Pit bulls get the shaft at OPAC, group says

Animal advocates are worried about breed discrimination at the Oakland Pet Adoption Center

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published November 14, 2012

 OPAC employee Joanie Toole visits with Capone, a pit bull orphan residing at the shelter.

OPAC employee Joanie Toole visits with Capone, a pit bull orphan residing at the shelter.

Photo by Deb Jacques

OAKLAND COUNTY — For many, pets are more than just that — they’re beloved members of the family. But some animal lovers are saying that the Oakland County Pet Adoption Center is unfairly keeping some homeless pets from finding loving families.

For months, a group of animal advocates from around the county has been attending Oakland County Board of Commissioners meetings in an attempt to change what they say are poor policies being implemented at OPAC, associated with Oakland County Animal Control. The group, which has been presenting its concerns during the public comment portion of the meetings, complains that the shelter doesn’t work hard enough to reunite lost pets with their rightful owners, yields poor adoption rates, provides rude service from shelter staff and has unfair policies regarding pit bull euthanasia.

Carrie McGowan of Wolverine Lake has been attending meetings with the group because she claims she’s seen firsthand how OPAC doesn’t allow dogs that look like they could be pit bulls to be adopted-out to the general public.

McGowan works as a volunteer with local private animal rescue groups such as Paws for Life Rescue and is the co-founder of Tiny Lions Cat Rescue. She visits OPAC often to take in pets when the shelter becomes overcrowded. Recently, she adopted two dogs from OPAC that were both labeled as pit bulls. The dogs, she says, were marked with red tags indicating they weren’t available for adoption to the public or allowed to be walked by many of the shelter’s volunteer dog walkers. She says the dogs had been tagged and held at the shelter for several months.

“I doubt that the one is really even a pit bull,” she said. “Meeka was there for over three months and she’s a highly-adoptable dog. She’s great in a foster home, but not adoptable to the public because she was labeled a pit bull. It’s the same with Lola.”

McGowan says although the general public might not be able to adopt pit bulls from OPAC, private shelter groups or experienced pit bull owners might have an easier time. The reason, she says, is because pit bulls sometimes have a reputation for being more aggressive and powerful than most other breeds.

“I don’t agree with that. I think it’s the public that makes it a stigma. I don’t believe that’s true,” she said.

Madison Heights resident Courtney Protz-Sanders agrees. As executive director of Paws for Life Rescue, she says she has a great deal of experience with many dog breeds, and to pin pit bulls, Rottweilers or any other dogs as inherently aggressive is unfair.

“We’re soon to be living in 2013 — there is no room for racism, discrimination or stereotyping anymore. Society should have learned by now that you cannot judge based on how one looks, and that absolutely extends to our pets,” said Protz-Sanders.

But according to Larry Obrecht, manager of the Oakland County Animal Control Division who oversees the pet adoption center, no such blanket discrimination policy exists. The shelter animals, he said, are evaluated individually to determine temperament, aggression, health and other factors that could make an animal a desirable pet or a risky liability.

“We have no written policy for any kind of animal, but we work in a lot of places with difficult situations,” said Obrecht. “There’s not a focus on any particular dog, but it just so happens there’s an inordinate amount of pits and Rottweilers in (Oakland County.)

The reason he says the shelter needs to be careful when adopting out certain breeds is because some communities in Oakland County, such as Pontiac, tend to have more instances of dog fighting. He said it’s his job to fully investigate each animal’s background so the shelter doesn’t adopt-out a dog that’s been trained by its owners to be aggressive and could attack a new family member. Further, he said he wants to ensure that potential owners are screened as well, so dogs aren’t adopted-out to an abusive owner who intends to use the dog for illegal fighting.

“The law gives me four days to find out what’s going on, and I want at least that,” said Obrecht. “No pits go out to the general public. We do background checks to ensure they know what they’re doing. Do I put down pits? Yeah, I do. Do I put all pits down? No.”

McGowan says breed discrimination isn’t fair even to protect the dogs, explaining that people looking to adopt dogs for dog fighting aren’t looking only for pit bulls, and that a dog of any breed could be used as a “bait” dog.

Michael Zehnder, director of the Oakland County Department of Public Services, says it would be irresponsible to relax policies that keep potentially dangerous animals of any breed from going home with unknowing adoptive families.

“It’s our policy that we don’t adopt out sick or aggressive animals,” he said. “It’s better to put it down. What are we supposed to do? Adopt it out so it can be a problem for other families?”

Protz-Sanders says that her group wants to work with the shelter, not against it, to change some of OPAC’s policies and increase outcomes for all animals in Oakland County’s care. But that requires more communication between the county and concerned animal lovers.

“I would love to see a citizens’ advisory group. A group of knowledgeable people — I would recommend members of the shelter, volunteers, members of the rescue community and members of the Michigan Pet Fund. Let this group of experts take a look at your current operating policies and see how they can help you.”

McGowan agrees, saying shelter staff should evaluate each animal individually instead of trying to peg a breed.

“(Pit bulls) should have to pass a temperament test and health evaluation just like any other dog. They have adoption counselors to screen for dog fighters, and it shouldn’t end at adoption. People should be able to come back and ask for advice. And there are volunteers who are more than capable of being counselors.”

Zehnder said no such citizens’ advisory group is in the works at this time. However, several Oakland County Commissioners, including Craig Covey and Jim Nash, have both expressed interest in the board reviewing the shelter’s policies.

“We might just want to see what their processes are,” said Nash. “It would go through the Public Services committee — they’re the ones that would look into it. It would take someone putting in a resolution to do that. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”