictive policy was in place previously, she said, because “we don’t know if the dogs have been socialized or trained to do anything specifically that’s aggressive.”
Up to 25% of the dogs at the shelter are categorized as pit bulls, she said.
The petition’s criticism also extends to the shelter’s 53% euthanasia rate, which is lower than other shelters in the region. About 7,000 dogs and cats are euthanized yearly at the Madera County shelter, down from a high of 9,000 a few years ago, Gross said.
Despite the criticisms leveled in the change.org petition, Gross has the support of the Madera County Board of Supervisors.
“We get such a flurry of pit bull enthusiasts who thought our policy might be in violation of a breed-specific ordinance and threatening litigation,” she said. “If anyone wants to adopt a pit bull, I’m loving it.”
Supervisor Tom Wheeler said he is “100%” behind Gross.
The petition, he said, was pushed by someone who previously worked at the shelter and has a vendetta against Gross.
“These people don’t know what they are talking about,” he said. “The reality is that people don’t take care of their animals and then they dump them on us.”
The Madera County shelter also was the recipient of a $1.5 million spay/neuter grant from the Red and Nancy Arnold Foundation two years ago. The county has issued vouchers for free spaying/neutering of 20,000 dogs and cats, Gross said. It has also likely led to hundreds of fewer animals euthanized in each of the past two years, she added.
County supervisors also put $100,000 into spay and neuter services each year.
Becky Holly, a board member with Fresno Bully Rescue, said that pit bulls sometimes are confused with other breeds, such as boxers or American bulldogs. Pit bull is a general term and does not identify a specific breed of dog.
Without expert opinion or DNA testing, any of the dogs deemed to be pit bulls could be mixed breeds or perhaps not pit bulls. Dogs categorized as pit bulls are the American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, and Staffordshire bull terrier.
Each animal should be assessed for adoption on its own merits.
Becky Holly, member of Fresno Bully Rescue’s board of directors
“I’m glad they changed it,” Holly said. “Each animal should be assessed for adoption on its own merits.”
Holly said Fresno Bully Rescue has taken dogs from Madera County that have “absolutely amazing temperament. For them to have never had a chance at adoption is heartbreaking.”
California Health & Safety Code says that a “city or county may adopt a program for controlling dangerous or vicious dogs, but it cannot be specific as to breed. However, breed-specific ordinances are allowed for spay/neuter programs and breeding restrictions.”
Fresno’s animal control agencies, California Animal Control and Central California Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have no restrictions on pit bull adoptions.
Of 42 dog-bite fatalities in 2014, 27 were caused by pit bulls, said dogsbite.org. From 2005 to 2014, pit bulls killed 203 Americans and accounted for 62% of the 326 recorded deaths, the website said. Combined, pit bulls and Rottweilers accounted for 74% of the deaths.
But there are 16 California cities with breed-specific laws. Most require mandatory sterilization of pit bulls. One requires pit bull confinement and another restricts pit bulls. One of those cities requires sterilization of Chihuahuas and another makes Rottweiler sterilization mandatory.
Despite California’s rules prohibiting breed-specific ordinances, some still exist and several insurers in California will not insure homeowners with pit bull-type dogs.
In California, there were 1,867 dog bite claims in 2014, the most of any state in the U.S., and those claims cost $62.8 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
If a claim exceeds the liability limits of a policy, the owner is responsible for damages above that amount, said Janet Ruiz, a Northern California spokeswoman for the institute.
Some companies, she said, require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, others charge higher rates to owners of certain breeds, such as pit bulls or Rottweilers, and some will not offer insurance to dog owners.