DCentric Conversation: Lisa LaFontaine of the Washington Humane Society

Washington Humane Society

WHS President Lisa LaFontaine and her lovely dog, Lila.

On Friday, I mentioned that I had interviewed Lisa LaFontaine, the President and CEO of the Washington Humane Society (WHS). We discussed several topics, most notably the stigmatization of Pit Bulls, which is a compelling and divisive issue. If I were a gambler, I’d wager that the reason why my “teaser” of a post was shared 20 times on Facebook (not typical for DCentric, no matter how many eyelashes or shooting stars I wish on) has more to do with America’s scariest dog than humane education or your kind support of my dream job writing for WAMU.

Lisa was so generous, she spent twice the allotted time speaking with me and for that I am grateful. Because we covered so much information, I’m splitting the interview in to two posts; part two will be up Wednesday morning.

Some of you may be wondering, what do dogs have to do with race and class; interestingly enough, this weekend and earlier today, whenever I was speaking with people involved with animals, their immediate response was, “Everything”. A colleague added, “Unfortunately, the stereotype is that the only people who own Pit Bulls are either white rednecks or Black drug dealers.” After speaking to Lisa LaFontaine, I know that such assumptions are inaccurate– and dangerous for a breed which was once affectionately referred to as a “Nanny dog”.

Does WHS do any outreach to communities in D.C. about humane practices?

We do. We have a variety of people in the organization who specialize in that, including a full-time humane educator who goes to schools and works with community groups about humane care, training and noticing cruelty. We focus on young people and because we only have one educator, we track where cruelty or neglect calls are coming from and we send her to those neighborhoods. It’s amazing what happens when you start talking to kids about animals. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve received phone calls from a young person who says, “Mrs. Brown told me to call if I saw this.”, so we know our humane education touched that child. By bringing animals in the classroom, they learn how to treat animals. We also have two groups of officers out, all the time. They are invited to ANC meetings, community meetings and they go to dog parks, so we have a lot of programs for reaching out to the community.

That’s amazing that children are empowered to help animals. You mentioned other community programs…do any of them focus on dog fighting?

We’re very much on the front lines on the dog fighting issue. We have humane law enforcement officers who respond to every call. If people see something that doesn’t look right–like a dog with wounds–they get the phone call, whether it is organized or a casual fight in the street. Our officers have been very present, not only in talking about the issue but apprehending people involved in dog fights. We worked on a bill in 2007, it passed in 2008…it makes it illegal to be a spectator. In D.C. it’s a felony to be a spectator. And dog fights thrive on spectators. For fighting to flourish, it needs to be a spectator sport, so if you target people who own and watch you are addressing the whole, dysfunctional system.

I had no idea that it’s a felony to watch a fight, but it makes sense, now that you mention it.

When people know they will get arrested for it, it’s a whole other level of deterrence. We actually see more casual street fights, the “My dog is tougher than yours.”-situations. If there’s a dog fight happening, we act. We have the authority to take a dog out of that situation. it’s difficult though; illegal dog fighting is secretive, and that’s why we need people’s help in reporting that crime.

Hence the educational efforts, sure. Now how often do you get dog fighting calls? Do they come from certain areas?

The Washington Humane Society has had the power of law enforcement since 1870, so we’ve been dealing with all manifestations of cruelty for a long time. Dog fighting was much more of an issue in the 80s or 90s. The majority of calls we get now are for cruelty, neglect, leaving dogs out in bad weather or animals being abandoned. While dog fights still happen, they are not, by any means the majority of our calls anymore. There’s still a lot of animals left out on days like this, who are chained, without enough food, who are abandoned or running at large…those are issues we see, that we are working actively on.

When little Ivan, the pit bull, was puppy-napped, people feared the worst about his fate and made assumptions about motive based on the surveillance photos. Have Washington Humane society policies been changed in light of that incident? And were the public’s fears grounded in reality?

We were afraid because stealing a dog is a crime and dog fighting tends to go with other crimes, but it was more because if you want to adopt a dog and you have integrity around that, then it’s easy enough to do it right. The fact that they would steal him in broad daylight…we were worried about it for that reason. People’s hearts were really in their throats. It was sharing the video on Facebook and every media outlet in D.C. that allowed us to get him back the next day. So many people saw it and felt that panic. Everybody knew that these guys were taking him, stealing him…you can’t ascribe any good motive to that.

As for our policies, we have secured additional cameras. We talked long and hard about this; we want to protect our animals and be safe but we also want to assume that most people are coming to us with good intentions. We don’t want to be a bunker…we need to make sure our facility is secure, and that’s why more surveillance in place, but in terms of how we treat the public? We want people to feel welcome. I think 99 out of 100 people who come to us do so because they want to do the right thing.

Are certain breeds overrepresented at WHS or D.C. shelters, in general? When I adopted my puppy, most of the dogs at Georgia Ave were either Pits or mixes.

Right now, “pit bull-type” dogs are the most commonly represented dogs in our shelters, but it’s misleading. We tend to identify dogs based on what they look like. This summer, I had a litter of foster puppies; the mother was a pit-type dog, she had all the classic physical characteristics of one…but her puppies all looked like little hounds or beagles. We really try and look at appearance and behavior when identifying breeds, so we say “pit bull”-type dogs because they’re usually mixed. Dogs that have those physical characteristics are commonly seen in our shelters, but they are seen in many urban areas across the country. I was in Baltimore the other day, they see a preponderance, too. In Worcester, MA…all across the country…these types of dogs are the ones that are being bred indiscriminately.

Coming up on Wednesday– more about “Pit Bull”-type dogs, from breed confusion to a little history about America’s ever-evolving pariah dog breeds.