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Pit bulls proliferate at city shelter, but most get homes (photos)

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The cacophony of barking dogs at the Cleveland Kennel ... "They are more difficult to get homes for," he said. "Generally, we get homes for our dogs in nine days or less. Pits or pix mixes, are usually here up to 17 days before they ...

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By Michael Sangiacomo, The Plain Dealer CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The cacophony of barking dogs at the Cleveland Kennel is deafeningWhile the sound is not exactly music to the ears of the city's Chief Animal Control Officer John Baird, he's gotten used to it. Much of the barking comes from the 117 pit bull or pit bull mixes housed in cages among the 139 dogs awaiting reclamation by their owners or new owners. As heartbreaking as it can be to see and hear the dogs in cages, conditions today are much better than they were 20 years agoThey will greatly improve by the end of the year when the city's new $6 million kennel opens in December at Detroit Road and West 93rd Street. Baird remembers the 1990s, when 60 percent of the shelter dogs, mostly pit bulls, were euthanized or otherwise died in the city kennelToday, only 12 percent of the dogs at the shelter die or are euthanized, Baird saidThe rest are either adopted or transferred to other shelters or rescue organizations locally and across the countryBaird said dogs are never euthanized without good reason such as illness or viciousness. In 2017, the kennel took in 3,978 dogs; 88 percent of them were either adopted or transferredSeventy-four were euthanized for biting. "If a dog is a biter, we have no choice but to put it down," Baird said"And that's not just pit bulls, that's any dog." Not that Baird himself does the jobThe tough veteran of almost 40 years in the business said he can no longer euthanize an animal. "I was all right taking part in it doing it for years," he said"I never liked it, but I did itBut once I had to put down my own dog, I changedI just can't do it anymoreI just can't." PIT BULLS FILL SHELTERS The pit bulls, whose enthusiasts insist are unfairly maligned, constitute the vast majority of dogs in this shelter and other urban shelters for a simple reason: there are more pit bulls out there than other breeds. "They are the most popular dog in Cleveland by far, they are everywhere," Baird said"In other decades it was the German shepherds, or Rottweilers, now it's pit bullsFor whatever reason, it often doesn't work out and they end up on the streetsThat's where we come in." Baird said many of the pit bulls in the city kennel were rounded up wandering the streetsOthers were surrendered by their owners because they could not care for them. "People don't understand what they are getting into when they take a pit bull, and sometimes they find the dog is more than they can handle," he said"These dogs are loving, but they are very powerful." Today there is far more cooperation between shelters and animal rescue groups around the country, and that's better for the dogsThirty years ago, shelters fended for themselves. Baird was getting the kennel's new huge van ready to take 14 Cleveland pit bulls to a shelter in Colorado for adoption, something unthinkable decades ago.  SHELTER COOPERATION Greg Willey, director of the Friendship Animal Protective League in Elyria, knows that all too wellHe takes in dogs from all over Ohio and beyond to give them a second chance at adoption, including the Cleveland Kennel.  Willey said the shelter averages about 10 to 15 pit bulls among the 45 to 50 dogs at the shelter.  "They are more difficult to get homes for," he said"Generally, we get homes for our dogs in nine days or lessPits or pix mixes, are usually here up to 17 days before they are adopted." "Our big enemy is the 'Free Puppies' sign," said Willey"People do not spay or neuter their dogs, and that results in unwanted puppies that they sell or give awayThen those puppies grow up and make more puppies and before you know it, hundreds of dogs have come from just a pair." Willey said some people are too poor to have their dogs spayed or neutered, which contributes to the problemSome just don't want to have it done. "There is a very incorrect perception by some people that spaying or neutering a dog emasculates it," said Willey"Some people identify too strongly with their dogs and won't do it." Most shelters, including Friendship and the Cleveland Kennel, microchip and spay or neuter all animals before adoption to help stem the tide of unwanted dogs. VOLUNTEERS SAVE THE DAY Another difference at both shelters today is the army of volunteers who donate their time and effort to help the dogs. The Cleveland Kennel, on West Seventh Street in Tremont, has more than 300 volunteers, many of whom work to socialize the pit bulls to make them more friendly and adoptable. "Each dog is walked and played with at least once a day, usually more often," said Baird"It helps to get the dogs used to being with people, calms them down and makes them much easier to adopt." It's the same at the smaller Friendship APL where more than 200 volunteers work directly with dogs, walking and socializing them. Both shelters also have foster programs where dogs are temporarily housed at private homes to await adoption. NATURE VERSUS NURTURE Pit bulls and pit bull mixes are known for their powerful strength and biteWhile many argue that other breeds of dog bite people more often than pit bulls, there is no argument that a bite from a pit bull can be more dangerous. This has led to communities, such as Parma, Lakewood and Garfield, to enact bans on the breedOther cities demand owners take out insurance and follow stricter guidelines. The University of Texas Health Science Center, surgery department, recently released a report in the "Annals of Surgery" of a 15-year study of people severely bitten by dogsThey treated 228 patients with bites over 15 yearsOf the 82 victims who knew the breed of the dog that attacked them, 29 were pit bulls or pit mixes, and the injuries were more severe. "Compared with attacks by other breeds, attacks by pit bulls were associated with high injury," the report said. "Attacks by pit bulls are associated with higher morbidity rates, higher hospital charges and a higher risk of death than attacks by other dogs," the report concluded"Strict regulation of pit bulls may substantially reduce the U.Smortality rates related to dog bites." Michelle Reichlin, director of Fido's Companion, a volunteer rescue group out of Avon, noted that common sense dictates that a bite from a larger dog is more dangerous than a small oneShe believes pit bulls are not born dangerous. "Any dog raised in the wrong hands could be dangerous," she said"A dog who is tethered outside will learn to protect its territoryDogs who are used for protection or status become like members of a street gangThese dogs learn to fend for themselves. "But a pit bull or mix dog who is raised properly is not dangerous," she said"I have two in my home right now and they are sweet and lovingThis is the message we need to get out." 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