The ASPCA’s decision to put down the pit bull mix sparks debate

By Helin Jung
Updated November 16, 2009 10:35 PM

When Oreo, a pit bull mix, survived being tossed off a Brooklyn, N.Y., rooftop in June, she was hailed as a miracle dog. She had been thrown by her owner, Fabian Henderson, who had reportedly abused the dog previously, and who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of aggravated animal cruelty.

Though Oreo broke two legs and suffered from numerous other injuries, she eventually recuperated physically from the fall. Sadly, her behavior was so aggressive that five months of rehabilitation therapy with the ASPCA could not help her. Last Friday, Oreo was euthanized by lethal injection.

The fallout of the ASPCA’s decision to euthanize the dog was tremendous. The New York Times reported that the organization received hundreds of calls, e-mails and Tweets asking to spare Oreo’s life. Many organizations criticized the ASPCA for not doing more to save Oreo – one of PEOPLEPets’ Twitter followers even suggested calling Cesar Millan.

In a press release defending their decision, the ASPCA said that it had “done everything humanly possible to save Oreo’s life; yet, as a result of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Mr. Henderson, or for other reasons we may never know, she has come to a place where she can no longer be around people or other animals.”

Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, the executive vice president for National Programs and Science Advisors for the ASPCA, says that Oreo’s fate was absolutely preventable.

“That’s the first step – asking, What can we do in our own communities when we see animals being mistreated?” Zawistowski tells “The question that we ask in a case like Oreo’s is, if the guy was willing to throw the dog off the roof, how much emotional and psychological damage had he already done to the dog? How often do we see a domestic abuse case where there’s often years of psychological abuse before somebody is beaten?”

After Oreo’s physical wounds healed, she exhibited behavior that was nearly always angry and aggressive, where even an innocuous sound in a hallway would cause her to “fly off the handle and become very violent, very quickly.”

“What is the strain on the animal of being constantly aroused in that fashion, unpredictably?” he adds.

The alternative to euthanasia would have been total isolation, and the debate is ongoing as to which is the preferable option for extreme cases like these. Zawitowski says that the media coverage of Oreo’s story made the public wish for a happy ending, but for Oreo and other dogs like her, the story doesn’t always end that way.

“The bitter reality is that for many organizations around the country, on a daily basis, dogs like Oreo will be euthanized,” Zawitowski says. “If there is a happy ending, it’s that the last hand who touched her is a kind hand. She will no longer suffer from being aroused and frightened.”