Life is the Pits -- The NYC Pitbull
and Pit Mix Rescue Meetup
By Laura Osanitch
NYC Pit Bull and Pit Mix Meetup founder Amy Calmann and her pit bull "Patti Smith"
Chelsea resident Amy Calmann, adopted her pit bull 'Patti Smith' from the New York Center for Animal Care and Control in 2003. She became so enamored of her warm and wiggly new friend she created the NYC Pitbull and Pit Mix Rescue Meetup, a group where pit bull owners could come out of the canine closet and show their love for their breed of choice. Today, 586 happy members gather all over the five boroughs.
Meetup member Cris, who requested her last name be omitted, joined the Meetup partly in response to comments made like that of a former boss, who noticed her dog's picture on her desk and chastised her for owning a pit bull. Shocked, Cris still remembers her eyes watering up as she hid her precious pet's photo in a drawer.
"It hurts my feelings when people react so angrily or frightened towards my dog. whom I love," Cris says, who was thrilled to meet likeminded people through the Meeutp.
Other members feel the same way. Ingrid and Francisco Rodriguez of Bushwick adopted their pit bull, 'Blanco' in September 2008. Abandoned, Blanco was in need of a hero, and the Rodriguez's answered the call. Since adopting 'Blanco', however, Ms. Rodriguez says she's found herself in situations she never bargained for, including what she describes as "thugs expressing their admiration," for her dog and a "dicey" bodega employee who, upon sighting Blanco, released a mistreated pit bull from a basement in what Ms. Rodriguez thinks was an attempt to incite a fight. The Rodriguez family is glad to have found the Pit Bull Meetup, where they feel they can make friends and create positive experiences for their precious pooch.
Author Jon Bozak with "Demo" and "Brinx"
Jon Bozak, author of graphic novel, Demo-The Story of a Junkyard Dog, is also a member of the NYC Pitbull Meetup and is the owner of two pit bulls; 15-year-old "Demo" and two-year old "Brinx." Mr. Bozak says his dogs and his book have served as a catharsis for his views on many issues, including judgment on appearance. He suggests: "People today are short on time and can't be faulted for forming fast opinions. But they should learn what they are forming opinions on. Be open to discussion."
Large dogs are a common in New York City's projects, but a new provision may change that. Residents and others speak out about how this new law will change, or has already changed, their lives and the lives of their dogs. But citywide, New York City's already overburdened shelter system may feel the effects of a flood of these now 'banned' dogs being surrendered by New York City Housing Authority residents (NYCHA) who fear of losing their apartments.
New York City's Pit Bull Problem - And Why YOU Care
East River Houses resident Samuel* walked his two Rottweilers, 'Addy' and 'Nelson', from 105th Street and First Avenue to another nearby development, the George Washington Houses, one recent summer afternoon. Once there, he let the two large, seemingly tame dogs off their leashes for some exercise in the courtyard. Almost immediately, a woman begins arguing with him. She is afraid of the dogs and demands Samuel put them back on their leashes.
Samuel refuses. His dogs have never hurt anyone, he tells the angry woman, and they're under control. After a few more minutes of arguing she walks away cursing.
"I can't win," Samuel shrugs. By his own admission, he is an intimidating sight. Six foot five, dark skinned, tattooed, and flanked by two large dogs, he says he's an 'easy target' for both public housing residents and police officers alike.
"Kids as young as ten years old, looking to become Crips or Bloods, flash red or blue bandanas and threaten to 'blast' me because they think I'm a cop. And the cops? They think I'm fighting my dogs and doing other bad things, and they won't leave me alone."
Add to the kids and the police one more group who will have Samuel and other public housing residents under a more watchful eye-The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).
On May 1st, the Housing Authority, which is responsible for overseeing some 178,489 apartments throughout five boroughs, imposed a 25-pound weight limit on family dogs, almost half of the 40-pound weight limit instituted seven years ago. Additionally, the new rule specifically bans pit bulls, Rottweilers, and Doberman Pinchers from public housing, period. Residents may either have one pet dog or one pet cat but not both. All pets living with public housing residents must be registered with NYCHA. And, like all dogs in the city, they must also be licensed.
The new weight and breed rules do not apply to service dogs or to residents of Section 8 subsidized apartments, which NYCHA does not manage. But those who have had dogs over 40 pounds since 2002 and did not register them with the housing authority at that time may now face eviction. Some residents have already been told to remove their dogs.
"Over the years, we had been getting an increasing number of complaints about problems associated with dangerous dogs; dogs that are used for fighting, dogs that are attack dogs, and dogs that are not being handled and trained properly by their owners," says NYCHA spokesman Howard Marder when asked what prompted this latest change.
Many New Yorkers, NYCHA and non-NYCHA residents alike, were taken aback by the public housing authority's seeming haste to put the new weight and breed bans into effect. In addition to some initial glaring missteps, like the publication of a list containing the names of 27 so-called 'dangerous breeds' (which included the likes of Boston Terriers) the new rules seemed to contradict a New York State law which has long prohibited state municipalities from making laws which ban the ownership of specific dog breeds. To that, Mr. Marder says, "NYCHA is not a municipality. Therefore the rule does not apply." However, he says, NYCHA met with city animal advocacy organizations prior to implementing the new rule because "we didn't take [this] change lightly."
Residents, Animal Groups Taken By Surprise
"In no way shape or form did they [the Housing Authority] consult with us prior to coming up with this list, and we categorically reject breed discriminatory legislation," says an angry Jane Hoffman, President of the Mayor's Alliance For NYC's Animals and founding member and Chair of the NYC Bar Association Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals. "They only put out a notice to their tenants about a month before May 1st, and it came to our attention when residents started calling us in a panic."
The Mayor's Alliance and other city animal rescue organizations have a strong interest in the potential repercussions of NYCHA's weight-and-breed ban. Since its founding in 2002, the Mayor's Alliance has been the recipient of millions of dollars in grant money from Maddie's Fund, a national animal rescue fund created by software developer David Duffield in memory of the family's Schnauzer, Maddie. The Mayor's Alliance anticipates spending (and raising) a total of $24.4 million by 2016 to help reach their stated objective: reaching the day "when no New York City dog or cat of reasonable health and temperament is killed merely because he or she does not have a home."
"We are concerned from a policy standpoint, as we're trying to make New York a no-kill city," Ms. Hoffman says "We knew this [NYCHA] policy would cause an increase in shelter intake and the 25-pound weight limit would make it difficult for public housing residents to adopt from Animal Care and Control (AC&C). Seventy percent of dogs who come into the shelter system, according to the AC&C website, are pit bulls--one of the three breeds now banned from NYCHA projects.
It is impossible to say exactly how many animals have already ended up at the AC&C, the city's animal shelter system, as a result of the new NYCHA rules. But if early predictions are correct, the number of dogs turned in could be substantial.
According to Debora Bresch, ASPCA's Legislative Liaison in Government Relations, six percent of all dogs available for adoption from the AC&C were adopted by public housing residents between January and April 2009, a total of about 172 dogs. Under the May 1st NYCHA rules, 107 of these 172 dogs - over 60% - are not supposed to be there, making them prime candidates to be returned to the city's shelter system.
Early attempts to discourage city housing residents from surrendering their animals before knowing what their rights are under the new rules include the distribution of a memo in several languages at each of the city's shelters. (The English version of the memo can be accessed here: www.animalalliancenyc.org/ press/memo2009-06-08-English.pdf )
There were 4,656 dogs and 1,264 cats registered as pets of housing authority residents when the May 1st policy went into effect but, Mr. Marder says, NYCHA did not keep records of them by breed. However, he says, NYCHA will use its "limited resources to address lease violations such as this as well as all other lease violations or Quality Of Life infringements or crimes as it is made aware of them."
Pit Bulls In the Projects
Public housing residents are among the first to admit pit bull fighting and animal abuse are common within certain housing projects and must be stopped. But several interviewed for this article feel the new NYCHA rule is too broad and unfairly affects people and pets who never have, nor would, do anything criminal with animals.
One of those fighting against NYCHA's new pet rule is 26 year-old Marquis Jenkins, community organizer for a tenant advocacy group called the Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES). Mr. Jenkins has been circulating and gathering thousands of signatures for a petition against the new policy. At the crux of his efforts is a request that NYCHA "halt any and all evictions in association with the [new] pet policy".
Supported by Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, Chair of the New York City Council's Subcommittee on Public Housing, Mr. Jenkins asserts that nearly all the dog owners that have joined the fight against the policy with GOLES have received a letter from NYCHA-- the first step of the eviction process. Some have refused NYCHA management's request to remove their pets. Their next step is to schedule a hearing at the NYCHA head offices at 250 Broadway.
Back uptown at the George Washington Houses, 70 year-old resident Gladys and her seven year-old pit bull, "Dream", say they've had run-ins with NYCHA long before the May 1st rule went into effect. When Dream was still a puppy, Gladys says, a resident complained to the Housing Authority that Gladys' dog was vicious. Gladys found herself not only having to prove allegation false in order to keep Dream, but to keep her apartment as well.
"So I took pictures of her playing with people, with children, and I got a petition, because all [the] people are crazy about her." Eventually, NYCHA ruled in her favor. A public housing resident for 38 years, Gladys says she's received a written notice in the mail regarding the pet policy change but is unconcerned. Dream is registered, spayed, with vet certification, and although over 40 pounds, is exempt from the weight limits because she is considered a type of service/ therapy dog for Gladys.
Gladys says she took Dream as a four-month old puppy from her niece, because "I didn't want her to fall into the wrong hands. My niece was being offered hundreds of dollars for this puppy." People willing to purchase Dream at such a large price, she believes, were looking to either breed her or use her for fighting - or both.
Gladys' friend, Moncit*, agrees. She's witnessed firsthand what she believes were people training dogs for fighting. "Last Summer, right there," Moncit recounts, pointing to a large tree in the courtyard, "is where I saw a rope hanging. A pit bull was holding onto it with his jaws, swinging from this rope, while a man was whipping it with his belt over and over again.
"This used to be a breeding ground for pit bulls," says Marietta, who has lived in public housing for 52 years and currently lives at the Washington Houses. Up until about two years ago, she says, the problem was easy to see. "They used to fight dogs wherever - it did not matter. In the street, on the sidewalk, right here in this yard," she says. She is standing in front of the same area Samuel had let his Rottweilers run earlier that day.
The housing authority's ban on pit bulls and other breeds often favored by dog fighters does have some unlikely supporters, however. One of them is Emelinda Navarez, a life-long resident of the South Bronx and founder of Earth Angels Canine Rescue. Over 45 years, Ms. Navarez estimates she's rescued over 6,000 pit bulls in and around her neighborhood. Another is Stacy Alldredge, a Chelsea resident who has a dog training business and has worked at animal shelters as well as been involved in animal rescue for more than two decades. Both Emelinda in the Bronx and Stacy in Chelsea think the NYCHA ban on pit bulls may be the right thing to do.
Other advocates, who don't support the ban, nonetheless acknowledge there is a problem, problems which have not necessarily ceased since implementation of the new policy. On July 8th, police called to check out a disturbance at the Stanley Isaacs Houses East 94th Street shot and killed a pit bull during the melee, according to a Daily News report. Weeks later, a 19 year-old boy was arrested for throwing a young pit-bull mix off a roof in Brooklyn's Red Hook housing development. And on September 29th, a trial will begin against seven men who were arrested during a police raid of an East 179th Street building where the basement and yard was allegedly used to carry out an organized dog fighting operation. (See the homepage for the NYC Anti-animal Fighting Campaign ( http://stopdogfightingnownyc.wetpaint.com) for more details.)
As residents have attested, there is no doubt that mistreatment, recklessness, and irresponsible behavior when it comes to animals in public housing take place and causes quality of life issues. Whether or not the NYCHA ban on pit bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans, and dogs over 25 pounds will put a damper on these things, which have created the problems that Mr. Marder says residents have complained about, remains to be seen. As the 90 day grace period has just past, New York Tails will keep a close eye on NYCHA's enforcement of its new policy and its effect on the city shelter system, as well as progress by those who are part of the effort to repeal the rule.
As for Addy and Nelson, just a few weeks after being interviewed for this article, Samuel relinquished the pair to Manhattan AC&C on 110th Street, saying that he is trying to save up money to move away from New York and cannot do so while also providing for the animals. Luckily, the pair were removed from the shelter by a Rottweiler rescue group and eventually found a new home in Vermont.
* Only first names of public housing residents have been provided to protect their privacy.
Next week: Animal advocates Emerlinda Navarez and Stacy Alldredge, from two very different parts of the city, explain why the large breed dog ban in the projects may ultimately end up protecting the dogs.
Past New York Tails Blog Coverage of the NYCHA Ban: