By Harley Becker
Record Staff Writer
November 21, 2008 6:00 AM
RIPON - When Brenda Cowart first spotted the large blue-and-white pit bull through a locked fence at the Ripon Animal Shelter, she knew it would be a horrible shame if he were euthanized.
"He just wanted somebody," she recalled.
She was determined to adopt the dog now known as Cooper.
While all county animal shelters say they do temper testing on their dogs before allowing adoptions, the Pets and Pals Animal Shelter in Lathrop and the Lodi Animal Shelter go further.
Those shelters check up on potential owners to ensure the animals will be properly cared for, even going so far as to do home visits before releasing a pet.
Home visits are recommended by such groups as the Pit Bull Rescue Central organization, not just for potential pit bull owners, but all adopters.
"Remember, Pit Bull type dogs often attract the wrong kind of owners and vigilant screening is a must," the group's Web site cautions.
Cowart's first dog also was a pit bull, and she remembers it as "the most loyal and loving dog I have owned."
But when Cowart later went into the shelter hoping to adopt Cooper, she was told no. Ripon, she was told, does not adopt out pit bulls to the public.
Linda Johnston, Ripon's animal services supervisor, confirmed it is an "unwritten policy" not to allow general public adoption of pit bull breeds from its animal shelter.
All other animal shelters in the county contacted by The Record said they allow general public adoption of pit bulls. Pit bull advocates contend Ripon's unwritten policy may be illegal because it discriminates against a particular breed.
Rather than allow general adoption of pit bulls, Johnston said the shelter does temperament testing to determine if the animal may be suitable to go first to a rescue group that could then work on adopting out the animal.
City Attorney Tom Terpstra said the policy is consistent with state law and is the "humane, sensible thing to do." Terpstra said he sees it as a matter of public safety.
"To do anything other than that would be irresponsible," he said.
In the past year and a half, out of 20 pit bulls brought into the shelter, the city placed two with rescue groups. Four were euthanized, including two that had been declared vicious, Johnston said. The others were retrieved by their owners, transferred to another shelter or found deceased.
Finding rescue groups that will take a pit bull can prove difficult.
Pets and Pals in Lathrop houses a number of pit bulls and is no longer accepting any.
Despite the dogs passing temperament tests, no one seems interested in adopting the breed, Pets and Pals Director Sue Molen said.
Johnston said the shelter routinely contacts rescue operations to place dogs. In Cowart's particular case, the city received no response to their requests. That's not unusual if the rescuers do not have room, she said.
Cowart, determined to save Cooper, took action on her own and contacted four or five pit bull rescue operations she found on the Internet, but repeatedly was told they were not accepting dogs.
Eventually, she found a rescue site for Dachshunds in San Diego that agreed to arrange for Cowart to take the animal.
Coward describes Cooper as "sweet" and said he became part of the family a month ago, on the same day the city was legally able to release him.
Cooper had spent two months at the animal shelter. It took that long before all the legal requirements for his abandonment by his owner were exhausted, Johnston said.
The dog, which was not licensed, was picked up running loose in late August.
His owner went to the pound, but was not willing to pay the costs involved to redeem him: licensing, neutering and pound fees - totaling $128.
Certified letters were sent to the owner, who never responded, which eventually resulted in the animal being declared abandoned, Johnson explained.
Johnston emphasized the Ripon shelter routinely keeps animals for much longer than the seven-day period required by law unless they are deemed vicious.
Dogs normally remain there for at least 35 days and cats 20 days, she said.
If there is room, they may be kept longer, especially if shelter employees believe the animal would make an exceptional pet.
While Cowart was told - and had to sign a waiver - that Cooper had displayed some aggression toward other dogs, Cowart said he hasn't shown any aggression toward her other three dogs on their walks in the rural Ripon area.
She said she plans to have Cooper neutered in the next few weeks, which is required under the rescue agreement.
Contact reporter Harley Becker at (209) 239-3354 or email@example.com.