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Stereotypically synonymous with aggression, ferocity, and volatility, Pit Bulls are not often granted the chance they deserve at life and a happy home. Co-founders of The Polk County Bully Project, Angie Lorio, Shannon Medina, and Erika Wisniewski say this reputation could not be further from the truth. Replacing these words should be loyalty, love, companionship, and protection. 

The stigma has become a matter of life or death. According to Erika Wisniewski citing a study conducted by Best Friends Animal Society, Polk County Animal Control euthanizes more animals than any other county in the state. We called to file a record request with Polk County Animal Control on August 9 to confirm the number of dogs euthanized. Regretfully, after numerous calls, on the date of print, August 28, we have not yet received the information. 

Most affected by these outrageous stats are Pit Bulls. Bully breeds, who are most commonly recognized by their block-shaped head and stocky, muscular build, aren’t a single breed at all. According to SPCA kennel manager Erika Wisniewski, “Pit Bulls are mutts. There are no two Pit Bulls that look identical. They were a cross between a Bulldog and an American Staffordshire Terrier. The American Staffordshire Terrier, which people stereotypically call a Pit Bull, is actually not a Pit Bull.” Additionally, American Bulldogs, American Pit Terriers, Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and other mixed breeds are often given the “Pit Bull” label.

Over time, this “breed” has been cruelly used in dogfighting and trained to be aggressive towards other dogs as a matter of survival. This mistreatment fuels the stigma and paired with Polk County’s animal overpopulation, this has become the perfect Pit Bull storm.

To save this breed and all dogs, the SPCA in conjunction with Animal Control and other rescues and animal organizations in the county have begun an initiative to make Polk, a no-kill county by 2025. As a part of this initiative, the SPCA has partnered with a few women who have a heart for pitties, to find them homes.

THE POLK COUNTY BULLY PROJECT

Lakeland residents Angie Lorio and Shannon Medina have teamed up with Erika Wisniewski and the SPCA to start The Polk County Bully Project. The focus of this group is to rehome dogs, often transporting them north where they are less discriminated against for their “breed” and have a higher chance of adoption. According to PCBP, any dog deemed to be of a stereotypically aggressive breed such as a Pit Bull or American Bulldog, are not put on the adoption floor at Polk County Animal Control. “Unfortunately, that’s what this area is full of,” Wisniewski said. Unless claimed by their owner or pulled by a rescue, that dog will be euthanized – their breed is their death sentence.

The PCBP made a point to not villainize Animal Control who is also a partner in the no-kill by 2025 initiative. Wisniewski said, “They do everything that they can to reunite their dogs with their owners, but when people don’t come in and reclaim their dogs or choose to give up on their dogs – what is Animal Control supposed to do?”

This problem, which most in the community would be shocked and saddened to hear, goes full circle. “A lot of it comes down to community education and spaying and neutering pets,” said Wisniewski. Though Polk County requires dogs to be altered before being adopted out, an owner can still pick up their pup from Animal Control intact. Lorio said it would be a dream to have that changed to where the dog must be spayed or neutered before being released to its owners. This, she said, would inevitably slow the overpopulation.

Medina noted the need for legislation related to breeding and responsible pet ownership. This is a community issue that needs to be acknowledged and solved by the community. With a collective community-backed effort and a legislative push, Polk County could realistically be no-kill by 2025.

HOME, SWEET HOME

Polk County Bully Project has made contacts with rescues and transports from Florida to Canada and everywhere in between. “When we show them a picture of a dog, they can find a home within weeks,” said Lorio. They sent their first pooch north in February – a good boy named Cooper. Admittedly, they didn’t know what they were doing. But they were determined to find Cooper a home. Within a week of choosing his file from a pile of other block-headed bullies, Cooper was placed with a rescue in Canada. The second dog was Pokey, a three-legged dog that also road-tripped all the way to Canada.

Before a dog is deemed “ready to go” for their rehoming program, it first must be tested heartworm negative, neutered or spayed, fully vetted, and sociable with other animals. They prefer to have a more detailed description of the dog’s personality like if they’re house trained, what they are afraid of, their activity level and other personality traits that are best observed by a foster. They’ve flown dogs, paid for transport, and have gotten help from a few good samaritans. The day was saved once by Orlando non-profit, Batman for Paws who drove three dogs to Vermont for PCBP.

Riding shotgun and accounting for over 90 of the 160 pounds worth of dog that Batman was transporting, was Ty. The Polk County SPCA’s longest resident, Ty was a “slobber faced” black and white 9-year-old American Bulldog who everyone loved. When he left in May, he had been there for well over a year. Before that, he was at the Brevard County SPCA spending just as much time getting overlooked. “The shelter environment is not a place for dogs to live long-term. Can it be a short-term solution for dogs? Yes. Is it ideal? Absolutely not, and I say that for any dog across the board,” said the SPCA kennel manager. “It’s not fair for them to live there long term. It doesn’t do anything for their mental health or their physical health.”

For an old man like Ty, it wasn’t necessarily a matter of life or death. But it was a matter of finally getting a home, love, attention, and all the belly rubs he deserves.

A MISUNDERSTOOD BREED

Is it nature or nurture that has hung such a heavy reputation on Pit Bulls? Angie Lorio explained where some of this unsavory reputation stems from. “Genetically speaking, they’re a strong dog,” she said. Used in fighting rings, starved, fed gunpowder, repeatedly used for breeding, and otherwise mistreated and abused – any negative behavior is taught, or purposely brought out in them. “They’re born kind dogs. They fall into the wrong hands and they are changed,” said Lorio.

“It’s not an innate thing for them. They’re taught to not get along with other dogs,” added Wisniewski. “You find dogs that come from a background of mistreatment. If shown how and given the proper amount of time to get along with other dogs and how to act and be social around other dogs – they’re fabulous with other dogs and children.” American Staffordshire Terriers were originally bred in England to nanny children according to Lorio. She said, “They love children, they’re wonderful with children unless they’ve fallen into the wrong hands prior – starved, fighting for what little food they have, taught to fight one another.” But even mistreated dogs aren’t beyond rehabilitation. “Their ability to forgive and get over the things that have happened to them, is phenomenal,” said Medina. One such dog who was able to forgive and get a second chance at a happy home is Lady.

Lady spent her life outside in a pen, used for breeding. She was surrendered to the SPCA with one of her offspring. Her family couldn’t rehome the last puppy and Lady, who was no longer producing, had served her purpose.  She sat for too long, over a year, at the SPCA. An 80-something pound brindle, block-headed dog proved not to be a desirable adoptee in the area.

Lady was spayed and fully vetted. Lorio fostered her for a few months before rehoming her. Polk County Bully Project sent her photo to the rescue who had committed to take her in New Hampshire. Within a couple of hours, Lady was spoken for. Lorio drove her to Atlanta where she met with transport at 3 am to travel the rest of the way to her new home. The women say Lady is thriving in her new home and is now the sister to two Labs.  “Everybody’s hands that she passed through, commented on how beautiful and kind [she is]. Everyone just fell in love with her.” Said Lorio. “As soon as we got her out of that environment, she blossomed.”

One dog recently adopted was Petey. Petey came from Polk County Animal Control in 2016. He was adopted shortly thereafter and was returned to the SPCA in February of this year because the family was moving. Wisniewski described him as anxious in the kennel, spinning in circles. That was hard to believe as the dog before me had a “Let’s play!” look in his eye, tail wagging, as he pranced around. Ever the good boy, he would sit occasionally to receive a treat. Petey, who has an underbite so cute it hurts, gets along with other dogs, loves children and all people, is very social, high-energy and walks great on a leash. Thanks to the SPCA and PCBP – Petey is home!

DO YOUR PART

At the top of the list of Polk County Bully Project’s needs are funding for transportation and fosters. From plane tickets to paid transport, getting these dogs to their home is not cheap. On the lower end, the cost per dog to transport is $125 and climbing. PCBP holds fundraisers, like their ‘Beers for Bullies’ event last month at Cob & Pen and by selling bracelets made by Wisniewski’s sister that say “Adorabull.”  As for fosters, Lorio said, “What would be ideal is as soon as we get that rescue commitment, to move that dog to a foster home temporarily because now we’ve freed up a kennel that Erika can pull another dog from Animal Control and save it – that would be beautiful.”

Who is an ideal foster candidate? “There isn’t an ‘ideal person.’ They can have a job, they can have kids, be single, be in school – anybody can do it,” said Medina. Those concerned with the cost commitment of fostering a dog need not worry. The SPCA provides everything for the dog from food, a crate, to medical and anything else they need.

Fosters are imperative to the PCBP mission. Not only does it free up a kennel for an incoming pup at the SPCA, but fostering also provides an insight into a dog’s true personality (like Petey). A foster who spends time with a dog in a home environment versus a kennel environment will be able to give the rescue an idea of how they are with kids, other animals, overall temperament, if they’re housetrained, what they’re afraid of, etc. “This sets them [the northern rescue] up for success to find a perfect owner,” said Lorio. The Polk County Bully Project is in the process of registering for their 501(c)(3) non-profit status. They have a dream to one day have a facility of their own to expand what they’re already doing and to be a resource and a partner to other animal organizations locally.

Do your part. If your pet isn’t spayed or neutered, get it done. If you’re considering adopting a dog, buck the stereotype and consider a bully. Donate, foster, volunteer, spread the word.

To support their mission and keep tabs on all the good Polk County Bully Project is doing, like and follow them on Facebook. “The Polk County Bully Project needs the support of the community,” said Medina sincerely. “Help us move the dogs out so they can get their chance at their forever homes.”

 

Polk County Bully Project

FB @polkcountybullyproject

IG @polkcountybullyproject

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