When Benny was dumped off in the Seattle Animal Shelter’s play yard in the middle of the night Oct. 3, 2008, it wasn’t for fun and games. Like many pit-bull terriers, the 60-pound castoff was rambunctious, playful and a bit destructive. Add deafness to his profile, and the odds weren’t on his side for adoption.
In other words, he was sitting on two strikes, and you know what strike three means for this breed at most animal shelters. And, for starters, he didn’t exactly endear himself to the staff that discovered him, having ripped apart about 200 plastic clean-up bags in the yard from their holders.
“He was immediately placed in a 72-hour holding area,” recalls Michael Kokernak, animal-care officer, “since he had no identification and we had no idea if he had been left there by his owner or some citizen who had viewed him as a stray. At the time, no one realized he was deaf.”
When volunteers walked him, he often refused to relieve himself, waiting until he was returned to his kennel run to do so. On those walks, Benny (a name given him by volunteers) often jumped on the volunteers, nearly knocking some over.
“These weren’t aggressive moves,” Kokernak added, “rather more excited, out-of-control actions.” Strike 2 ½.
It was becoming apparent the all-white underdog was not a prime adoption candidate. Hence, on Oct. 20, Kokernak, a seven-year agency employee, volunteered to foster him, against the wishes of his longtime partner.
“Our two older dogs had passed on and we had four senior cats at home (Capitol Hill),” said Kokernak. The dog split its time crated in the garage and in the house, when both Kokernak and his partner were home. Quickly, Sunny, a 12-year-old tortoiseshell, established who was boss, nailing the playful Benny when he made a sudden playful move toward her.
Many days Benny accompanied Kokernak to the municipal shelter, where he was quartered in a kennel run.
Recognizing Benny’s adoption hopes hung on improved manners and a patient, dedicated owner, in January 2009 Kokernak sought out Christine Hibbard, of Companion Animal Solutions, who specializes in private behavior consultations, in-home training and classroom teaching in the Greater Seattle area.
“She called him Baby Huey (after the comic-strip character), but her training regimen was totally no-nonsense. He made considerable progress and I began considering adopting him, although my partner was totally against it.”
At the time, a childless Silverdale couple showed interest in Benny, too. “The woman’s family had a pit bull and she claimed she was familiar with the breed,” recalls Kokernak. “She visited him at the shelter and on Jan. 23, 2009, came to our house to see him again. Her husband was in the service, and she said all the right things, leading me to believe they would provide Benny a good home.”
So she took him, but four days later, she called Kokernak and reported Benny was “not working out” and she wanted to return him. The next day, they met at the Tacoma Mall, where she surrendered the dog.
“It was very disappointing, but unfortunately it happens all too often in this job. It left me in a jump-start mode,” admits Kokernak. “I was attached to him, but I recognized he was a project, particularly his behavior toward other dogs at dog parks and on walks. He was not aggressive, rather defensive.” Add his deafness into the equation, and Kokernak had to totally focus on desensitizing Benny when other animals approached.
Since all commands are done by hand signal, Kokernak must always be in position for Benny to recognize those motions, rather than behind holding a tight lead. “That makes things interesting,” he acknowledges, “but we’re progressing.”
Oct. 12, 2009 was a red-letter day in the Benny saga. “When I awoke I decided I wanted to keep him,” Kokernak.”I talked to my partner and he recognized how much Benny met to me. I continually told him, and I meant it sincerely, that I had no intention of adopting him but circumstances changed as the year progressed.
“And I think he recognized that Benny’s chances of getting adopted at the shelter were not good. More pit bulls than any other breed are brought in, and with his deafness the odds simply are stacked again him. Odds are nice, however, that well-adjusted pit bulls will be adopted through Seattle Animal Shelter, but it does take longer to find good homes for this breed than others, especially adults.”
The majority of Seattle’s stray-dog population are pit bulls. In fact, 43 percent of the dogs in Seattle Animal Control’s foster program are pit bulls or pit-bull mixes. Adult pit bulls, on average, take about 9 months to adopt as contrasted to 2 months for other breeds and breed mixes.
Two years after being dumped at the shelter play yard, Benny has morphed into a couch potato and housemate to four cats, two Guinea pigs and a tenant’s Bichon Frise. Add to that a special connection between Kokernak’s partner and Benny and you have an inspiring mosaic built on hope and commitment.
“I could not live with myself if I’d let this dog go,”Kokernak adds. Likewise, Benny owes his life to this compassionate officer who has seen the ugly underbelly of this much maligned breed reflected by countless euthanizations at the shelter.