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Shouldn't We Just Kill This Dog? 

Does San Francisco's pit-bull testing program put good dogs in good homes -- or put lethal land sharks back on the street?

Wednesday, Jun 11 1997

Death row smells like dog piss. The inmates, five pit bull terriers, have fouled their cells. Repeatedly. They're yowling in indignation. They're pounding and banging on their cell walls and doors.

For all intents and purposes, the pits -- Brownie, Cassius, Rock, Ice, and Ralph -- have ceased to be sentient beings. They're merely evidence to be presented in court cases against their former owners. As soon as the cases are done -- so are they.

Dead dog walking. The icy needle. The big sleep.
Refuse of a disgusting and dangerous subculture of nihilism, machismo, and, often, hard drugs and violent crime, these dogs will round out their short lives in the cages of the city's Animal Care and Control agency. They've been handed a death sentence because they were confiscated at dogfights, or have the telltale scars of organized fighting. Once a pit learns the blood sport it was bred for, it can't unlearn. It's no good for anything else. It has to die.

The first cage on the left houses Brownie, a monster of a dog, a classic pit: bulging muscles packed around the shoulders and head, a head that is shockingly large. The dog's head reaches nearly as high as an average person's waist. Standing next to Brownie when he's outside the cage is, plainly said, terrifying.

His head is all jaw and mouth. Toss a ball to Brownie, and his oddly quiet powerhouse clampdown makes you take a step back.

The sound of that clamping-down terrifies in the same way the tiny click of a bullet clip slipping into a gun does. The clampdown reminds you that every pit, no matter how sweet, is very much like a loaded gun. The clampdown announces: You can't unlock these jaws with human hands. You need a device called a break-stick.

Right now Brownie is in his cage employing his canine skills on a red chew toy. Grasping it between his teeth, Brownie shakes the toy violently back and forth. The body tremor starts in the head and spreads back through the body to the hindquarters, surging like 10,000 volts, ripping through his body, sending it crashing from wall to wall. Water and dog food dishes fly. Accompanied by a steady, lethal growl, the momentum builds until the whole cage is one violent, crashing cacophony of killer instinct.

"He wishes that chew toy was this dog," says Animal Control attendant Katie Dinneen, wryly pointing to a 1-year-old pit named Fred that she's walking past the cages on death row.

Fred, black-and-white spotted and little more than a puppy, is jumping up and down, playfully, blissfully unaware that the dog in the cage wants to eat him.

Fred isn't all pit. He's probably one-third something else. He's cute, no question, and obviously full of typical puppy energy. Dinneen and her superiors at Animal Care and Control want to see if he passes a new "temperament test" the agency has developed and is continuing to refine. The test will determine whether cute little Fred lives or, deemed a menace to society, dies.

Seven months ago, all pits, regardless of whether they were sullen or sweet, were euthanized once they had the bad luck to be surrendered by owners or were picked up by officers investigating cruelty, dogfighting, or other violations of animal control laws.

But after contentious internal debate, Animal Care and Control changed its policy. Now agency staffers pick and choose, based on a still-evolving set of behavioral standards, which pits are suitable for adoption, and which have to be "put down."

So far, Fred seems to be doing all the right things.
He's a little mouthy, meaning he bites in play way too often. But when he bites Dinneen too hard and she yells in pain, Fred jumps back, drops his ears and tail in regret, and stands still, the picture of dejection.

"That's good, very good," says Lori Feazell, the deputy director of Animal Control, who has just walked into the "get-acquainted room" to watch Fred take the agency's life-and-death exam.

Dinneen sits on a bench in the room and calls Fred. He comes to her; she restrains him, placing her arms around his neck and body, rendering him unable to move. He wriggles up on her lap and licks her face.

Good move, Fred.
Dinneen lets Fred loose and claps her hands real hard when Fred has his back turned. He flinches a little but mostly ignores her.

Fred passes a few other little tests and then goes on to face the ultimate magistrate, the Pontius Pilate of pit bull terriers, the grand arbiter of life and death in the corridors of Animal Care and Control: Feazell's dog, Colby, an Australian shepherd mix.

Dinneen and another officer block off one end of the corridor, where Feazell keeps her office. Feazell blocks off the other end and releases Colby.

The sound of slippery paws scampering on linoleum announces Colby. He makes a beeline for Fred. The two dogs do the usual sniff-sniff, let's-get-acquainted nuzzling, and then Colby sets to it. He nips and charges and nudges and mounts. Fred isn't having fun. He's scared of Colby. He wants no part of Colby.

Colby charges again. Fred whimpers and makes a run for it, trying to squeeze between Dinneen's legs.

He's exhibited no innate pit bull fighting tendencies. In fact, he's a bit of a sissy.

"He'll go up to the SPCA tomorrow for adoption," Feazell says.

The new pit bull policy has everyone at Animal Care and Control holding breath. "I'll be the first to admit, it's a very risky program," Feazell says. "It's a challenged program. We don't know the full history of a lot of these dogs."

Truth be told, there is only one official who wanted to change the policy of killing all pit bulls that came into public custody. That official was Carl Friedman, the agency's avuncular, rumpled executive director.

About The Author

George Cothran


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