The Homeless Pet Population in The South
Thanks to brainstorming in class and with colleagues I have focused in a bit more clearly on the research I want to pursue. I did some reading about the demand for pets in the northeast and the volunteer organizations here in the south that transport pets from our over-crowded shelters to waiting facilities and familes. Hurricaine Katrina seems to be the impetus for this “underhound” railway, and after that catastrophe left so many pets stranded along the Gulf Coast volunteers mobilized to rescue and rehome these animals. After this infrastructure was established, local animal rescue shelters have implemented this transport technique to relieve overcrowding by driving pets north. Most of the animals are dog breeds that are prevalent here but in high demand in northern shelters. A Boston family with small children may have to search shelters for months to find a dog that is suitable for their lifestyle in their regional shelters, while here in the south the Metro-Atlanta area dogs of all kinds are surrendered to stuffed-to capacity kill shelters.
Smaller, fluffy breeds are in the most demand for families in the northeast, which still leaves the larger, more powerful breeds looking for homes and filling local shelters. The pit bull breeds comprise the majority of the homeless dogs in the Atlanta area (and in the north, too) according to LifeLine Animal Rescue, a volunteer, non-profit organization that operates both the Fulton County and Dekalb County Animal Shelters. Why are pit bulls so popular and so readily abandoned in Metro Atlanta? What is the history of the popularity of the breed here in the south? How can a breed represent power, status, and prestige, particularly in the African-American community, and also be discarded as trash? Who breeds these dogs, and for what purposes? Dog fighting and the infamous Michael Vick incident are great examples of how pit bulls are being selectively bred and coveted for character traits like aggression and strength which make them undesirable and unmanageable pets. What actions are local organizations like LifeLine and Forgotten Paws taking to increase awareness, educate owners, and also to mitigate the abuses done to these animals? How are programs like the CellMate program, which rehabilitates animals and felons, changing the futures of discarded dogs and disenfranchised groups?
I can’t help but be struck by the irony the pit bull represents. As the status symbol of wealth and power in the African-American community, dictated in part by the hip-hop and rap music industry largely based here in Atlanta, the pit is coveted by a population that either cannot support the animal or is the most likely to abandon or surrender the animal. And furthermore, African-American males as the disproportionate majority of the incarcerated are the very people who are now participating the rehabilitation of these abandoned and abused dogs. This issue rapidly gets complicated and convoluted, but I think there is a lot of material to unearth and digest.
I plan to interview key personnel at LifeLine, Fulton County Animal Shelter, and volunteers in the CellMate program and the transport program. I also would like to contact the professor at Emory who is teaching a course this semester entitled Dividing Lines: Dogs, Identity. Perhaps the begins with examining the pet rescue and transport infrastructure that was born out of Katrina. How did that rescue effort affect local organizations here by their implementation of pet transports to relieve over crowding at high kill shelters and to reduce euthenasia at these shelters. The second stage of the research would zoom in on the homeless pet population represented by pit bulls, and the accompanying unplesantries. I am aware of my internal pull to tie the story up nice and neat with a Disney ending, but I’m not sure yet where this story will take me. I do want to highlight some success stories, but what does success look like for homeless pets in Atlanta? What does success look like for organizations like LifeLine and for the individuals that volunteer as dog walkers, cage cleaners, surrender counselors, foster parents, and transporters? Yes, some animals that are abused and abandoned can be nurtured back to health and become loving family pets, but not every dog that finds its way to a local animal shelter fits this description. What does success look like for these animals? Also, what attitudes prevail here in the south that lend to such a large homeless pet population? How do these attitudes differ from those of people in the northeast? Why is the south “behind the curve” once again in this area?