A few months ago marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact on New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast. At the time, I shared my trip journal from 10 years ago detailing our experience volunteering for 5 days in the wake of the Hurricane, I shared the memories that have stayed with me most, and the long term impact of Hurricane Katrina of the PETS Act -- which recognized pets as part of the family in evacuation scenarios.
And while there has of course been a substantial long-term impact following Hurricane Katrina for the families impacted by the storm, and for the communities that continue to rebuild, there is another long term impact for animals that has gone virtually unnoticed-- and that's the impact on pit bull-like dogs in this country.
But to understand the impact, we need to take a little trip back -- to what feels like forever ago.
In 2005, sheltering looked much different than it does today -- at least in many places. No kill, as a movement, was pretty new and the impact was not felt in most places and many/most public shelters were very high kill. Many also had strong prejudices against certain types of dogs.
I'll use Kansas City as an example -- because I'm most familiar with the situation -- but also because its story is pretty typical of the situation in 2005.
In Kansas City, the shelter was high-kill -- with roughly 65% of the animals being killed in the shelter each year. The shelter's policy for pit bull-like dogs was that if they came to the shelter, they would return them to owners and there was one pit bull rescue group in town that was allowed to pull pit bulls from the shelter. The rest were killed and never given a chance for adoption.
These polices, combined with a lot of negative media attention led to a simple reality - -unless you were a volunteer for the pit bull rescue group in our community, or owned a pit bull, you had little to no exposure to them. The lack of exposure led a LOT of people to believe only what they heard, or read about pit bulls because they had no other basis for their opinion. Which meant, that even in the animal welfare community, pit bulls didn't necessarily have a great reputation. Indeed, many of the major national groups at the time had policy papers that were disparaging against pit bulls.
They had a bad rap -- even among many in animal welfare. Which made the group of people who knew that pit bulls were indeed good dogs fairly small.
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, we began to get word of all the animals that needed help in the Gulf Coast region. Our friend got a text from a friend of hers that said "almost all the dogs are pit bulls, and a lot of people here are afraid to work with them." Well, I definitely wouldn't have considered myself an expert on pit bulls - but I wasn't scared of them. And that was motivation we needed to head to Gonzales, LA to help at the Lamar Dixon staging camp.
In the days that followed, our experience was like that of many others. We worked with the dogs. And, a significant majority of the dogs were pit bull-like dogs. And if you were helping at Lamar Dixon, or many of the other staging sites, you were helping with pit bulls. If you were afraid to work with pit bulls you weren't going to be a lot of help.
And the end result was that hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteers from around the country, many of whom had had very little interaction with pit bulls in their years of working in animal welfare, began working with the dogs for the first time. I've seen a lot of comments that verify that this was, indeed, their experience.
And nothing creates a more positive image of pit bulls than working with the dogs. Because in spite of this being a challenging situation for the dogs and the people, the dogs were....amazing.
As the months that followed, these volunteers went back to their communities and began talking about their experiences -- and talking about the dogs. In addition to the stories, many iconic photoes of the historic rescue efforts from the Gulf Coast were published (some of them are posted in this blog post) and a huge number these pictures included pit bull-like dogs.
The experience of working with the dogs, the stories about the rescue efforts,and the images started to change the attitudes of people WITHIN animal welfare about pit bulls. And this change in attitudes among animal welfare groups led to some significant changes in the years that followed.
Two years later, in an historic case, a judge allowed the dogs seized from Mike Vick's dog fighting operation the opportunity to be evaluated and adopted out. While this was through a lot of work by some key folks working directly with authorities in this case, I don't think that it's any coincidence that for the first time ever dogs from a fighting case were allowed to live when now, it wasn't just "pit bull people" fighting for the dogs, it was the entire animal welfare community.
It was the animal welfare community again that put HSUS on blast after HSUS supported the killing of 127 pit bulls that were seized from a potential dog fighting ring in Wilkes County, NC in 2009 -- and the animal welfare community began to bring some of the national animal welfare groups along with them on their improved attitudes about pit bulls.
Best Friends Animal Society was relatively quiet on the topic of pit bulls prior to Katrina. But following their experience at their own temporary shelter in Tylertown, they took an active role in helping many of the dogs from the Vick case and have become the most active national organization in affecting policy toward pit bulls in the years since.
In the time that has followed, the attitudes have continued to improve and progress is being made for pit bulls. Long-time anti-pit bull people were forced out of high-profile positions because of their insistence on killing the dogs. Ohio, which was the only state to have state-wide breed-specific laws, repealed it's breed-specific law. 19 states now prohibit breed-discrimination from government entities.
And now, many, many communities, like here in Kansas City, shelters have not only begun giving pit bulls a chance to be adopted, but adopters, and volunteers are falling in love with the dogs -- because, the dogs are....amazing.
And it's with that experience with the dogs that more lives and attitudes will continue to change....for the better.