Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Dog fighting

Dog fighting happens.  It happens less often than some people fear, but far more often than many of us wish.  Dog fighting, like other “blood sports,” has been part of many different cultures around the world, for many centuries.  In his fascinating book Dogs: A Dictionary of Dog Breeds (2002), Desmond Morris lists 27 different breeds that were selected, bred, and used mainly for fighting, including not only most of the “pit bull” type dogs (American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Terriers, Bull Terriers, and American Bulldogs) but also Japanese Akitas, Chinese Shar Peis, and many mastiff type dogs from all over the world.

Morris writes, “Dog-fighting is a dark chapter in the history of man’s long relationship with the canine world, and there may be some who feel that those breeds that were exclusively developed for fighting should not be included in a modern reference work such as this one.  But the fact is that they were part of dog history and cannot be ignored (340).  More specifically, fighting is part of the history and also the present of the particular dogs that we know and love. 

Presently dog fighting harms tens of thousands of dogs, mainly pit bulls, every year in the US.  It happens all over the country, in rural, suburban, and urban areas, and with participants from many different socio-econ groups.  It certainly happens in north central Florida, and shelters and rescue groups regularly receive dogs who show signs of having participated in organized fighting.  (It’s important to note, however, that of the many dogs who show up at shelters badly injured, few were likely used as “bait” dogs.  Some were, of course, but there are many ways that dogs get hurt, including ordinary fights between “non professionals,” so we should be careful about leaping to conclusions about the history of any dog, especially those encountered as strays.)

Today local and national law enforcement authorities take dog fighting very seriously and often pursue it vigorously – both for the animal cruelty involved and because dog fighters are frequently involved in other crimes as well.  In the past couple of years, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have worked with national animal welfare organizations (especially the ASPCA and Humane Society of the US) on several huge raids on dog fighting rings.  The largest, in Missouri in 2012, took in over 400 dogs, and the second largest, in several southern states in August 2013, took in 367. 

Not long ago, all dogs seized in raids were euthanized as soon as their legal role as evidence was finished.  Today, many are evaluated individually and treated as victims and not criminals.  This change in policy is due largely to the efforts of pit bull advocates involved in helping the dogs from Michael Vick’s fighting ring, including BAD RAP and Best Friends.  Individual evaluations and rehabilitation efforts have made it possible for many dogs from fighting backgrounds to become beloved family pets, therapy dogs, canine athletes, and more.

Pit bull rescue, and the rescue of dogs from fighting rings in particular, is the edge of animal rescue and welfare today.  Pit bull type dogs are discriminated against in part because of their perceived association with dog fighting and other criminal activities, and pit bull advocates need to address these associations head on and show – not just argue – that these dogs deserve a chance. 

Our own experiences with dogs from fighting backgrounds have been positive and often surprising.  Almost all have been extremely human-oriented, affectionate, and outgoing – which is not the surprising part, since in that regard, they are typical pit bulls.  What is surprising is how easily most have adjusted to life as family pets and also how well many of them get along with other animals, including dogs and also cats.

Work with dogs from fighting backgrounds reinforces the wisdom of treating ever dog as an individual.  Some dogs from fighting pasts are timid around new people or reactive with new dogs — but not any more than other dogs we meet.  The same is true of dogs that we’ve taken from cruelty cases and confiscations.  They all respond to trauma differently, and making generalizations is not accurate — and it doesn’t help us get to know the dogs or help them.  What defines a dog is not “all how they’re raised,” in other words, but a combination of nature, nurture, and ongoing care and management.

While vigorous law enforcement is crucial, the other key to ending dogfighting is education. The most effective educators, of course, are the dogs themselves.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Goodbye, Eddie

We pulled Eddie from Clay County Animal Services on Friday, Jan. 17.  He was thin and heartworm positive, but most of our dogs start out that way.  Eddie’s foster mom, Kayla, had plenty of experience with sickly dogs and we were confident Eddie would be another success story.    However, the day after we brought Eddie home, he became extremely anemic and lethargic.  Late on Saturday night, Kayla rushed him to the emergency vet, where he received a blood transfusion.  That one didn’t improve his condition significantly, and on Monday he received another transfusion at our regular vet, Dr Allison Schnoke at Archer Animal Hospital.  She did further tests and determined that he was suffering from Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA), a condition in which the patient’s own immune system attacks his red blood cells.  This is a very serious condition, with high mortality rates even in otherwise healthy dogs.  Eddie’s malnutrition and heartworm status made his situation even more dangerous.  However, the second transfusion and additional medication seemed to do the trick, and Eddie seemed to turn the corner.  Eddie’s vet bills from those couple of days were over $1700, but generous donors made it possible for us to do everything the vets recommended.    Dr Schnoke called him our miracle dog.  Eddie went home and steadily improved over the next couple of weeks, gaining weight and energy.  After additional veterinary consultations, we felt confident in scheduling his heartworm treatment to begin in mid-February.

Early this morning, Eddie took a sudden turn for the worse and went back to the vet first thing this morning.  Throughout the day his blood levels and his well-being steadily declined.  He was again extremely anemic and suffering.  Dr Schnoke tried to stabilize him, conducted additional tests, and consulted specialists.  She researched all the possible options, including exploratory surgery, additional medications, and additional transfusions.  She knew that we were prepared to do anything that might save his life and make it possible for him to recover enough to undergo heartworm treatment.  Sadly, this relapse was worse than the initial crisis, and after a long, difficult day, during which Eddie became increasingly uncomfortable, we were forced to the conclusion that we were out of medical options.  He just could not be saved, even with all the resources available.

We were prepared to do anything that might save his life.  This is something many of us take for granted in regards to our own dogs, but when we are talking about shelter or foster dogs, we think twice.  It’s hard to know how many resources to devote to a single homeless dog when the money spent on extraordinary vet care could, in principle, help multiple dogs.  A strict Utilitarian ethic – aimed at maximizing welfare for the largest number of individuals – would probably tell us not to go to extreme lengths for a single animal.  In the end, the cost of Eddie’s vet care will total well over $2000, perhaps closer to $2500.   That’s a lot of money for a small rescue group.

I’m sensitive to the welfare-maximization argument, but there’s another ethical perspective that I also find compelling.  When we pulled Eddie from a low-resource, high-kill rural shelter, he stopped being a “homeless dog” and became one of our own.  We committed to treating him as though he mattered.  That’s not to say all the dogs left behind don’t matter – they do – but we can’t pull them all.  We are constantly doing cost/benefit calculations, trying to match resources to needs, figuring out how to maximize the good we can do with very limited resources. 

When we pull a dog, however, we cease being Utilitarians and instead become Kantians (of a particularly quirky and subversive sort).  Our guiding principle becomes not the maximization of welfare but the commitment to treat every individual as an end in himself, not just a means to a larger good. 

In the case of Eddie, this meant pulling out all the veterinary and fiscal stops.  That was the only course that respected his intrinsic value – his personhood, if you will.  It was expensive, and in the end it wasn’t enough.  However, Eddie got what my own dogs would get:  total commitment, unwavering hope, and endless love.

Some people think that it contradicts or undermines the goals of rescue to devote all that to a single dog.  To the contrary, I think that this is precisely the meaning of rescue:  we give to this dog what every dog should have.  At least for a few short weeks, his life embodied the world we want for every dog and every human. 

We loved you the most, little guy.