Donald Lumsley sits on a foldout chair on the porch of his shotgun house in Gentilly. He's a former high school and college football player and looks it — he's wearing a purple T-shirt from his alma mater, St. Augustine High School. Two pit bulls stand at the top of the porch steps and watch cars and people pass by. They circle around him when someone approaches.
"I would go to bat for them. They could be dead wrong, they're right," Lumsley says. "Where I go, they go — everywhere except church and work."
The dogs, a small white pit bull mix named Buddy and a brindle three-year-old pit bull named Puppy (or sometimes, Persia), vie for Lumsley's attention. Puppy growls at newcomers and keeps her eyes locked on them until she's decided they're OK. Buddy accepts attention from anyone and gets it. Lumsley rescued both dogs, a decision he made in 2009 that changed his life.
Lumsley found Buddy wandering eastern New Orleans at the end of Hayne Boulevard in July 2009. She was a starving stray in a neighborhood where she was likely to be hit by a car or picked up as fighting bait. "Something told me to call out to that dog," Lumsley says. He put his hand up to her, and she licked him.
He brought the dog to the house of a neighbor who owned a pit bull, but the neighbor's dog attacked Buddy and sunk its teeth into her head. Lumsley cleaned her wounds — and she stayed with him. "She didn't seem to be no complaining, whining dog even though she had a bad hand," he says. "She was laying under the carport with her paws crossed like, 'Where have you been?' That's when I knew I was stuck with her. I don't mean stuck like it's a burden. That's when I knew God wanted me, and I had to do whatever it takes ... to make this work."
Lumsley couldn't keep Buddy at his mother's house where he lived. After two days of asking friends to help house the dog, he called Animal Rescue New Orleans (ARNO) and asked the shelter to take her. ARNO director Charlotte Bass-Lily picked up Buddy two days later.
"I was kind of hoping she wouldn't come. I didn't want [Buddy] to go away from me," Lumsley says. "I knew I couldn't keep her. I wanted the best for her. ... I cried like a baby outside. I didn't care if the neighbors saw me. Everybody knows I'm a manly man. I'm a crazy dude. Ain't nobody gonna bother me unless they're stupid. ... I sat out there and cried like a baby."
For several months, Lumsley visited Buddy at ARNO, a volunteer-run, no-kill shelter in Harahan. He moved to a new home in Gentilly in November 2009, and the next month, on Dec. 23, Lumsley brought Buddy home. ARNO waived the adoption fees.
"When (Buddy) got out the car and walked through this door, she jumped straight in the bed," he says. "She knew she was home. I didn't tell her no different. ... I've never had a better Christmas present to this day."
According to the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (LASPCA), the shelter accepted 7,201 animals in 2011, and 1,667 of those were pit bulls. Of those animals, it found adoptive homes for 1,889 animals — including 123 pit bulls. It also euthanized 1,257 pit bulls. All figures for the shelters' 2011 pit bull intake (including adoption, but excluding owner surrender) were greater than those of 2010, when the shelter euthanized 1,166 pit bulls and adopted out only 81. On the adoption floor, many of the dogs are pit bulls. Most are new arrivals, including two puppies: two-month-old Amara and Bourbon, who were found in an abandoned house on Josephine Street.
"We need more people to adopt — bottom line," says LASPCA communications director Katherine LeBlanc.
Grimm, a young, slim white and brown pit bull, was a prize in a poker game. The winner gave her to the shelter, where staff discovered she was pregnant. She birthed a litter, and over the next few days, the shelter received more puppies, some with their umbilical cords still attached, who still needed to be nursed. Grimm accepted them into her litter, and the puppies huddled next to her to nurse.
But Grimm bit a kennel worker, and Orleans Parish requires shelters to quarantine dogs involved in bite cases for 10 days. Space at the shelter is rare, and that bite sealed her and her puppies' fate. Grimm and the litter were euthanized within days.
Grimm's story is not unique. Mother dogs at the shelter often are tasked with feeding more than their own — and many are euthanized.
The LASPCA accepts animals three ways: animal control officers pick up animals and bring them in (this is the most common — more than 1,000 pit bulls were brought in by animal control officers last year), owners surrender their pets (243 pit bulls), or people bring them to the shelter's front desk (378 pit bulls).
Lexie, a brown pit bull mix with a white chest and paws, likely has lived on the street for all or most of her six months. Someone found her in eastern New Orleans and brought her to the shelter last month. Her back left paw is underdeveloped, almost as if one was never there. Within seconds of releasing her from her leash, Lexie fell into my lap and lay across my chest, paws in the air.
Lexie's kennel neighbors are Ike and Tina, a pit bull "couple" found roaming last month in the 7th District, where animal control officers picked them up. They both have short "crop" jobs on their ears. Last week, Ike and Tina were adopted.
Princess, however, has been at the shelter since October 2010. She lowers her head and eyes as someone approaches her kennel. She's going for a walk.
Princess spent the first three years of her life tied up in a junkyard, and her owner was ordered to relinquish her and never own an animal again. The three-year-old pit bull is all white, save for a brindle patch around her right eye and a pink-and-black nose. She struts past several cages of dogs inside the shelter and, once outside with her potential new owners, she immediately flops over in their laps for a belly rub.
After a few minutes, shelter volunteer Lydia Friedman leads the dog back into her cage on the adoption floor and Princess waits, again.
According to local animal rescue groups, New Orleans' pit bull population is one of the country's largest, per capita. The breed, which includes American Pit Bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers and countless mixes, is overbred and raised as aggressive guard dogs, typically as protection in neighborhoods with little police protection. They also are raised and used to fight — illegally and often to the death — in yards, backrooms, vans or car trunks. Some, mostly smaller breeds or runts, are used as "bait" to train other dogs to fight. Thousands of other pit bulls wander the streets.
The city has even attracted national attention: The starring organization Villalobos Rescue Center from the Animal Planet reality program Pit Bulls & Parolees has set up shop in New Orleans after relocating from its massive California ranch. The New Orleans rescue and adoption center will open this year.
Meanwhile, pit bulls in national headlines are usually linked with disaster: an 11-year-old girl's "arms are shredded" after a pit bull attack. Or induce nightmares: a "tot's pit bull mauling death."
LASPCA's five animal control officers and two dispatchers respond to more than 20,000 calls each year, including 400 calls from people reporting dog bite cases. (Last year, of the 72 dogs impounded from bite cases, 47 were pit bulls — and in 2010, 23 were pit bulls among the 55 dogs impounded.)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than 4.7 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, and 800,000 cases require medical attention. Most fatal cases are from intact male dogs, and 70 percent of fatalities are children under age 10. But the Humane Society and CDC believe no particular breed is more likely to attack than another, including pit bulls — though between 1979 and 1998 (dates from the CDC's most recent available report), pit bulls were responsible for the most deaths, followed closely by Rottweilers, then German shepherds.
Julia Breaux Melancon, Louisiana director of the Humane Society of the United States, says shelters statewide are inundated with pit bulls and pit bull mixes. Some Louisiana parishes have enacted breed-specific legislation (BSL) targeting pit bulls, whether labeling them "dangerous" or banning the breed outright. Other states have similar municipal ordinances, including Mississippi, where more than a dozen counties restrict pit bull ownership. St. John the Baptist Animal Shelter, for instance, prevents pit bull adoptions — but allows animal welfare groups to rescue the dogs. And there are several local groups doing just that.
When New Orleans writer Ken Foster sent his memoir The Dogs Who Found Me to his publisher, an editorial assistant wrote back. "Is this supposed to be a book about pit bulls?"
"I said no, but that's kind of how it turned out," Foster says. The 2006 book explores the stray dogs Foster encountered and rescued, and how they helped him heal, whether through Hurricane Katrina or a heart condition that later required a pacemaker. He told his publicist, "If all we do is get on the radio to talk about either New Orleans after Katrina or pit bulls, I won't care if it doesn't sell any books," he says. "But it turned out it did sell. So many people love pit bulls but hadn't seen a book that presented them in a positive way."
In 2008, Foster started the nonprofit Sula Foundation, named after his pit bull Sula, who died in 2010. The organization has rescued, fostered and adopted out dozens of pit bulls and has hosted events to offer dog owners low-cost veterinary care like vaccinations, spaying and neutering, and other services, including dog training. (The next clinic is noon to 3 p.m. February 4 at Bonart Playground in the Lower 9th Ward.) The foundation survives on donations and merchandise sales, including its popular "Pit Bulls of New Orleans" wall calendar.
"As [the foundation] grew, the population of pit bulls has seemed to grow as well, which has made it more of a challenge to find potential homes," he says. "Everybody has three pit bulls already."
This month Sula and other rescue groups assisted Biloxi, Miss., law enforcement in rescuing 25 pit bulls found chained to stakes behind two mobile homes. Half the dogs were euthanized. Last week, the dogs' owner, Thang Anh Lee, turned himself in and faces animal cruelty charges and more than 50 other violations, from owning too many dogs to improper chaining.
"I'm probably going to take one home," Foster says. "She was a little bit of a borderline case. I don't know if she's adoptable, but she likes being kissed. I'll at least give her a couple weeks of kissing and see where it goes."
On Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, David Munroe walked to the corner of St. Philip Street and North Claiborne Avenue at 6:40 a.m. Two unleashed pit bulls lay in a grassy lot 30 feet away. One of them lunged at him, grabbing his ankle and shredding his sock but not breaking his skin. Munroe yelled, and the dog backed off.
"I was fortunate, but someone may not have been," he says, noting that Joseph A. Craig Elementary School is within walking distance of the area. "Kids would be out walking, and these dogs are out there. They might do real harm to a kid."
Munroe reported the attack to both the New Orleans Police Department and the LASPCA, but the dogs, he says, were still there six weeks later. He thinks the pit bull population needs stricter enforcement. "Until there's not a problem with this, society needs to take steps to protect itself," he says.
Animal welfare organizations agree — aggressive spay and neuter campaigns are meant to curb the pet population that poses a risk to people as well as the health and lives of other dogs. Pit bulls are terriers — they're active, territorial, and playful. They're also large dogs with powerful jaws. A small terrier jumping up and resting its paws on your leg is one thing. When a pit bull does it, it's another.
Before dogs enter the LASPCA's adoption floor, they must pass a SAFER (Safety of Assessing for Evaluation for Rehoming) test following a mandatory five-day holding period. (Owners have five days to claim their pets before they become property of the shelter.) LeBlanc says pit bulls need an "A" to move to the adoption floor.
Animal behaviorist Jordan Buccola explains the five-part test that determines a dog's sensitivity, temperament and personality. "(Pit bulls) have to do really, really well," she says. "You can't put any up that are 'OK.' They already have a bad name. We're trying to steer clear of that."
Far greater than bite cases and aggressive strays are pit bulls that have been victims of fighting and neglect. Even more frequent, because of the sheer number of pit bulls in the New Orleans area, are dogs whose owners turn them into area shelters because they can't afford to take care of them.
Gina Sabine adopted a Staffordshire-pit bull mix named Grace from the LASPCA in July 2011. Animal control officers picked up the dog on North Rampart Street, where she was tied to a post with another dog that had died. Grace's ears were tied with rubber bands — a cheap "crop" job — and were falling off.
Sabine's daughter renamed the dog Aspen, and she's "40 pounds of snuggle," Sabine says.
Last year, Kelly Cottrell adopted her pit bull Kiana through Sula when the foundation helped rescue some of the more than 200 dogs from a hoarding case in Ohio. A few months later, Cottrell adopted Villere, a three-year-old "blue" pit bull she found in a Dumpster on North Villere Street.
"I passed (him) up and thought, 'There's no way I just saw a dog in a Dumpster,'" she says. "I turned around to make sure, and there he was. He was perched on top of a wood platform, just sitting there. ... I knew right when I looked at him that he was a sweetie."
Cottrell helps foster dogs through Sula, and the organization currently is fostering nine dogs in different homes and at Canine Connection. One is Andy, an active, friendly white pit bull mix whose owner threatened to put him on the street.
ARNO cares for surrendered pets and abandoned animals and is one of a few shelters in the country that accepts feral animals. The organization has 40 dogs in foster care, and its kennels are hardly ever empty. It also rarely says "no."
"But that's our niche, really — taking in animals that are too old, too young, injured," says Bass-Lily, the shelter's director since 2006. "We have a hospice program, too. A dog may not be expected to live long, but if whatever they have is manageable and they're not in pain, we have a foster and cover the medical costs. That way the dog lives its life living with a family that loves it. At least it gives that animal a chance to be loved."
Before it was a shelter, ARNO was founded as a pet rescue group in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Since 2005, it has helped find homes for and reunite families with more than 8,800 animals. Many of the stray animals it receives are pit bulls. The shelter is a mix of kennel cages, aisles of dog food and bedding and donated equipment like patio heaters for winter weather. A flurry of barks and whimpers erupts when anyone walks by.
But Diamond, a white-and-brown pit mix with a bright pink nose, remains quiet and sits up in her kennel, pressing her head gently against its side. Diamond's owners surrendered her to the shelter when they found they couldn't afford medical care costs to heal sores on her paw pads and remove a cancerous tumor on her chest. She's now receiving chemotherapy.
Mosca is a white pit bull mix with brown patches who was found outside her namesake restaurant, Mosca's. When she was found, Mosca was thin and covered in scars and wounds, showing a history as a bait dog for fights. Mosca also is available for adoption, as are most of the animals at ARNO.
It's cleaning time — crates and kennel spaces and floors are being washed, and big black plastic bags sit outside to be picked up by a volunteer laundry crew that washes the mounds of bedding and towels.
Shelter volunteer April Allain points to Martine, a caramel-colored pit bull mix she rescued. "She came to me while I was unloading groceries," she says. "Because this is a no-kill shelter, these are our dogs. They're our babies. Nothing's going to happen to them. They'll live with us forever if nobody adopts them. We try our best to get them the best home they can get."
Beau was born with a neurological disorder veterinarians couldn't identify, though they said it resembles a sort of canine cerebral palsy. Beau couldn't keep his head, or much of his body, up. He was the pick of the litter until his symptoms appeared and his owners needed to get rid of him. Sula volunteer coordinator Jamie Patterson took him in. Beau received a hernia operation and now he's an energetic two-year-old.
"People have a preconceived idea that it's a killer dog, but if you just take away the breed name and just look at it as a dog, I don't think people would be so judgmental," Patterson says. "They're (the dogs are) just thrilled someone loves them."
And they need a lot of it, she says. Organizations like Sula, ARNO and LASPCA thrive on volunteers to walk and feed dogs, clean kennels or help dispel breed "myths" by interacting with people on the street. Cottrell says pit bull owners and their dogs need to act as "ambassadors of the dog."
Foster's next book: I'm a Good Dog (due out Oct. 16) is a "sort of history and celebration of pit bulls, where it has come from and whether it matters where it comes from," he says.
Dean Howard, development director of the LASPCA, says one of the shelter's responsibilities is to "change the concept that all pits and pit mixes are bad dogs. ... It really goes back to the owner." The LASPCA does outreach in areas where there are a larger number of strays or pit bull concerns, like dogs chained in yards, or breeding. A "Chips for Chains" campaign offered free microchipping to owners who get rid of their pet's chains. Howard says the organization tries to convince owners to spay and neuter their animals to help curb the population — but that means changing the minds of owners who often see the dogs as revenue streams or weapons.
"It's an ongoing challenge," Howard says.
Donald Lumsley walks to his backyard and points to a patched hole in the fence, where his brindle pit bull Puppy would escape to play with Buddy. Lumsley adopted Puppy when his former neighbors on the other side of the fence abandoned her. "They would breed puppies, selling them, making money," he says. "They actually called the dog Cash."
The neighbors' other dog, a small white pit bull, froze to death in their backyard. Lumsley chokes up thinking about it. "A person like you shouldn't even have a dog," he says, referring to the neighbors. "What do you want a dog for?"
Puppy sits beside Lumsley on his porch. He growls playfully at her, and she wags her tail and perches her front paws on his lap.
"Come here, Puppy! That's my Puppy! That's my baby!" he calls to her. "How can you not love that? How can you not love coming home to that?"