Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why pit bulls?

All kinds of dogs has many people who love the particularities that make them special.  What makes us want to help pit bulls in particular?

It’s really not that they are better than other dogs, though certainly we are all pretty sure that our particular pit bulls might be the best ever.

But just loving your family members doesn’t make you an advocate.  What is it about pit bulls that turns so many people who know and love them into activists?

First, they are the most in need.  Anyone who volunteers with – or just visits – public shelters in our area quickly realize that a large proportion, often a sizable majority, of the dogs in need of rescue are pit bull types.

But need alone isn’t enough to make anyone commit.  There has to be something positive as well.  And pit bulls have lots going for them: their huge smiles, their goofy senses of humor, their constant need to be THISCLOSE to the people they love, their eagerness to figure things out, and their optimism about the future.

Granted, lots of dogs have those qualities.  Possibly the most important thing about pit bulls is the gap between the lovable, ordinary dogs that we know and the fear, hatred, and discrimination that they often face. 

Lots of people love Golden Retrievers, or Cocker Spaniels, or St. Bernards.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And no one ever tells you that you’re brave, or foolish, or even thuggish because you love your dog.

It’s different with a pit bull. 

Your activism might start the first time an apartment complex prohibits your family member, or someone crosses the street to avoid your happy, outgoing dog, or a relative tells you to keep your pit bull away from your new baby, or you discover that you can’t take a road trip through Denver because your dog could be taken away from you.

You start out telling your mom not to worry about the baby, or telling your neighbor “he’s friendly,” and before you know it you’re a full-fledged pit bull activist.

The best part about pit bull advocacy is the dogs, of course.  But after that, it’s surely the people.  And that’s because what holds us together is not anger or fear, but love. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Short History of Plenty of Pit Bulls

How we started....

Plenty of Pit Bulls got its start in 2010 with a small group of volunteers connected with our local public shelter, Alachua County Animal Services (ACAS) and private rescue organizations. We started looking for ways to increase the number of pit bulls rescued and adopted in our area.  We were very loosely organized, but we looked for ways to help by initiating pit bull specific events and programs at the shelter and elsewhere, providing information about pit bulls, and making it possible for rescues to pull pit bulls from the shelter euthanasia lists by recruiting foster homes and providing sponsorship.  We often paid the pull fee – back in those days, ACAS charged rescue groups the same as adopters to pull an adoptable dog – and back in those days, ACAS euthanized far, far more adoptable dogs than it does now. 

And where did that name come from?

“Plenty of Pit Bulls” is a riff on the term “plentiful pit bulls,” which was a program offering reduced adoption fees for pit bulls at the shelter.  The author of that immortal phrase is Hilary Hynes, the shelter’s education coordinator and one of our favorite people in the animal welfare and rescue world.

                 Hilary Hynes, standing with ACAS alum (and cruelty and heartworm survivor)
                  Teddy and his proud family after Teddy passed the Canine Good Citizen Test.

POPB resisted getting very organized for a couple of years.  With so many outstanding rescue groups in Gainesville already, we didn’t see a need to create a separate rescue group.  We figured our energies were best used in strengthening and expanding the capacity of the existing rescues. 

In early 2012, we decided to take the momentous (had we only known) step of registering as a Florida nonprofit corporation, to have legal status as a community organization.  The Florida incorporation made it possible for us to take the next step: pulling dogs directly from the shelter ourselves, rather than collaborating with other rescues. 

Our first pull was, ironically, not a pit bull at all, but a retriever-y looking black mutt whom we named Tucker.  He was placed on the ACAS euthanasia list in spring 2012 and when no other rescue took him, we decided to plunge in.  Beginner’s luck meant that he was adopted almost immediately by a fabulous young couple.  They changed his name to Gatsby, because he is so great.

Still, most of what we did was provide support for other rescues in the area, to make it possible for them to save dogs whom they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to take.  We collaborated with many groups, including the Alachua County Humane Society, Second Chance, Helping Hands, Puppy Hill Farm, and more.  And we continued to have strong ties to ACAS and the staff and volunteers there. 

That collaborative experience stood us well, and we continue to team up with other rescues and shelters whenever possible.  We think this is one of the things that makes POPB special.  We know it takes many pieces to save a dog, and sometimes the missing piece is something that we don’t have, but someone else does – or vice-versa.  Our collaborative radius has expanded, but our commitment to having a big tent remains the same.

While most of our dogs were still placed for adoption by other rescues, bit by bit we added dogs of “our own.”  Some of the early ones included the Ella the Pit Bull Princess and our first cruelty case dogs, Roxie and Opie (Opie was adopted through HHR).  We also started working with volunteers at other shelters.  Our first non-Alachua pulls were from Levy County, including one of everyone’s all-time favorites, Harper.

Because we grew into being a full-fledged rescue group slowly, we learned a lot by trial and error along the way.  We ended up doing a lot of things that we didn’t really intend to do when we started – like pull dogs on our own, work outside Alachua county, and apply for 501(c)(3) status.  We grew organically, expanding our scope because we saw gaps that we could fill and because we had volunteers who could make it happen. 

We were and still are all-volunteer.  Our early volunteers were all people who had been working with other shelters and rescues but had a special love for big-headed dogs.  As we solidified, we started to draw new volunteers who were attracted to working for a pit bull specific rescue. 

This growing corp of volunteers made it possible for us to help dogs from a growing number of shelters.  In January 2013, we pulled our first dog from Putnam County Animal Services, a severely emaciated, scarred, and heartworm positive red girl named Nova

 This was a very meaningful pull for us because Putnam County has a long history of discrimination against pit bulls.  They used to euthanize all dogs that their staff identified as pit bulls automatically, and then they changed their policy to allow “pit bulls” to be pulled by rescues.  They still do not permit them to be adopted directly by the public.  This is the kind of discrimination that kills dogs – not only by reducing their chances, but also by placing them in a separate category that makes them seem different from other dogs. 

We have a soft spot not only for pit bulls, but for dogs from cruelty cases.  Since Roxie and Opie, we have taken probably dozens of dogs from ACAS cruelty confiscations, including two of our favorites, Ronny and Izzy.   Ronny was adopted by his foster mom Hagar, a vet student, and Izzy found a fabulous home with a law student.

We could help dogs like Ronny and Izzy because of the relationship we have with the Veterinary Community Outreach Program (formerly Shelter Medicine) at the University of Florida.  There is no way that we (or most of the rescue groups in our area) could function without this program.  They spay and neuter our dogs and also provide care for a number of common health issues, including demodex and heartworm.  They also visit other area shelters, and sometimes they identify wonderful dogs that they would like to help.  We’ve gotten some of our favorite dogs this way – we call them “Isaza specials,” in honor of VCOP vet Dr Natalie Isaza.

As we grew, we realized that our lack of 503(c)(3) status was limiting our options in terms of adoption venues, grant opportunities, donations, and more.   In May 2013 we applied for 501(c)(3) status, and about 13 months later we got the approval letter from the IRS.  It felt like Plenty of Pit Bulls was finally all grown up.

Soon after we received the 501(c)(3) status, we began to work on our first national cruelty case.  367 dogs were seized from dog fighting rings in August 2013, in the second largest fight bust in US history.  The dogs were divided up between the ASPCA and HSUS to be cared for while the legal case.  POPB volunteers worked closely with the ASPCA to place as many dogs as possible from this case.  Our first #367 dog was Arabelle, who was released early (in October 2013) due to health problems.  She was adopted by her foster mom Sharon Nataline, a POPB founding board member, and lives the good life with a home full of geriatric chihuahuas and other big personalities.

We ultimately were able to take in and place 17 of the #367 dogs, more than any other rescue in the country.  Most of those were adopted locally, but two crossed state lines to find very special homes – Finn in New Jersey and Ruby in Illinois. 

In May 2014, Orange County Animal Services took in several dozen several dogs from a fight bust in Apopka.  When the dogs were legally released in August of that year, we were able to take in several, including rock star Olivia, who is now an official Canine Good Citizen and a registered therapy dog.  

                    Olivia's mom Caroline is one of our many adopters who have gone from falling
                        in love with one particular pit bull to becoming whole-hearted and creative
                                             advocates for big-headed dogs everywhere.

One of the reasons we initially shied away from becoming a full-fledged rescue organization was that we were worried about not having time to do other activities, such as education, advocacy, and shelter support.  While there is never enough time or money to do all we would like, we’ve found that rescuing individual dogs can reinforce and strengthen those other activities, and vice-versa.  Dogs like Arabelle, Olivia, Ronny, and Ella are the best possible educators and marketing geniuses.  They change minds and open hearts just by being who they are –  affectionate, smart, outgoing, resilient, and somewhat goofy blockheads. 

And some of the volunteers who are first attracted to the opportunity of working with individual dogs in a hands-on way often become interested in helping spread the word about how wonderful these dogs are, how cruel breed discrimination is, and how fun and rewarding it is to work in a community of like-minded dog-lovers.