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Continued: Minneapolis' shelter overrun with pit bull dog breeds

A few weeks ago, someone dumped a red pit bull in a stranger's yard in north Minneapolis. Scars and puncture marks ran up and down the cowering dog's front legs and around her ears and muzzle.

"Timid & shy and scared of shovels," a volunteer at Minneapolis Animal Care and Control noted.

"Honey," as she was called, is one of the ever-increasing stream of pit bulls and pit bull crosses that end up at the city shelter. In 2011, 761 so-called "bully breeds" arrived -- frightened strays and bouncy puppies, surrendered pets and fearsome dogs that had attacked people and pets. That's 13 percent more than in 2010.

The pit bull numbers keep rising despite stiffer city penalties for unlicensed dogs, a focus on dangerous-dog control and a program offering free neutering of pets in much of north Minneapolis.

Dogs brought to the shelter include injured and dying animals that were dropped in alleys and behind garages, the casualties of dog fights. They may be the saddest victims of an urban fascination with a breed that symbolizes swagger, protection and profit.

"Some people have them because they're scared, other people as a status symbol," said Annie Piper, an animal control officer who covers north Minneapolis. "You see people doing their strut down the street in the parade of pit bulls -- 'Look at me, we have tough dogs so we're tough guys.'"

Animal Control works with 32 rescue groups and a corps of dedicated volunteers to find homes for adoptable animals. But the city releases pit bulls only to rescues that are screened and have pit bull experience. Eight groups qualify, but they can't keep up with the flood of dogs. Last year, half the bully breeds at the shelter were euthanized because they were deemed dangerous or because no foster home was available.

"We do not adopt out pit bulls" to individuals, said Dan Niziolek, Animal Care and Control manager. "We do not want to see them re-victimized."

The challenge the city faces is evident on a Facebook page for Friends of Minneapolis Animal Care and Control, a volunteer group that lets rescue groups know about available dogs. Posts become more urgent as kennel space grows short: "Who can help Zeus, Phoenix and Houston?? ... This is their last chance!"

Volunteers recently began posting photos of euthanized dogs. Twenty-two of the 24 are bully breeds. That provokes fury among some users.

"RIP Duke," a woman posted after an elderly pit bull did not find a foster in time. "I am going to try real hard to figure out how to get the horrible policies responsible for your murder changed."

On the pit bull beat

Piper drives her white Animal Control van slowly up Russell Avenue N., where someone has called about a loose pit bull. One of her wrists is ringed by squiggly white scars.

"The dog got me, and the police officer got the dog," she says. It was a pit bull mix.

She has found dogs neglected in the basements of empty houses and chained to fences. When pit bulls are vicious, she says, it's usually because of the people who own them.

Ahead, a brown pit bull is circling a front yard. As the van pulls up, a woman leaves a parked car and goes into the house with the dog. When Piper knocks, the woman comes to the door alone.

She says the dog belongs to her son-in-law. Piper explains that the dog must be licensed and leashed. The violation will cost $175.

The woman doesn't want to give her name but she is willing to talk about the dog. The dog is "real good," she says, and is "not aggressive at all. She doesn't behave like a pit bull. She's friendly."

The dog is also pregnant. "I got a few people who want puppies," the woman says.

How much will she sell them for? Her eyes narrow in suspicion.

"I haven't had a dog before," she says. "I don't know. I'll give them away."

In the van, Piper smiles. "People know it's against the law to sell dogs in Minneapolis," she says.

Piper, who has an easy, disarming way of talking with unhappy people, tells the woman about Animal Control's partnership with MN SNAP, which provides free pet neutering to low-income residents in this part of north Minneapolis.

"Puppies can be really messy," she warns, handing the woman an information card.

Piper repeats the message at a house a few blocks away, where one of the two pit bulls is pregnant. Nearby, she finds a Manchester terrier running outside its fenced yard. The owner says the male dog escapes and "has babies all over the city."

Inside the shelter

In Animal Control's "restricted" dog room, the barking is deafening and visitors are warned to keep their hands to themselves. Most of the dogs are bully mixes. Some have been here before, like a dog that bit a postal worker.

But many of the pit bulls at the shelter aren't there for biting. They're strays, owner surrenders and seized dogs with unknown pasts. That's when "B3" -- the experienced volunteers of the Bully Breed Brigade -- step in to evaluate dogs.

On this day, Anitra Francis is working with Moxie, a pit bull with a massive head and powerful physique. A stray from north Minneapolis, Moxie was spayed at the shelter. Her teats are sagging; she recently had a litter.

The dog is a clown, with a lolling tongue and wagging tail. She sits eagerly.

"She's awesome," Francis says. "She passes every temperament test with flying colors."

Another volunteer has been working with the terrified Honey, and a surprising photo pops up on the Facebook page: Honey joyfully running toward the camera with a ball in her mouth. "Give this girl a ball and watch her INSTANTLY come out of her shell!" the caption says.

But the clock is ticking. Days later, there's a warning: "Is this Honey's last day? Hopefully a rescue can save her before it's too late ..."

Time runs out

Unlike other shelters, Minneapolis Animal Control cannot turn animals away. It takes road kill, crippled cats, even tropical snakes.

Niziolek and Jeanette Wiedemeier Bower, who coordinates volunteer programs, are proud that even with budget cuts, adoptions have tripled since 2010 and the euthanasia rate has dropped.

Cats and bully breeds are the challenge. For bully breeds, the only outlet is rescue. Rescue has stepped up: even as the number of pit bulls surged in 2011, the proportion taken by rescue grew from 15 to 24 percent. But with limited foster homes and an average stay of two to six months before adoption, many pit bulls simply run out of time.

The dogs still come: the traumatized Honey; sweet old Duke, who just wanted to cuddle; and smart, silly Moxie with the hanging tongue.

Honey found a foster home. She is reported to be playing, snuggling and doing well.

Moxie went to rescue, too, but she was returned to Animal Control after she had a fight with a dog in the foster home. Three volunteers "saw aggression and behavior they were not comfortable with," according to the city.

She was euthanized last week.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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