Rescue: From Pits to Pets

“To err is human, to forgive, canine.”–Anonymous

Story and photos by Eva Mizer

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Boo, a partially-blind, pink-nosed Pit Bull.

Desiree McCalvin turns the knob on the door to her back porch and swings it open. "And here they go!" she yells as the air is immediately filled with the excited barking and yipping of about a dozen dogs.

The combined group of rescues and personal pets—an eclectic mix of Pit Bulls, Chihuahuas, German Shepherds, and mutts—thunder down the steps and into the yard to play and run. One rescued puppy, named Buddha for her large potbelly, stays close to McCalvin’s legs and peers out from the porch like a shy toddler. "We aren't really sure about what she is," McCalvin explains. "But she was found walking along the road on the reservation. She has a beautiful face. I was surprised no one was interested in her for so long." Today, however, a couple is coming to adopt the brindle puppy.

Owning dogs all of her life, McCalvin’s love was originally for Rottweilers. “I hated Pit Bulls like everyone else,” McCalvin said. “I worked with a humane society and they had put a Pit Bull with a Rottweiler. This pit bull just charged the Rottweiler, so that was my view of Pit Bulls— that they should all be put down.”

"Once I got Boo, we’d be sleeping on the couch and this dog would just mold with me. I had never experienced that before."

That stigmatic view changed with the arrival of Boo, a sturdy tan and white Pit Bull. Boo had been abused as a puppy, being housed in filthy, cramped conditions with her mother and siblings. “They had no bedding or anything, and it was just two inches of thick mud and poop,” McCalvin recalls. When the breeder would feed them, he would just take a bag of dog food and dump it on the floor. Because of this, the puppies and mother would have to fight each other to get enough to eat.

McCalvin took in Boo and two of her siblings, a male and another female. Due to the frantic nature and filth of the conditions, the dogs acquired bad habits and dangerous medical conditions. While the other female was put down for fear-and-dominance-based aggression, Boo lost her right eye to infection. “Once I got Boo, we’d be sleeping on the couch and this dog would just mold with me,” McCalvin said. “I had never experienced that before.” Through perseverance and love, Boo inspired what came to be the only Pit Bull rescue service in Clinton County. 

"That led people to think that all Pit Bulls were dangerous dogs,
because they’re owned by dangerous people."

Nationally, Pit Bulls account for only about 5 percent of the registered dog population. Even so, according to the July/August 2009 article by Animal People on a nationwide shelter survey, Pit Bulls made up 58 percent, or 964,637, of dogs euthanized in shelters in 2009. The sheer number of dogs is due in large part to their infamous reputation. Biased media, misidentification, and the popularity of snarling, vicious dogs in criminal subculture, have created an image of a ‘tough dog’ sought after for status quo or to be used as a guard dog.

“They know these dogs are feared so ‘let’s get them,’” McCalvin explains, watching the dogs play with a rope. “They abuse them. They don’t fix them, and they don’t treat them right.” Irresponsible ownership, often overlooked in media reports, can be seen in various surveys of fatal dog attacks in the nation. “Seven out of 10 of the first reported fatal attacks by Pit Bulls were owned by people with criminal records for violent crimes,” explains Katherine Houpt, of Cornell University’s Canine Behavioral Center in Gaylord, Michigan. “So that led people to think that all Pit Bulls were dangerous dogs, because they’re owned by dangerous people.”

"They kept these dogs out back and bred them, only to realize no one in the North Country is going to pay $3,000 for a dog."

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Pit Bull mix puppies wait to be adopted.

Adding to the problem is the popularity of ‘backyard breeding,’ a practice of intentionally breeding dogs for profit without a kennel, breeder license, or breeder registration. Once puppies are born, they are treated as a commodity, and usually not well taken care of. Many may not sell and will likely be abandoned if they don’t have desirable traits. Once, McCalvin experienced such breeders first-hand. “There were two brothers who thought they could make a quick buck,” McCalvin explains. “They kept these dogs out back and bred them, only to realize no one in the North Country is going to pay $3,000 for a dog.” After realizing the fault in their plan, the brothers gave away the dogs after being asked to surrender them. Some of the dogs were bounced around multiple owners before finally ending up at the rescue.

However, unintentional breeding due to lack of sterilization is just as destructive. Recently, McCalvin took in two pregnant females. Each delivered their puppies within days of each other, expanding her Pit Bull population from five to 22. Since then, roughly half of the 17 puppies have been adopted, but nine still wait to be adopted. Just one female dog can have up to two litters a year, starting at just 6 months of age, meaning at 3 years of ages, a single un-neutered female can produce up to 75 puppies. Overall, sterilization not only keeps dogs from reproducing, but it also reduces risk of certain types of cancers, extends their life by 1 to 3 years, and regulates their temperament considerably. Dogs, especially males, become less aggressive when fixed. According to the ASPCA, only 3 percent of fatal dog attacks were committed by sterilized dogs in 2006.

"I’ve had people beg me to take their dog. But they don’t understand that I just can’t do it. I am out here on my own."

While the breed is quite popular in the North Country, few shelters in the area are designed to specialize in the breed. “I’m the only Pit Bull rescue around,” McCalvin said, “and a lot of this comes out of my own pocket.” Aside from some monetary aid from donations, McCalvin pays for food, lodging, veterinary bills, and supplies herself. Because she works at an animal hospital, she is able to make connections with those willing to help pro bono, or only for the price of supplies. Even so, the numbers add up. “Currently, I have a bill of about $1,000 at work,” she adds with a laugh.

Due to such limited resources, McCalvin can only take in about two to three dogs at a time and has had to turn many dogs away. “I’ve had people beg me to take their dog,” McCalvin recalls. “But they don’t understand that I just can’t do it. I am out here on my own.” Though the little bit of monetary aid she has received has helped her financially, she relies on the few volunteers she can get to help clean the stalls and walk, play with, and train the dogs.

"Sometimes, all that these dogs need is some time with other dogs and people."

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Tank, a Pit Bull named after Tank Abbot, snuggles with a rescue volunteer.

“Most of the dogs that come to me have just been neglected,” McCalvin explains. “They just want your love and your attention.” Dogs are hardwired to be pack animals, so when little attention is paid to them or they are chained outside away from the family, it can severely affect their mental state. Dogs that have been neglected or not socialized usually have habits that are considered destructive, such as biting, chewing, jumping, fear of strangers or other dogs, and barking, making them unlikely to be adopted.

However, with a little training and psychology, many believe that almost any dog can heal and be trained. “Sometimes, all that these dogs need is some time with other dogs and people,” McCalvin said. “Instead of watching TV, I will go and play with them for an hour.” McCalvin's pet dogs, many of which are rescues, also take part in the rescue effort. Ranging from tall German Shepherds to a lazy Rhodesian Ridgeback, and three zipping Chihuahuas, these dogs act as teachers as well, enabling rescues to learn normal and healthy play and social behaviors with dogs of all sizes.

To ensure a well-behaved, well-socialized dog, the importance and responsibility inevitably falls on the owner. The key, McCalvin suggests, is education and regulation. “There are good people who just don’t know how to handle or train their dog,” McCalvin said. But to protect against the people who are more irresponsible, McCalvin suggests alternative measures be taken. “What I believe is that there should be legislation for breeding at this point and time; there is too much of an overpopulation of dogs,” McCalvin explains. “I think if they would limit the amount of breeding there was and fined people for backyard breeding, it would reduce the population, and reduce the unwanted dogs and abuse.”

"...slobbering, tail-wagging, 40-pound lap dogs."

Because of such high responsibility demands, those looking to adopt are screened to ensure they are capable of taking on a Pit Bull. Although a few come with negative expectations for the dogs, most looking to adopt—like the couple pulling up in the driveway to see the puppy—end up with the right qualifications and expectations for the dogs.

The couple arrives at the rescue and gets out to look at the pup. The woman calls Buddha, now digging a hole. After several failed attempts to get her attention, she manages to coax her over. “I am not worried,” she says, hoisting Buddha up into her arms and nuzzling her neck, cooing to her. “I have had people come to my house before asking about my dogs, but I train mine well.”

After all of the application process is completed, Buddha, as countless other dogs at the Adirondack Pit Bull Rescue have done before her, jumps into the car excitedly with her new owners. She leaves behind an establishment that has given hope to misunderstood Pit Bulls before her, as well as the three females and the remaining five puppies waiting for adoption. Because of Desiree McCalvin and the volunteers at the Adirondack Pit Bull Rescue, these dogs are given the power to undo years of neglect and abuse to become what they’ve wanted to be all along; kissing, slobbering,
tail-wagging, 40-pound lap dogs.


What are your experiences or thoughts about Pit Bulls?

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