by Stephanie Feldstein (reprinted with permission)
The Oreo Debate has been raging through the animal rescue community sinceÂ the abused pit bullÂ was euthanized a week ago due to temperament concerns. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which made the decision, says that she demonstrated extreme aggression and couldn’t be rehabilitated — others disagree.
Now, New York legislators want to introduce a bill, named after Oreo, allowing another animal welfare organization to step in if a shelter is planning to euthanize an animal. As it currently stands, Oreo’s Law would force groups like the ASPCA, who have experience with behavior issues, to turn over any dog to any 501c3. But nonprofit status is not given to animal organizations based on their behavior knowledge, training resources, the responsibility of their adoption programs, or even the quality of basic care they provide.
For the sake of argument, let’s say ASPCA was right about Oreo’s temperament.Â Though a happy dog doesn’t act the way Oreo did, some dogs can be rehabilitated. Other dogs, like some humans, have legitimate psychological issues that can’t be overcome.
If Oreo’s Law had existed, maybe Oreo could have gone to a shelter that worked with her for longer and was able to get her to come around. (Based on the ASPCA description and my firsthand knowledge of working with different types of fear issues, I’m skeptical.) On the other hand, Oreo could have just easily ended up at a shelter that exposed her to unqualifiedÂ caretakers (or even adopted her out too soon) resulting in a bite record; or at a shelter that couldn’t work with her and warehoused her in a hoarding situation; or at a shelter that wasn’t even prepared to give her the full therapy she’dÂ need to recover from her physical injuries. The New York bill has no provisions to prevent this.
Not to pick on New York, but like the ban on gas chambers that’s going to take a year to implement, this law is the right intention but the wrong execution. (Either that or the legislators are just responding to headlines in order to position themselves for the upcoming election year.) If they wanted toÂ create a law in honor of Oreo, why not steeper punishments — ones that actually fit the crime — for animal abusers? Why not create a fund to support the rehabilitationÂ of all shelter animals to support theÂ ones currently killed each year because the shelter doesn’t have a behaviorist to work through simple problems, or lacks the resources to keep the dog alive long enough for a broken bone to heal? Or why not, at the very least, create a law like California’s, which addresses shelters who euthanize adoptable animals because they just don’t feel like turning them over to another organization?
Oreo began "showing signsÂ ofÂ extreme aggression — with little provocation or warning," which is different than predictable fear-aggression.Â The pictures where Oreo looked relaxed say even more aboutÂ the moments when she tried to bite an evaluator or turn on her handler. As a rescuer and a pit bull owner, this makes me very uncomfortable. This is not the temperament of our breed. Yes, Oreo was in a lot of pain, which can explain aggression, but not always. Look at Phoenix, the pit bull who had been set on fire and, despite the burns on 98% of her body, she walked into the animal hospital wagging her tail (although she didn’t survive her injuries). There is no doubt that Oreo was a bite risk, either in the short-term if she went to an ill-equipped rescue organization, or in the long-term if she never came around as people hoped she would. If and when someone got hurt,Â Oreo would have made headlines again. This time as a totally preventableÂ "Pit Bull Attack," not as a victim.
I’m not saying it can never work out, or that it’s not worth trying. I’m just saying that sometimes, despite all the best efforts, some animals can’t be saved.
Fear-aggression is a stressful existence for a dog. People who argue thatÂ Oreo should have been saved assume that this suffering was temporary. But what is "temporary"? Dogs with low-level fear issues are always a work in progress, so for dogs like Oreo with an extreme, unstable level of fear, what happens to them while they’re being "rehabilitated"? They have to virtually live in isolation, or as part of a community thatÂ causes additional stress and poses a danger to other animals and people.
Yes, Oreo’s story is a tragic one that should have had a happier ending. But there’s more to life than simply being kept alive (otherwise we wouldn’t object to factory farms). Dogs like Oreo deserve a good life, not just any life, and Oreo’s Law does nothing to protect them from further harm.
(For all of the organizations that offered to take in Oreo, maybe in honor of her memory, you could rescue one of the many happy, healthy pit bulls, the ones who didn’tÂ make headlines and are going to be put down this week for no reason other than not having a place to go.)
Photo credit: ASPCA
Stephanie Feldstein has been speaking out for animals since she first learned to talk and could protest fur coats and beg for a dog. She currently works for a non-profit environmental organization and runs an in-home training and behavior consultation business,specializing in behavior issues common to rescued dogs. She also volunteers for Pit Bull Rescue Central and several other animal welfare groups. In her spare time, Stephanie writes novels that explore the human-animal bond. Her current pack consists of two pit bulls (Turtle and Moby), two German Shepherd mixes (Juno and Sierra), two cats (Ophelia and Enigma). Visit her blog at change.org.