Friday, November 20, 2009

Puppies’ worst nightmare over The Butte Humane Society has taken in 11 pit bulls rescued from the largest dog-fighting raid in U.S. history


By Meredith J. Cooper
meredithc@newsreview.com

Pit bulls are a strange breed. On the one hand, they can be loving, loyal family pets. On the other, they can be vicious, fighting machines. So how can you tell the difference? According to Heather Schoeppach, executive director of the Butte Humane Society, it’s mostly about responsible owners.

BHS recently took in 11 pit-bull terriers from the Humane Society of Missouri, which was holding nearly 500 of the dogs retrieved in the largest dog-fighting raid in United States history. All of those rescued went through thorough temperament testing, Schoeppach said. Eight of the 11 the BHS received are puppies, ages 3 to 5 months. The others are 11 months to 2 years old.

Watching Schoeppach hold and play with Blueberry, a 3-month-old blue pit bull she’s taken into foster care, the pit bull seems like any other puppy. Her arms are gangly, she offers big licks readily and is in the process of being potty trained. Blueberry actually was born after the raid, which occurred at the beginning of July. Others, like 5-month-old Orbit, show signs of abuse.

“We think Orbit was a bait dog because of her scars,” Schoeppach said. She would have been barely a month old when the raid occurred.

Many of the dogs seized in the raids were badly maimed, some of them missing noses, eyes, even limbs. Others suffered severe infections due to lack of medical care. There were also stories of unfit fighters being shot in the head and burned in trash cans. The raid spanned five states and resulted in at least 26 arrests. Many of those indicted have pleaded guilty.

About 100 puppies were born between July and last week, when the Missouri shelter started shipping dogs to various rescue spots across the United States.

Currently the local shelter has placed each of the pit bulls in a foster home. Blueberry is Schoeppach’s foster baby, and she expects her boyfriend will adopt him after the mandatory six-week foster program.

“The foster period is aimed to allow them to acclimate to living in a household,” Schoeppach said from her office.

Schoeppach, who at 29 is young for an executive director, is hopeful that this unfortunate event—the raid—will bring more awareness not only of dog-fighting rings and the abuse that occurs there, but also to the pit-bull breed.

“We want to encourage people to begin understanding pit bulls and not be afraid of them,” she said. “It’s true pit bulls have certain tendencies—they’re strong and can be overwhelming to smaller animals or children. But they also used to be known as ‘nanny dogs’ because they were good at taking care of little kids.”

As Schoeppach spoke passionately about Blueberry and her compatriots, it was hard not to notice the impressively upgraded office she was sitting in. During previous visits to the Fair Street shelter, interviews had been held in a trailer, which she shared with other BHS workers.

“We moved here in September,” she said. The office, which includes space for other employees as well as a meeting room and break room, are located just across the street from the crowded shelter. It’s Schoeppach’s wish that the entire operation will someday move to where the old Grocery Outlet building stands on East Park Avenue, just a hop, skip and a jump from where the shelter now stands.

At the moment, however, BHS doesn’t have the cash to buy the place. What could work—and it would be up to the city, she stressed—is if Waste Management, which has been eyeing the shelter’s current location, fronts them the money and then in a sort of trade gets the Fair Street lot, which is adjacent to its own facility.

In the meantime, the shelter also is looking into taking over the space vacated by the emergency veterinary clinic on Skyway to open up a low-cost spay/neuter clinic.

“The startup is the hard part,” Schoeppach said. “But it would directly impact the number of animals we have here. Plus, it would benefit us as well as we wouldn’t have to contract out for those services.”

The money the shelter won from the Zootoo contest is essentially gone, she said. It went mostly into upgrading equipment, from buying new industrial washers and dryers to repairing the vans to getting walkie-talkies so staff can communicate from one end of the shelter to the other.

As for the shelter’s newest inhabitants—actually, they won’t be on site for another five weeks—Schoeppach fully expects all of them to be adoptable and desirable pets. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the owner, she emphasized. These dogs are playful but strong, and knowing how to train and deal with pit bulls is an important part of owning one.

The idea that pit bulls are inherently dangerous miffs Schoeppach, but data from Animal People magazine do show that pit bulls are the “deadliest dogs,” responsible for 50 percent of attacks on humans, 46 percent of maimings and 41 percent of dog-attack-related deaths between 1982 and 2006.

“Pit bulls seem to differ behaviorally from other dogs in having far less inhibition about attacking people who are larger than they are,” the report reads. “They are also notorious for attacking seemingly without warning.”

One of the shelter’s staff members is working on training people who come in to adopt, to show them how to handle the responsibilities of pet ownership. This can be especially crucial to those who adopt pit bulls, as the aforementioned data show. Whoever does adopt the pit bulls from the Missouri rescue will be required, by federal law, to offer updates on the dogs’ statuses for up to two years.

“They want to show that they turned out fine,” Schoeppach said, stroking Blueberry’s back as she slept in her arms.