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The Death of Clara the Pit Bull at PetSmart Teaches a Hard Lesson

We need to rethink how we kennel reactive shelter dogs such as Clara, who shouldn't have been at the public PetSmart adoption event at all.

 |  Sep 4th 2014  |   102 Contributions


This morning, I awoke to more 25 Facebook notifications, a full email inbox, and numerous social media tags, all regarding one story -- the stabbing of a Pit Bull in a Newnan, Georgia, PetSmart. The dog, Clara, was subsequently euthanized "due to the severity of the stab wounds," reports CBS Atlanta.  

Clara was there as part of an adoption event with volunteers from the Newnan-Coweta Humane Society. She went after the smaller dog after breaking loose from her handler.

Here, the facts get muddy. Some witnesses state Clara was attempting to "play" with the smaller dog, while others claim she attacked him. The owner of the smaller dog reacted by yelling and then stabbing Clara multiple times with a pocket knife. It was like something out of a horror film, with children and adults looking on, shocked by the events at hand.

While the main focus has been on the loss of Clara and the injuries to the smaller dogs, there are a few vital facts being overlooked, a major one being that Clara was known to be dog reactive/aggressive and had spent the past two years and eight months in a kennel. 

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Photo credit: Clicks for Clara Facebook page

Although a representative from NCHS was unavailable for comment, I researched Clara's backstory on the group's Facebook page. Clara was pulled from a shelter in 2012, narrowly avoiding euthanasia. Unfortunately, she traded one cage for another ... this one being in a boarding facility. A Facebook page dedicated to getting Clara more adoption exposure called "Clicks for Clara" (which was not accessible the last time we visited it) posted a bleak picture of Clara in a kennel in January 2013, noting that this was "Clara's reality 159 hours a week." To put that into perspective for you, there's only 168 hours in a week, meaning Clara only had nine hours of freedom a week ... less than one-and-a-half hours a day.

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Photo of Clara in kennel, credit: Clicks for Clara Facebook page

Well-meaning fans of the page suggested volunteers take Clara to PetSmart for more exposure, but they were told that "Clara does not show well at PetSmart ... she is too excited by the activity and most people there already have multiple other pets. Clara initially needs a human-only family, once she has that she will need some training to become more dog tolerant."  

The Newnan-Coweta Humane Society Facebook page noted that Clara could be "particular of other animal companions" and believed "the small and furry ones came out of the toy box." This tells me that NCHS and the boarding facility knew Clara was dog reactive/aggressive, making it a terrible idea to take her somewhere like an adoption event at PetSmart, where other adoptable dogs would be, as well as personal pets. A disaster waiting to happen -- and unfortunately in this case, it did.

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Clara was reported as being wonderful and loving with people. Photo credit: Clicks for Clara's Facebook page

Nothing can bring Clara back. "What ifs" and "should haves" won't undo the hurt experienced by the other dog who was bitten, it won't take back the nightmares many children may be having now, and it definitely won't repair the further damage done to Pit Bulls' reputations as a whole. As volunteers, advocates, shelter workers, and dog lovers, what we can do now is learn from this tragedy. 

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Clara on a walk, photo credit: Clicks for Clara's Facebook page

Maddie's Fund, a foundation dedicated to revolutionizing "the status and well-being of companion animals," notes that behavioral problems can arise as the result of a dog being kept long-term in a kennel environment, including barrier-related aggression and social hyper-arousal. The Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2007) published research regarding behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs, noting that the "kennel environment, even for short periods, is a psychogenic stressor for most dogs." The article cites several sources backing the statement that kennels are "spatially and socially restrictive, and as a result, many dogs show signs of acute stress when housed in kennels." 

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Excerpt from the Veterinary Journal

Unfortunately, kennels routinely become reality for many shelter dogs who are pulled for rescues when their fosters back out or potential adopters don't work out. No one wants to send a dog back to the shelter, so the dog sits ... and waits. Some dogs may be fortunate enough to only spend a short time in a kennel/boarding facility, but others, like Clara, may languish in a cage for years. I cannot begin to imagine the toll that this must have had on her, and it's hardly surprising that she behaved with extreme excitement in social situations and also went after the smaller dog at the adoption event. 

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Shelter/rescue dogs in kennel facilities need regular attention and exercise.

I believe rescue dogs in boarding still stand a chance, but change is in order. Dogs placed in these situations should be given more stimulation and regularly exercised by volunteers, and should also be routinely evaluated by licensed behaviorists, particularly before participating in public events like adoption days. Boarding should be a last resort -- no dog wants to trade one cage for a new one. The dog doesn't know they have been "saved," they only know that they are still in a cage. Rescues should have confirmed, committed fosters/adopters prior to pulling a dog, leaving boarding as a last-resort option, and not pulling any other dogs until those in boarding have found permanent homes/committed fosters. 

What do you think about the death of Clara? Tell us your thoughts in the comments. 

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About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it's in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of Toby (cat) and Axle (dog). I'm a former quiet nerd who's turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.

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