Friday, December 12, 2008

Surviving pit bulls' future uncertain

NEWKIRK, Okla. - Some pit bulls shiver in the cold, skin and fur hanging from their bones.

Some wag their tails as strangers approach.

Some try to hide.

Still others growl and lunge at other dogs.

Almost all have heavy chains around their necks.

More than a week after hunters stumbled across 106 emaciated and dying pit bulls at this remote farmhouse, the dogs are still here, in wire pens and plastic barrels.

One dog was dead and another dying when authorities arrived. Two have since been euthanized because they were in such poor shape. One had been in a fight and her head was covered with wounds.

The 102 surviving dogs now have food, water, shelter and straw -- and an outpouring of support from across the nation.

But their future is uncertain.

"What's going to happen to these animals is still pretty vague," said Ruth Steinberger, state outreach coordinator for Oklahoma Alliance for Animals. "It's not an everyday thing."

For now, they are housed at the farm where they were found Dec. 2. Kay County doesn't have an animal shelter, and the dogs must be held as evidence against the Wichita man accused in what authorities call one of the largest cases of dog neglect in Oklahoma.

The farm had been leased by Jerry Southern, 32, of Wichita. He was arrested and booked into the Kay County Jail. His bond has been set at $250,000.

He faces 106 felony counts of animal cruelty and one count of possessing dogs for fighting. He is scheduled to appear in court Dec. 17.

Steinberger expects a court order early next week that will release the dogs to the alliance, which then will have to decide whether some can be adopted. More may be euthanized.

"These dogs were starved," Steinberger said. "There were dogs that actually died in front of the officers.

"With care, the better they feel, the more their aggression and personality will show. We are all working with everybody to do what's best for the dogs and for public safety."

Dogs everywhere

The 911 call came into the Kay County Sheriff's Office early last week. Pheasant hunters had stumbled across dogs in need of attention seven miles west of town.

In his three decades of law enforcement, Deputy Mike Landis said he had never seen anything like it. Everywhere he looked, there were dogs on three-foot chains.

No food or water.

Emaciated dogs with little or no energy. Several were dying.

"Feces were non-existent," Landis said. "They'd been eating their own feces."

A veterinarian evaluated the dogs. The dogs found outside were each given a rating, with 1 being emaciated and 5 being obese. Nearly 90 were rated 1 or lower.

When the doors of a barn were opened, the odor was overwhelming, Landis said. More dogs, this time in the type of crates you'd use to take pets to a veterinarian.

A search warrant for inside the house revealed even more dogs, this time puppies.

"Some of those dogs had been left in cages and looked like they had been there for two months without food or water," Landis said.

Waste six to eight inches deep covered the bottom of the cages, Landis said.

A report filed by veterinarian Seletha Sanders of Ponca City said: "A few of the dogs had obvious injuries. One small black dog was literally missing the end of her nose, she looked to have been wounded in the past and healed back without nostrils. One large white male was missing part of his tail with the remainder having large, open wounds."

Outpouring of help

Donna Springer sits at her desk in the Kay County Sheriff's Office opening mail.

Dozens of letters have come from across the country. Nearly all include a check.

More than $4,000 has been donated since the pit bulls were found. More than 300 bags of dog food have arrived, along with doghouses, bowls, hay.

The generosity has been so overwhelming that the Sheriff's Office has asked people to hold the gifts for now. There is no more room to store the goodwill. Dozens of bags of dog food sit on the front porch of the farmhouse.

Volunteers have come to feed and care for the dogs. Jail trusties have helped sheriff's deputies feed and water the animals.

"They didn't do anything to deserve this," one trusty said.

What to do next

With the constant attention of human beings, some of the dogs are beginning to stir, to bark.

The Oklahoma Alliance for Animals, which is serving as the umbrella group for the effort, has begun exploring options for the animals.

With pit bulls it's not as easy as it is with other breeds of dogs, Steinberger said.

"We are working with absolutely the best experts on screening," Steinberger said. "The screening has to be in place for both the animals and public safety."

Although the public has shown concern for these dogs, Steinberger said, other dogs are also in need of attention.

"We have more than 100 pit bulls that die in Oklahoma animal shelters every single day," she said. "Pits and pit bull mixes comprise about 40 percent of what come into shelters in our state.

"These are the most common dog breed to fall into the hands of irresponsible dog owners. They are overwhelmingly the greatest victim of cruelty."

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