ARMONA — Kiera, a 2-year-old pit bull ran circles around the compound of Raven’s Rescue Bully Breed Sanctuary in Armona Thursday while dragging her favorite stuffed animal around in her mouth, hopping from one side to the other and back again.
Kiera, who recently had a litter of 11 puppies, is like Deacon, a St. Bernard/pit bull mix who was found living in a hole he had dug on the side of Route 41, and 19 other dogs looking for homes at the nonprofit rescue.
“All my money used to go toward shoes and clothes and now it goes toward dog food,” said rescue owner and founder Carrie Raven.
The rescue, which Raven opened about three years ago, has been rescuing and caring for abandoned and injured pit bulls while searching for their forever-homes and families.
Raven estimates that she spent $30,000 dollars in vet bills just last year and that care — including spaying, neutering, micro-chips and shots — for each dog runs around $500-$600 dollars. There is a $300 fee to adopt dogs from the shelter.
“We don’t make money on the adoption fee. We’re rarely in the positive on a dog,” said the rescue’s fundraising and resources coordinator Tonia Mayes.
It all started with Wilson, a pit bull whose story Raven saw on social media. The dog had been hit by two cars, resulting in an amputated leg. Wilson also had rope scars on his belly, probably from being tied up and used as “bait,” according to Raven’s husband, Anthony. Bait dogs are tied up and sometimes muzzled while fight dogs are set upon them by trainers.
Wilson was adopted by the Ravens, owners of Raven’s Deli in Armona, and still have him.
“He drives around with me everywhere,” Anthony said.
Since then, many injured dogs have come through the rescue, including two that were tied to a tree on the side of the road, abandoned in Goshen and a dog named Da Vinci that needed neck reconstruction to treat injuries.
“When he came in, he was scared and didn’t like anyone but now he’s my little partner,” Raven said.
Due to the extreme injuries the dogs sometimes have when rescued, it can take as long as six months to a year for them to get healthy before the sanctuary team can even begin to look for a new home.
Mayes says it’s become harder to adopt out pit bulls in the area due to them being banned from the Naval Air Station in Lemoore and Lincoln Housing. Then, of course, there’s also the stigma around the dogs and the widely-held belief that they’re inherently more aggressive than other breeds, a view that the Raven’s sanctuary team is trying to fight.
“They’re just misunderstood,” Mayes said. “They’re good family dogs. They used to be known as nanny dogs.”
Mayes added that just because the breed may not get along well with other types of dogs doesn’t mean it won’t get along with humans.
“As a vet tech for 15 years, I’ve never been bit by a bully,” Mayes said. When asked if she had ever been bitten by other breeds, she responded with a quick, “Oh yeah!”
Mayes said that every generation seems to pick a dog breed to villainize and before pit bulls, it was German shepherds and Dobermans.
Elizabeth Stelow, staff clinician in the Clinical Animal Behavior Service for the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, points out that many "pit bulls" are not true pit bull terriers and are best categorized as "pit bull-type dogs." Some are other breeds, like American Staffordshire terriers or American bulldogs. Many are mixed-breed dogs.
"The challenge with aggression in these dogs has mainly to do with their jaw strength and the tenacity that comes from being a terrier breed. This means they have strong bites and aren't inclined to let go. So, whether or not they are more likely to bite, they are more likely to do serious damage," Stelow said.
Stelow also points out that while pit bull-type dogs inflict a high percentage of fatal attacks, they also represent a very high percentage of dogs owned by Californians.
"[This makes it] hard to tease out all the reasons for these statistics," she said.
Raven expressed a passion for pit bulls, a desire to educate people about them to decrease any negative stigma about them and the hope that breeders would stop milling out puppies to make a “quick buck.”
“They’re beautiful puppies and people tend to get them without realizing how big they’ll get and can’t take care of them,” Anthony said.
The sanctuary now hosts regular adoption events and will be partnering with the Fresno Grizzlies at the Bark in the Park on April 14. Ticketholders are permitted to bring their dogs to the game that day and the sanctuary will be adopting out pit bulls that need new homes.
“Seeing one of our dogs get a new family is better than a brand new pair of Louis Vuittons,” Raven joked. “Well almost.”
For more information, visit www.ravensbully.org.