Thieves have struck Columbia’s animal shelter over the past two weekends, making off with 11 pit bulls in separate incidents.
City officials clamped a lid of secrecy over the thefts Monday, muzzling the normally talkative animal control superintendent and forbidding her to discuss anything about the city’s animal shelter.
“I can’t discuss it,” said city animal services superintendent Marli Drum, declining even to reveal how many dogs and cats are housed currently at the city-operated shelter, which is in a wooded area off Shop Road near I-77. She referred inquiries to police.
Although the shelter is deserted on weekends, the city apparently has no surveillance cameras or other type of effective security systems that might enable officials to catch the thieves.
“We are taking proactive measures and have met with the folks at the facility to ensure this does not happen again,” said city police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons.
According to police, five pit bulls were discovered missing from the shelter two weeks ago. An employee who arrived at work the morning of Jan. 29 found four kennels had been broken into; three pit bulls were found walking around outside.
This week, employees arriving at the shelter Monday morning found six more pit bulls, including a pregnant one, missing from their kennels.
Former state Attorney General Henry McMaster said Monday he wasn’t surprised thieves would target pit bulls. During his tenure from 2003-11, McMaster’s investigators helped authorities around the state arrest and prosecute numerous dog fighting cases.
“Whatever happened to those dogs,” he said, “you can be sure it’s no good.”
McMaster said the thieves likely might have sold them to dog fighters, perhaps to use as “bait dogs” in pit-bull fighting.
Or, McMaster said, the thieves might have been trying to get back their own pit bulls that had been taken to the pound.
“A lot of young men like to walk up and down their neighborhoods, and in some part of their mind, that is part of being tough and being a man,” McMaster said.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who has had experience with dog-fighting rings, said he had few doubts the thieves stole the dogs to bring them to the underground dog-fighting world.
“The same people who are fighting these dogs find it’s a lot easier to steal them from animal shelters than buy them,” Lott said. “They use them for breeding purposes, as fighting dogs, as training animals — it’s easy pickings for them.”
In recent months, Lott has rescued more than 20 pit bulls from dog-fighting rings, trained them to live with humans and adopted out most of them. Some have limitations, such as not being able to be around other dogs, said Lott. “You have to do it on a case-by-case, dog-by-dog basis,” he said.
Lott and McMaster said pit bulls can be gentle dogs if they are brought up right.
Fighting pit bulls “are made that way. They are not born that way,” Lott said. “It’s the humans who make them fighters and killers. It’s not the dog.”
This Monday, returning from the weekend found the shelter was broken into six more pit bulls stolen, including one pregnant pit bull.