Cindy Lou had just had puppies when she was either tossed from a moving car or run over on purpose. No one knows exactly what happened on a Georgia road that night, but her injuries were so severe vets guessed they were no accident.
Cindy Lou when she was rescuedSecond Chance Rescue NYC
Screaming in pain and full of milk, Cindy Lou was picked up by animal control and taken to the local shelter, where her condition would have soon landed her on the euthanasia list. Thankfully,
Second Chance Rescue NYC heard of her plight and pulled her from the shelter.
Two plates, 18 screws and countless hours of physical therapy later, she is able to walk with a limp. She still loves people and is now up for adoption.
Cindy LouSecond Chance Rescue NYC
Dottie was rescued by California rescue group
Marley's Mutts early last year after being dumped, pregnant, at a high-kill public shelter. After she arrived at the rescue, she gave birth to a litter of puppies — all stillborn.
"She was very scared and depressed but still very sweet," Amanda Brooks, foster and adoption coordinator for Marley's Mutts, told The Dodo. Brooks added that stillborn births aren't uncommon in dogs who have been bred and bred, and bred again. Dottie went to a loving foster home and was soon adopted.
Esmeralda was around 4 years old but weighed less than 20 pounds when she was found under a bunch of blankets in the Bronx, unable to walk.
Esmeralda when she was rescuedSecond Chance Rescue NYC
Esme's ears had been ripped and she was missing chunks of flesh from her legs and back. It appeared she had had several litters, then been used as bait to teach dogs to fight.
She was rescued from New York City's
Animal Care Centers (ACC) by Second Chance Rescue in December 2014, hospitalized for a month and later adopted by Jessica Lynne Cangemi. "She was used as a breeding factory and a chew toy for the bigger dogs," Cangemi wrote in a Facebook post. "And when they were done with her?? They simply tossed her away. Disposed of her."
Esmeralda at homeJessica Lynne Cangemi
Nova had a similar nightmare past. Her nipples were literally touching the ground when her adoptive mom, Dawn Lessey, picked her up at New York's Hempstead Animal Shelter. Her back bowed down in the middle from constantly being pregnant — vets guessed she had been bred every heat she'd had in her 4 or so years.
"She was bred until she didn't produce quality puppies, then they attempted to home crop her ears and throw her in as a bait dog," Lessey said.
A police officer found Nova in a cardboard box on a construction site, whimpering uncontrollably, her ears bleeding. Her teeth were filed down to nubs, a tactic dog fighters often use to prevent bait animals from defending themselves against prized fighting dogs. Her trachea was crushed and her ears cut so short that she now wears a ski mask in the winter to protect the exposed nerve endings from the cold.
"She has every reason to hate humans, every reason to hate other dogs, and she's just like, 'Go ahead and pet me,'" Lessey said. She's working with Nova to make her a therapy dog for hospitalized children.
Cindy Lou, Dottie, Esmeralda and Nova are just a few of the countless female pit bulls relentlessly bred in backyards and basements in all corners of the country.
The reason we euthanize more than 2,000 pit bulls in the U.S. each day is not just the result of strays having unwanted puppies or people being careless about spaying and neutering their pets — although those are real and depressing problems. It is in large part because people are breeding pit bulls for money.
Backyard breeders are people who breed dogs, over and over again, out of their homes for profit. Sometimes the dogs are kept chained outside day and night, sometimes they're treated as pets. Either way, reckless, constant breeding can lead to genetic defects in the puppies and health problems, like mammary tumors and prolapsed uteruses, in the mother dogs. It always results in more pit bulls who will never find homes.
"Backyard breeding is a lifestyle," Brooks said. "People have no shame in it. They buy a dog and that dog is their income source. They think it's harmless." Technically it's against the law if you don't have a license, she added, but animal control rarely enforces such regulations.
"Throwaway mama" is actually a term shelters use to describe the stream of dogs who are surrendered to shelters or picked up as strays after they are dumped, no longer of use to the people who bred them. Maybe they're not having as big of litters as they used to, or they started having stillborns or health problems, or their owners realized that backyard breeding is not an easy way to make a living.
Because dogs first come into heat twice a year, starting at just 6 months of age, and are pregnant for just two months, they can have hundreds of puppies by the time they are a few years old. And those puppies will have puppies: By one estimate, an unspayed dog and her puppies will produce up to 67,000 dogs in just 6 years.
Puppies are sold to neighbors or friends or strangers. Just a couple of months after they are born, they've got to be gone so that the mom can stop nursing and get pregnant again on her next heat cycle.
Hempstead Animal Shelter, where Nova ended up, tests the DNA of dogs they take in, Lessey said. Soon after Nova was adopted, three younger female dogs with matching DNA, crudely cropped ears and long, swollen nipples entered the shelter. They were thought to be her puppies.
Who's buying when there are pit bulls of every age, shape and color in the shelters? While backyard breeders are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, their customers aren't confined to any demographic. A few weeks ago, I stopped to pet a little brindle pit bull boy near my home in Brooklyn. His owner was young, carefully disheveled, wearing a Patagonia jacket. I asked where he'd gotten the puppy, ready to trade stories about local rescue groups.
"A breeder on Long Island, actually," he said, looking down at his phone.
Search for "pit bull puppies" in any city
on Craigslist and you'll find brand-new puppies advertised for a couple hundred dollars, along with slightly older puppies for less or nothing at all. Some "must go" like a piece of furniture just before a moving date. It's a misconception that all these dogs were bred for fighting, but placing puppies in good homes isn't a priority for people who breed pit bulls, the most euthanized type of dog in shelters.
"Maybe the puppies don't sell or they get too big, and they end up getting dumped or given to owners who are going to use them for fighting," said Laura Melillo, co-founder of
Motley Mutts Pet Rescue in Brooklyn.
She told me about a "hipster photographer" who had recently bought a pit bull puppy with cropped ears from a breeder. A month later, he decided he didn't want a puppy after all.
"He was willing to purchase Emmett, paying for his ear mutilation, but couldn't be bothered to pay for his puppy shots," Melillo said. Emmett ended up with Motley Mutts and was soon adopted.
The throwaway mamas
Sooner or later, pit bull breeders will dump their mother dogs, replacing them at little or no cost to the breeder.
"As they get older, they usually end up in the shelter because they start having complications with labor, or they start having less productive litters of puppies. They have stillborns," Brooks said. "These poor dogs aren't having any time for their bodies to recover. It's just one pregnancy right after another. It takes its toll."
Julie LeRoy, who has written for The Dodo, dealt with many backyard breeders during her 12 years as an animal control officer in New York and North Carolina. Where she worked in Durham County, North Carolina, there were neighborhoods where there would be several breeders on the same city block, dogs chained to the ground in neighboring backyards.
"The females would be in heat and get raped by any stray in addition to the ones the breeders mated them with," she said. "We would get surrender calls for litters of puppies that were clearly mixed pits often."
Getting rid of unwanted mother dogs was called "cleaning up." Dumping them at the shelter was one way of doing it.
But with more shelters moving to a closed admission model — charging fees for surrenders, in an effort to euthanize a lower percentage of the animals they take in — cleaning up becomes more difficult.
"Open admission shelters are full of mama pits," LeRoy said. "In areas with closed admission, they will set them free as strays. If they are a highly productive breeder and have land, they will kill them and bury them. Worse yet is I've known a couple who fed them to their hogs."
Some, like Esmeralda and Nova, are recycled into dog fighting, where their docile nature makes them vulnerable for use as bait dogs.
One way or another, after just a couple of litters or a dozen, the mother dogs are discarded. The lucky ones end up in shelters overflowing with dogs just like them.
"At any given shelter I would say at least third of the dogs are females who've recently been used for breeding," Melillo said. "They're often still young, between 3 and 6. Most of them are young and healthy. In some ways, there are so many 3-year-old pit bulls, people look over them."
Older dogs have it especially rough. Sassy was 10 and had recently had a litter of puppies when she was dumped by her owner at the Animal Welfare League of Queen Anne's County in Queenstown, Maryland.
That's where she waited for the next 15 months, repeatedly passed over by potential adopters, until a Facebook post by
Susie's Senior Dogs finally helped find her a home.
"Sassy was one of my pet projects so she attended adoption events frequently," the shelter's adoption coordinator, Stephanie Frampton, told The Dodo. "Outside of the shelter people loved her. She was cute, she was sweet, they loved her reaction to stuffed toys. But it was always the same response: 'If I didn't already have dogs,' or 'We really want something younger,' and the ever-famous, 'She really is sweet but I just can't adopt a pit bull breed.'"
Unwanted pit bulls have it hard enough. The stress of life in a shelter can make even the calmest dog seem neurotic or skittish. Add the physical wear and tear of constant motherhood, and their chances of getting adopted become even bleaker.
"They've got those saggy boobies from nursing litter after litter after litter," Brooks said. "Not that that should matter but we all know that it does."
Nothing but love
What should matter: Mama pits tend to be incredibly gentle, in part because they've put up with baby pit bulls chewing and climbing on them their whole lives. There's not a whole lot that will faze them.
"The ones we've rescued have all been super super sweet, amazing temperaments," Brooks said. "You love them, and they just melt into you."
Darla's foster mom describes her as the sort of love maniac many pit bull owners would recognize: "She's literally crawl-inside-you affectionate and a big giant baby on the sofa."
Darla is still waiting to be adopted. Second Chance Rescue NYC
Darla, who's about 4, was abandoned with her eight puppies at a shelter in Tennessee and pulled by Second Chance Rescue in November. Her body showed signs of having had many litters, but for whatever reason her former owner didn't want this one.
Darla's puppies, who were adopted. Second Chance Rescue NYC
Darla waited for a family as each of her puppies was adopted.
She's still waiting.
All of the mother dogs featured in this story, whether they've been adopted or are still in foster care, are some of the most loving and loved family pets I've had the pleasure of hearing about. And I spend a lot of time listening to people talk about their dogs. Many of these mother dogs were staff favorites at the shelters where they ended up, which helped them make it out alive.
Olivia Kight adopted her dog, Nellie, from New York City's ACC in December 2014. About 8 years old, Nellie had a swollen, scabby mammary area. Her protruding spine and patchy, thin coat suggested she had lost weight and fur with every litter.
Nellie just after she was adoptedOlivia Kight
"She is so tolerant and sweet with other dogs that I'm sure she was a fabulous mother … and her owner took advantage of that," Kight told The Dodo. "Despite all the chaos and heartache she must have gone through, her temperament evaluations told the story of a quiet, peaceful, gentle dog who was easy to walk, sweet to all people, kids included, and tolerant of other dogs as well."
Kight had a baby girl and had just learned she was pregnant with her second child when she and her husband brought Nellie home.
"I'd like to think that our little family might help make the world a more loving place for anyone who might have otherwise been left alone and unloved simply because of what they looked like or someone else's unfortunate prejudices," she said. "There are so many good dogs like Nellie who have so much life left to live."
One of those dogs at New York City's ACC in September 2014 was my dog, Sasha, called Veronica at the time.
I was planning on fostering through Motley Mutts and saw on the ACC's website that Veronica had been waiting nearly three months, almost unheard of at a public shelter that
euthanized more than 5,000 dogs that year. Volunteers had written swooning comments on her profile and put a bandana around her neck to try to get her noticed.
"Veronica both stole my heart and broke my heart yesterday," one volunteer wrote. "This sweet little girl, who seems to love all people, has clearly had too many litters and the poor condition of her fur attests to the fact that all her nutrients went to feed her pups … I started thinking that she may never have had a childhood and playtime of her own and hopefully with a new family may get the opportunity to be a puppy herself."
I mentioned Veronica to Melillo of Motley Mutts, and the next weekend we met at the ACC, along with my husband (boyfriend at the time) and our 4-year-old basenji-boxer mix, Norman.
"That's a lot of woman for you, Norman," my husband joked as Veronica was brought out to the sidewalk, lunging at her leash, her chewed-gum nipples hanging to her knees. She was underweight but strong and bullheaded.
Although shelter notes said she had just given birth to puppies six to eight weeks before her intake — her last of several litters at barely 3 years old — she hadn't yet been spayed and was going into heat again (the ACC doesn't spay and neuter dogs until they are adopted). She got so excited when she was near Norman that we couldn't let them interact.
Because of her sweet disposition, Veronica had been used as a "helper" at the shelter for evaluating the behavior of other dogs — essentially placed in a room with untested dogs to see how they would react — and volunteers said the experience had been unsettling. But she was still so wiggly and goofy and sweet, full of kisses for anyone who would take them. Her tail wagged hard enough to leave bruises on my shins.
She was a lot to consider. I told Melillo we would need to think about it and would call her in the morning.
We still didn't know how Veronica would get along with Norman, and we had no idea what she'd think of our cat. That night, I thought about everything that could go wrong, and I thought about the ACC van that had pulled up to the shelter as we were leaving and unloaded several emaciated pit bulls.
The unknowns weren't going away. And that gorgeous dog was still waiting in the crowded, noisy shelter.
"We want her," we told Melillo over the phone that summery Sunday morning.
Three months later, we called to tell her the same thing, but for good: We had failed hard at fostering her.
Norman and Sasha Katy Brink
Sasha is now snoring softly under my desk, warming my feet with her velvety snout. She's still a little wrecking ball when she launches herself down the stairs or into the neighbor's fence, but she loves snuggling on the sofa and sleeping late on the weekends.
Sasha's a beautiful, smiling dog who gets plenty of attention on walks around our Brooklyn neighborhood. There will always be men who ask if we're going to breed her. I watch the anger flash hot across my husband's face as he tells them, No. The shelter is full of dogs just like her.
I hadn't thought we were in the market for a second dog. If I had been thinking beyond fostering, I might not have considered a 75-pound pit bull who had been bred so aggressively she humped everything in sight. I might have looked for a smaller pit or an older dog who didn't need lots of exercise. They might have been perfect too.
Sasha asking to come insideKaty Brink
I hug Sasha tight every day. She's all muscle and heart, a dog you can squeeze as hard as you want. Sometimes I think of her lost puppies, whether any of them are loved, or even alive. I wonder whether she thinks of them when she meets puppies on the street, always so playful and curious with them.
Mostly, when I look into her intelligent, golden eyes, I wonder, What if we'd never met? She was a shock of love into my family, my work and my life.
For every pit bull who dies in a shelter, it's not just her life that's lost. It's all the love she would have given her people over the course of her life. And the ways that love would have changed them: the weight of knowing about all the other pit bulls, and the obsession with getting just a few more adopted.
If you're ready to adopt a dog, please consider a pit bull, and take a close look at the mama dogs. Yes, you'll save a life, but she'll end up reshaping yours in the best way possible.
And to help the countless mother pit bulls in need of homes, consider fostering with or donating to a rescue group near you or one of the groups featured in this story:
Animal Welfare League of Queen Anne's County in Queenstown, Maryland
Second Chance Rescue in New York City
Marley's Mutts in Tehachapi, California
Motley Mutts Pet Rescue in Brooklyn, New York
Susie's Senior Dogs, which brings awareness to adoptable older dogs across the country
There are adoptable pits waiting in shelters all over. If you're ready to bring one home, check out Adopt-a-Pet.com to get started.