Group wants junkyard dogs off lots and into living rooms

Posted: April 02, 2013

A CHAIN-LINK fence capped with razor wire sits between two pit bulls in a North Philly car lot and the lady who wants to pet them.

The woman, who lives on Green Lane near Broad Street, tosses them some treats, and the dogs gobble them up quickly, their tails wiggling and wagging.

"See how friendly they are? They wouldn't hurt a fly," said the woman, who didn't want to give her name. "You're just some nice doggies, aren't you?"

Over the course of an hour on this Sunday afternoon, the dirt-covered dogs don't bark or growl at anyone, and the woman from Green Lane isn't the only one showering them with snacks and baby talk. There's a group of concerned animal lovers in Philadelphia called Ban Life on a Lot trying to get tougher laws on dogs being used to guard businesses from Kensington to Southwest Philly, particularly if the animals have been adopted as pets from animal rescues, as Lemo and Mae Mae were.

"When we go up to these lots, he rolls up on his belly. He's such a sweet baby. He was adopted as a house pet," said Rachel Eisenman, an East Falls resident who used to be Lemo's "pen pal" at a shelter. "He presses his body up against the fence so we can scratch him."

The dogs' owner, Oren Barzeski, doesn't call them Lemo and Mae Mae and doesn't think there's any problem with the pit bulls living at his auto lot. He claims the dogs have a heated doghouse to live in, veterinary checkups and all the food and water they need.

Barzeski said he already made one mistake by signing another pit bull, Rocky, over to an animal-rescue group called Justice Rescue last year, and said it won't happen again. Two members of Justice Rescue were charged in February with theft, impersonating an officer and conspiracy over the matter.

"Some dogs have a job, just like humans," Barzeski said. "If these people are really worrying about dog abuse, they're looking at the wrong thing."

The thick, brown pit bull pacing the gate of an auto auction yard in the Tacony section of Northeast Philly isn't quite as friendly as Lemo and Mae Mae, but he softens when the women of Ban Life on a Lot show up with dried pig ears and water. They call the dog Bubba. When he's done devouring the pig ear, Bubba goes back to barking at the tractor trailers grumbling past him.

"I figure his life is pretty s---ty," said Stacey, a Ban Life on Lot member who didn't want her last name published.

Bubba's owner, who calls his pet Shoes, said life at the auto auction - with food, water and two doghouses - is "a hell of a lot better" than where he came from.

"The dog was a rescue dog, and when we got him, he probably weighed five pounds. He was abandoned and chained in a basement in Frankford," said Jerry Aspite. "He's a happy dog, beyond happy."

Having a junkyard dog is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania, so long as the animal has access to food, water and shelter. Ban Life on a Lot believes the dogs deserve more, particularly if they've come from an animal shelter whose goal is to get them in good homes.

"We need to change what's considered 'compliance' when it comes to these dogs," Stacey said. "It's just not enough."

Barzeski, the group said, adopted his dogs from the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 2012, but didn't tell the organization that the dogs would live at his auto dealership. If he had, it would have put a stop to the adoption, PSPCA spokeswoman Wendy Marano said.

"We think pets should be part of a family and allowed to come inside and be with the family. That said, it's not illegal," Marano said.

Marano said PSPCA investigators have visited several businesses to check on dogs that live outside, including at several of Barzeski's auto lots in the city, and found no violations. She said her office spends a great deal of time explaining to the public that guard dogs aren't illegal.

"Are we happy these dogs ended up being guard dogs? Absolutely not," she said. "But while we're out following up so diligently on these two dogs, there's hundreds of other dogs out there in worse situations."

Ban Life on a Lot, which has more than 800 likes on Facebook, plans to present its guard-dog ideas to Philadelphia's Animal Advisory Committee soon, including the possibility of a registration or special licensing, training and education for the owners, and mandatory veterinary checkups. The group is researching whether any other states or cities have done anything similar.

"If we could find something that benefits both the city and the pets, it could work," Stacey said.

Sarah Speed, the Pennsylvania state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said she wasn't aware of any laws specifically dealing with guard dogs in the state.

"It's a tough issue to legislate," Speed said. "In some cases, these are actually very well-cared for."

While many of the dogs guarding businesses in Philly are German shepherds, mixed-breeds and other large dogs, many owners use pit bulls, Stacey said, mistakenly thinking the breed's reputation puts a little more fear in a would-be burglar.

"Pit bulls want to be around people," she said, as Bubba stared at her from the fence. "The worst thing you can do to a dog is leave it outside, alone, away from people."


On Twitter: @JasonNark

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