Under the sagging ceiling tiles of the DeKalb County animal shelter, three rows of pit bulls await one of two fates: a new home or euthanasia. Sergeant T.C. Medlin walks along the aisles, petting muzzles through the chain-link. “These guys wouldn’t hurt a flea,” he says.
It’s been three years since the Michael Vick case put pit bulls in the national spotlight, but metro Atlanta seems to be as overrun with the breeds as ever. As of mid-September, Cobb County had taken in more than a thousand pit bulls in 2010. Here at the DeKalb shelter, five to ten arrive every day. Medlin and DeKalb shelter director Kathy Mooneyham blame in part irresponsible owners and small-time backyard breeders. The reform Vick’s verdict should have inspired, it seems, has stalled—if it ever began at all.
Technically, “pit bull” is not a breed; it’s shorthand for various purebred or mixed terrier and bulldog breeds. These so-called “bully breeds” abound in DeKalb’s arrival cages, but they actually account for just a quarter of the DeKalb shelter’s 260 canines. Pit bulls and mixes are kept one to a kennel for safety reasons, so there’s less room to house them. This also means the breeds are the most highly euthanized. And pit bulls, often feared because of attacks by the more aggressive of the breeds, aren’t adopted as quickly. (Though many pit enthusiasts argue that bad behavior and attacks can almost always be tracked back to irresponsible owners.)
In DeKalb it’s a little tougher: The shelter only gives pit bulls to rescue groups or adopters outside DeKalb, in part due to a county ordinance that says pit bulls are not “household pets.” How that’s interpreted is anyone’s guess. It’s not an outright ban, such as the one recently considered by Douglasville, and the vague wording means DeKalb pit bull owners are in little danger of a visit from code enforcement officers. But DeKalb, while lacking funding and a decent building, does have one arrow in its quiver that most other counties don’t: its own animal cruelty unit helmed by certified police officers, which began three years ago. That means punishment for pit bull abuse in DeKalb—whether by neglect, dogfighting, or beating—moved from a slap on the wrist at traffic court to jail time.
Medlin and his crew at times get calls
from Ashley Derrick, an Oakhurst Realtor. Derrick and her partner, Alison Grounds, rescued their first bully—their own American bulldog-pit mix, Brutus (pictured here)—six years ago after spotting him running loose in Decatur. The DeKalb shelter counts on Derrick and dozens like her to rescue the animals (which are put through temperament testing preadoption) and screen potential owners. Earlier this year, Derrick helped organize other local pit rescuers—including the Atlanta Bully Rescue, Animal Action Rescue, and Friends to the Forlorn Pitbull Rescue—into the Atlanta ResponsiBully Coalition, to fundraise and advocate together. Mooneyham credits the DeKalb shelter’s rescue rate, which has doubled in the past year, both to her tireless staff and to the growing number of these groups.
But Derrick—who spent $4,000 of her own money rescuing and helping dogs last year—often goes beyond shelter rescuing to help the breeds she calls loyal and sweet. She has convinced neglectful and abusive owners to let her buy their dogs. She’s rescued tethered, abandoned dogs. And she’s called animal control. A lot. She even once spearheaded a break-in at a shuttered, foreclosed home to save a starving pit bull left behind. The dog was underweight; her teeth, broken. While friends affectionately call her a vigilante, Derrick’s foes often use saltier language. “I’m not messing with nice people,” she says. “These are people who allow puppies to [run] in the streets, or are letting them die in the backyard. They don’t care about the dog. It’s a money issue.”
The money comes from the breeding. At rapper Big Boi’s Pitfall Kennels, for instance, puppies go for $1,500 and up. The problems often arise, though, when small-time breeders get overwhelmed with unwanted litters. Derrick was once at the DeKalb shelter when a box full of such pit bull puppies was dumped off. They were to be euthanized; the shelter just didn’t have the manpower to care for newborns. So she found a rescuer to take them. In fact, between e-mails to friends and her posts on Facebook and Petfinder, Derrick has been able to find homes not only for the shelter dogs she’s fostered but also for the twenty-eight or so pits she’s taken off the streets.
“I actually think Michael Vick getting arrested created more of a problem,” says Derrick. “I have seen the number of young African American men who have pit bulls increase threefold [since then]. In the country, it’s young white guys. This is not a black-white issue. It’s all over Georgia.” Derrick even has rescuer friends who have been approached in a local Target parking lot by people who see they have pit bulls—only to be asked if their dogs would like to “rumble.”
“Until we can create a way of preventing this on the front end, it’s an uphill battle,” says Derrick in late summer. She hopes the ResponsiBully Coalition will spur people—especially those in high places—to act via legislation, such as increased fines for not spaying or neutering. “It’s exhausting. It’s [a calling] I have to make myself not do 100 percent of the time.”
With that, Derrick leaves to pick up a dog from the vet. She rescued him that morning at the shelter, a big, gorgeous, blue bully mix. She snaps her fingers. “He’ll go like that,” she says of his adoption chances.
“Like that” was more like two weeks. And every day, more bully breeds come in off DeKalb streets to take his place.
Photograph by Matthew Wilder, courtesy of Ashley Derrick