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SPCA launches ‘dogsnip’ plan in bid to control pitbull problem

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Looking for good homes: Rhondasha Wilkinson, head of animal care at the Bermuda Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, with Kate Terceira, executive director of the SPCA, pose with Bodie, one of many young pitbull mixes looking for a home. (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

An emergency programme to curb a pitbull “crisis” driven by illegal dog breeding was launched at the weekend by a charity running out of options to safeguard animals.

The Bermuda SPCA announced a donor scheme for owners of restricted dog breeds to request help spaying or neutering animals, as the charity’s head highlighted the “horrific” toll on staff struggling with a recent surge in unwanted animals – particularly pitbulls.

Returning pitbulls to the island’s list of banned breeds, after they were given a reprieve by legislators in 2018, is not the answer, SPCA executive director Kate Terceira said.

“There need to be heavier, stronger penalties on people irresponsibly breeding dogs,” Ms Terceira told The Royal Gazette.

“We need more legislation on how you house and look after animals, and at what point your animal can be removed.”

She called for “better owners” but said lawbreakers should not get let off lightly and should be blocked from owning dogs.

“I can’t get a bank loan if I haven’t paid my taxes,” the SPCA executive director said. “If you have abused an animal, there should be serious penalties.

“But the wardens’ hands are often tied, as are ours.”

Police and wardens seized four suspected illegal dogs from a single Pembroke residence last week.

Ms Terceira spoke after Jonathan Nisbett, the government veterinarian, sounded the alarm in a March newsletter over a surge in abandoned pitbulls, animals seized and pets being put down.

Before 2018, when the dogs were automatically destroyed by government officials, animal advocates tried to find homes overseas for pitbulls that would otherwise be euthanised.

But the SPCA highlighted that pitbulls are banned in the UK as well as many US states.

“Shipping them away – it’s a fair question,” Ms Terceira said. “What we should be doing is dealing with issues in our own back yard.”

As status symbols and “protection dogs” liked for home security, pitbulls are among several valuable restricted breeds such as Dobermans, German shepherds, Staffordshire terriers and the increasingly fashionable bulldogs.

Despite their growing popularity, restricted breeds are high-maintenance pets coming with heightened ownership requirements, such as fenced yards, leading to more dogs being given up by their owners.

“We recognise the importance that (our work) is evidence based and relevant to the community,” Ms Terceira said.

“What we’ve seen, and we don’t know if it can be attributed to Covid, is a huge increase in the number of puppies and dogs coming through our shelter in the last two years.”

Puppies were once rarely seen at the SPCA, but the former WindReach therapeutic riding manager estimated as many as 50 had come to the charity as the pitbull problem escalated.

She said the majority of pitbulls come from illegal litters – where dogs are frequently unvaccinated, not wormed, and increasingly impaired by inbreeding.

Louisa Knight, an SPCA consultant, explained: “Responsible breeders look carefully at the male and female dog before they decide to breed them.

“Irresponsible breeders don’t care about the bloodline of the dog.”

Ms Terceira cited examples of inbred pitbulls with “long, skinny legs” characterised by poor bone structure.

Inbreeding also leads to behaviourally unstable animals, she said – a problem highlighted by veterinarian Andrew Madeiros over the past decade.

“Andrew is absolutely right. There is a very negative situation with this and we’re seeing deformity and behavioural issues because of it.”

Acknowledging the high cost of neutering and spaying dogs – which the SPCA said could run as high as $1,000 – the charity has announced a “dogsnip” emergency fund to help cash-strapped owners get their animals “fixed”.

Donations are now being solicited by the SPCA online here.

Ms Terceira added that as animal wardens and charity staff struggled to find homes for restricted breeds, the “crisis” was taking an increasing toll on advocates themselves.

“Is there a mental health component that I’m concerned about as executive director? Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt.”

She said the charity’s board could provide help to “anybody needing support”, and Ms Knight emphasised that the SPCA does not euthanise animals to make room.

“We try so hard to get as many dogs in as we can and get them to good homes because wardens have to euthanise them when they have no other option,” Ms Terceira said.

“Our staff feel that pressure. We’re desperately trying to move as quickly as we can. Not as a conveyor belt, but as ethically and compassionately as possible.

“We’re in a really difficult position where we are being called by the wardens with a six-month-old, lovely, healthy pit and asked if we can take them, and we do not have any room.

“We feel terrible, because we know they are going to be euthanised.”