Several months ago, three pit bull puppies on the verge of death were delivered to the doors of the East Bay SPCA after being placed in a plastic bag-lined Tupperware and abandoned under a freeway underpass. Underweight, underdeveloped, hairless and overheated, the puppies were also severely infected with mange—tiny mites that burrow under an animal’s skin—and were covered in oozing sores.
“Two of them died, they were in such bad shape,” said Laura Fulda, director of marketing and development for the East Bay SPCA, or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “The one that lived looked like such a bloody mess. He was very weak, but he made it through the first couple of weeks with fluids and antibiotics.”
The sole surviving puppy, now named “Magic” because, as Fulda puts it, “It was magic that he lived,” is still in foster care with a family who volunteered to take him in, but is on the mend. “He’s such a wonderful little dog now. He’s acting like a puppy, whereas before, he was shut down,” Fulda said.
Magic is just one of many puppies left for dead and abandoned in less affluent neighborhoods in Oakland, where certain economic factors can add additional challenges to pet ownership. When the recession hit and foreclosure rates skyrocketed, the East Bay SPCA saw a steady increase in the number of pets being dropped off, Fulda said. For owners who are down on their luck, they may have no option but to give away their animals once the cost of caring for them becomes too burdensome.
“There are a lot of people that love their animals and they just don’t have the money to be able to pull it off,” Fulda said. “For some people, it’s the difference between buying a bag of groceries and getting their pets vaccinated. Those are the people we really want to reach out and help.”
In some of Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods, backyard dog breeding is viewed as a way for pet owners to make a quick buck. But this contributes to the number of abandoned or neglected animals when owners think they won’t have any difficulty selling the puppies, but then find that no one’s buying. Other low-income residents might have a pet come down with fleas or mange, but not have the financial resources to take their animals for treatment.
Magic, Fulda said, was probably a victim of both situations. “He’s an example of someone who bred their pit bull and they thought they could probably sell the puppies,” Fulda said. “Then they got mange, didn’t treat it and it got out of hand, so they dumped them.”
The East Bay SPCA prioritizes aiding low-income pet owners as part of their efforts to improve animal health, reduce abandonment rates and make pet owners aware of the group’s services. The society offers free vaccination clinics in low-income neighborhoods twice a year, once in the spring and again in the summer or fall. Postcards are mailed directly to homes in these areas to keep more affluent pet owners from taking advantage of the free services. “We tend to do things right in the heart of where we are located, which in a rough section of town, where there are more low-income families,” Fulda said.
At the last clinic, held in early October around the corner from the Ira Jinkins Recreation Center in East Oakland, more than 300 animals were treated in three hours. In addition to providing vaccinations, free spay and neuter vouchers are also distributed to pet owners. “While they are poor, they love their pets,” said Anya Pamplona, a staffer who works for the East Bay SPCA, of the people who came to the clinic. “They’re incredibly thankful. They line up and wait for over an hour in order to have their pets vaccinated.”
Vaccinations for low-income pet owners are also available at the East Bay SPCA’s full-service veterinary clinic on Baldwin Street in East Oakland. There, rabies shots are $15, compared to the $20 to 35 fee a private vet may charge. If a client can show proof that they receive benefits from a government subsidy program, such as food stamps or disability benefits, services are half-off, Pamplona said.
Certain breeds are over-represented among the dogs rescued in low-income neighborhoods, Fulda said. Roughly 26 percent of the dogs that have either been dropped off by owners or found by the SPCA are pit bulls or pit bull mixes. “Sometimes people live in a rough neighborhood and they like what is perceived as a tough-looking dog, so when they walk down the street they feel secure. Others are bred for fighting or for the protection of the home, but most want them as a family pet,” Fulda said. Pit bulls often take longer to be adopted from the shelter because of the stigma that they are violent, aggressive, or territorial animals, she adds.
Additionally, Fulda said, “Chihuahuas are coming in in droves,” citing past celebrity trends—like Reese Witherspoon’s dog in Legally Blonde and Paris Hilton’s dog Tinkerbell—that sparked an interest in the breed. “They are the dogs du jour right now. They get adopted fairly quickly, whereas pit bulls can sit here for weeks or even months,” she said.
Because pit bulls are so common at the East Bay SPCA and popular throughout Oakland, the East Bay SPCA’s Pit Fix Program also provides free spay and neuter surgeries for pit bulls and pit bull mixes owned by Alameda and Contra Costa County residents. In Oakland, the East Bay SPCA targets its efforts in zip codes where stray and surrendered pit bull rates are the highest: 94601, 94603, 94606, 94607, 94612 and 94621. Last year, the facility performed nearly 10,000 spay and neuter surgeries, and roughly 800 of those were free surgeries on pit bulls.
The services not only help curb unwanted breeding, but also improve overall animal health. Spaying and neutering alleviate fighting, aggression and a dog’s need to roam for a mate, said Pamplona. “When a dog reaches sexual maturity, it’s no longer a cute little puppy,” Pamplona said. “The dogs have no manners and their hormones are raging. A lot of people don’t understand that behavior is a result of them not being spayed and neutered. I tell them to imagine being in middle school and high school.”
Spaying and neutering can also prevent serious health problems. Female dogs left intact have higher rates of mammary cancer and male dogs left intact have higher rates of testicular cancer, Pamplona said. Female dogs who have been overbred can also have ruptured uteruses, and small dogs may face complications giving birth; some have arrived at the East Bay SPCA in the middle of giving birth, unable to continue on their own.
Nearly $200,000 donated to the East Bay SPCA from PetSmart Charities—a nonprofit affiliated with the PetSmart chain—will help the organization fund Pit Fix. With the infusion of money from PetSmart, Fulda said, they’re hoping to raise the number of pit bull surgeries from 800 to 1,600 throughout Oakland’s low-income neighborhoods this year.
But preaching the benefits of spaying and neutering can have its own cultural challenges, Pamplona said. Some owners, for example, believe it’s unnatural to alter their pets and want to be able to breed them, she said. Sometimes, Fulda said, owners think that if they castrate their dogs, they’ll become “sissies, lazy and fat,” and lose the protective instincts that made the owner want the dog in the first place. It’s one of the East Bay SPCA’s goals to sit down with pet owners and clarify that this isn’t the case, Fulda said.
In the coming year, the staff of the East Bay SPCA hopes to increase the number of pit bulls who are spayed and neutered and encourage people who want to adopt to look beyond the stereotypes of pit bull behavior. “People who really love pit bulls love their sweet personalities and know there’s so much more than the negative stereotype that’s been perpetuated in the media,” Fulda said. “A pit bull that’s been well bred is a great dog and can be a wonderful family dog.”