Earlier this year, on a sunny January day in a parking lot near the Berkeley, Calif., waterfront, BAD RAP’s Pit Bull training classes were in full swing. People and dogs cheerfully circled, practicing “heel,” “sit” and, most important, “look at me.” The media were there too. They wanted to be ready with photos, film and interviews the minute sentencing was over in the Michael Vick dog fighting trial and a gag order was lifted.
The reporters needed to have the “Vick dogs” pointed out to them. A big white pit bull with tan spots and three legs would make a great photo, but Dango wasn’t a Vick dog—he was from an Oakland shelter. What about chocolate Stella, with the fight scars? No, she was from a drug bust in Detroit.
When it was time for a group photo of the Vick dogs, there was trouble, just the sort of trouble you’d expect. The dogs heard “photo op” and they thought “wigglefest.” They didn’t want to look at the camera, they wanted to lick faces, play or roll over for a belly rub.
The Vick dogs are a sample of what gets called “Pit Bull” in America today. Small black Frodo looks like the Old World Pit Bulls traditionally bred by dog fighters. Hector’s a big red dog with scars on his chest. Jonny Justice is black and white, glossy as a penguin. Big white Teddles looks like the many American Pits crossed with bigger breeds. As BAD RAP’s co-founder Tim Racer describes this trend, Teddles slumps against my leg—after all, he’s known me for 30 seconds—and lets me rub his speckled ears.
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Donna Reynolds and Tim Racer founded BAD RAP—Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls–in 1999, and in 2007, Reynolds and Racer were among the nine experts asked by the ASPCA to help evaluate 49 of the dogs seized from Vick’s Bad Newz kennels and held in Virginia-area shelters. When the dogs were initially seized, Reynolds and Racer had submitted a proposal to evaluate them, hoping to fend off their immediate destruction, and were gratified when the government agreed. In addition to Racer, Reynolds and Justin Phillips of the SPCA of Monterey County, Calif., the evaluation team assembled by the ASPCA consisted of Dr. Randall Lockwood, Dr. Pamela J. Reid, Dr. Daniel Q. Estep, Dr. Crista R. Coppola and Nancy Williams, and was led by Dr. Stephen Zawistowski. Though the case hit the news in April 2007, evaluators weren’t able to see the dogs until September.
It was a dog fighting case, and a hoarding case, and a neglect case. Vick had amassed more dogs than he could fight or sell. The dogs spent deprived lives caged or chained to car axles in the woods. After they were confiscated and parceled out to six different Virginia animal control shelters, their isolation continued. It was hardest on the youngest dogs. Those who came to BAD RAP arrived in October after seven months in custody.
Dogs don’t tell stories, but people tell stories about dogs. We tell stories about famous dogs who carried serum to Nome, or waited at a train station for a person who never returned. We tell stories about our own dogs: “He was abused,” “they were bred to hunt badgers” or “her grandsire was Best in Show.” For a long time, the story told about dogs who have been used in dog fighting is that they’re ruined. Unstoppably violent, untrustworthy and, in a phrase that makes Reynolds especially angry, “kennel trash.”
Although dogs don’t tell stories, they have stories, and stories help us understand. The saga of Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels, and the dogs who were hung, drowned or electrocuted when they displeased their handlers, grabbed the public’s attention. The dogs who died helped people see the surviving dogs as victims, not monsters. The story changed.
Animal welfare groups are using that story as a powerful tool to show that “fight-bust dogs” should be evaluated as individuals, and that it’s wrong to assume they’ve been turned into monsters. The personal stories of dogs—dogs redeemed from dreadful captivity, with no interest in fighting, joyously learning to be with people—have touched many hearts.
Transitioning to a Better Life
Most of the 10 Vick dogs taken in by BAD RAP are fostered by Pit-loving volunteers. To understand how the group was working with the dogs, I asked Reynolds to suggest one easy dog and one more challenging dog. She suggested Hector (easy) and Frodo (challenging).
A few days later, I visited Frodo at Reynolds and Racer’s house, which is given over to dogs and art. Racer carves wooden carousel animals—including dogs—with marvelous detail, and Reynolds is a found-object artist. Their big deaf Pit Bull, Honky Tonk, comes over to say hello and lean on me. Before long, Honky Tonk is in the chair with me. Then Frodo nervously approaches to be introduced, smells my hand and excuses himself to be a little farther away.
Frodo represents a less-told side of this story: how much some dogs suffered from their long isolation in legal custody. Frodo and his littermates were six months old when they were confiscated. “They’re stunted. Socially stunted,” Reynolds says. Among his littermates, Frodo’s doing the best at adjusting to his new life. “He’s the bravest,” she says.
In the 1990s, Racer and Reynolds were doing all-breed rescue. They had no special affinity for Pit Bulls, but saw that no one was doing anything for them. “It was really just about helping the underdog,” Racer says. “There were no rescue groups for Pit Bulls. They were dying in record numbers. Besides that, they’re a great family dog.”
They rescued and placed some Pit mixes. “Then we ended up with an ex-fighting dog.” They got a call from a woman who’d found an injured dog in the street at midnight; she opened her car door and the dog got in. Racer and Reynolds went to the vet hospital to meet him. “He was covered in wounds—old wounds, new wounds … He was just shredded. Attached to a standing IV, he leaned into our legs, looked up and started wagging his tail. I said, ‘I don’t know how to help this animal, but we’ll find out,’” Racer recalls.
To counter the myths about the dangers of the breed, they created a website. “The avalanche came rolling in,” Reynolds says. “By day three, we were just inundated.”
That was the start of BAD RAP. They began developing training classes and doing education, speaking at animal welfare conferences. “We’re helping the larger organizations improve their message about the breed,” Reynolds says. BAD RAP does weeklong “Pit Ed” camps for shelter staffers and rescuers. They’ve partnered with the East Bay SPCA for shot fairs and free spaying and neutering for Pit Bulls, and their website has everything from news about legislation to a popular page called “Happy Endings.”
“Rescuing is a political action,” Racer says. Some rescued dogs have stories that catch public attention and help educate people about Pit Bulls. The organization took a lot of Pit Bulls after Katrina, and they may take a dog from a distant shelter to show shelter staff that Pit rescue works. For example, Stella, the dog from the drug bust, was an exception to a Detroit shelter’s policy of euthanizing all Pit Bulls; they will now revisit that policy. And Stella has a pending adoption.
BAD RAP deals with about 17 dogs at a time. They look for classic Pit Bull temperament, Reynolds says. “Optimistic, resilient, stable, well balanced, able to deal with confinement. Appropriately submissive. Dogs who can tolerate, if not enjoy, other dogs.” As for the Vick dogs, “These dogs have been more thoroughly evaluated than any dogs in history,” she says. The dogs they chose to care for would be ambassadors, representing not just Pit Bulls, but fight-bust dogs. After socialization and training, they would have to be flawless. “They have to be perfect,” Reynolds says. “That’s a horrible pressure, because no dog is perfect.”
Like Frodo, many of the Vick dogs were fearful after their long periods of isolation, and they’re not the only Pit Bulls with socialization issues. Many are chained and left outside all day—or night and day—and serve as puppy machines or guard dogs. They don’t know what to do in other settings. “A lot of the dogs have never been out of their back yards before,” Reynolds says.
Dogs who have been isolated from other dogs need to learn dog manners. In their foster homes, they may need to learn what furniture is, and how to behave around it. They may have to learn to walk on a leash. Loving people comes naturally to Pit Bulls, but the Vick dogs needed to learn manners. Frodo didn’t make eye contact with people at first. “It was like we were furniture,” Reynolds says. “It took a while. But once he got it, that was it!”
As we talk, from the corner of my eye, I watch Frodo come over to my chair. Silently, he smells my hand and touches it softly with his closed mouth.
Next, we go to Leslie Nuccio’s house. Nuccio is fostering Hector (the easy dog), and right now she’s also hosting an Associated Press videographer, who’s soon zooming in on Hector’s fight scars as the dog sprawls in Tim’s arms.
Hector plays exuberantly with Nuccio’s dog Pandora. Nuccio has taught him “look” and “sit,” and they’re working on “down.” He’s learned to understand tones of voice. He’s also learned about cars, music, toys and dog beds. “I don’t think he’d ever been in a house. He was honestly surprised that playing tug with pool table pockets was not a good game.”
Nuccio wonders about Hector’s life before the bust. “I think he never got to play, so he just wants to play all the time.” And he does, zooming through rooms, snatching a piece of toast off a counter, dragging the bathroom rug through the house. “He’ll try to eat anything once. ‘Can I chew on the chair?’ ‘No.’ ‘How about the pillow on the chair?’ ‘No!’ ‘What about this other chair?’”
As Reynolds observes, “They’ve all had this intense puppy period. In all their houses, they all collect things and hoard them in their crates. Then they all stopped.” It was as though they needed to catch up on the chance to manipulate objects after their long, empty captivity. (Frodo collected eight shoes.)
Coming Together for Change
The Vick case set a precedent. As Reynolds said at the press conference when the gag order was lifted, “It’s the first time that a large-scale rescue operation has come together to help the victims of a fight bust. The involvement of the federal government is a first.” Hector is the star at the conference, lolling in Tim’s arms and licking everyone within reach. Of the Vick dogs, Reynolds says, “Every single dog in here would have been tortured—hung or electrocuted—for not showing enough fight drive.”
Another Vick dog, Leo, also came to the press event. Leo, a large red-gold Pit with soulful eyes and scars on his head, went to Our Pack, a South Bay rescue group, which trained him as a therapy dog. Founder Marthina McClay took Racer’s recommendation that Leo would be a good therapy dog. “He’s so sweet,” she marvels. “I don’t see a damaged dog whatsoever. Pit Bulls are great for therapy. That’s what they’re born for.”
The Vick case was the first with a Guardian/Special Master, appointed by the court, to recommend outcomes for the dogs. Rebecca Huss, a professor at Valparaiso School of Law, a specialist in animal law, was selected for this role. She was appointed in October 2007, after the dogs’ sixth month in custody. Her task was to observe the dogs and talk with the dogs’ caretakers, review the evaluations, and make recommendations to the court for the dogs’ futures. “So many people had written to the court and expressed interest,” she says. “It certainly made a difference.”
The dogs were evaluated on their responses to people and to other dogs, to being handled, and for general reactivity. All but one were found to be safe around people. Huss took applications from several rescue organizations, and only those who met all the standards set in the application were considered. Eventually, the dogs were distributed among eight groups; BAD RAP took in the second largest number. As a condition of placement, each group committed to the lifetime care of the dogs if necessary. “A lot of people were critical, saying ‘Why these dogs?’ I say, why not? They’re equally deserving. And if they’ve got a story that can help a dog down the line, that’s even better,” Huss notes.
When asked about the impact of the Vick case, ASPCA’s Randall Lockwood says he’s seeing shifting views about fight-bust dogs. People are starting to look at the dogs as victims, not as instruments, of the crime. “We need to get away from the knee-jerk assumption that all dogs seized in that context are necessarily a threat,” he says. “They deserve to be looked at as individuals.”
“I’ve changed my own position,” Lockwood says. “I helped draft the HSUS policy [when I worked there] of not placing animals rescued from known dog-fighting operations. I’ve changed my tune.”
A handful of shelters around the country have been treating fight-bust dogs differently. BAD RAP has already taken some dogs from a Missouri case and some from Arizona. Debbie Hill, at the Humane Society of Missouri, agrees that the Vick media coverage has changed things. Before this high-profile case, she says, among animal welfare professionals, “It was ‘oh, this animal was involved in fighting.’ And you kind of ended the conversation right there.”
Donna Reynolds believes the handling of the Vick dogs is helping change what people say about fight-bust dogs. It’s become impossible to argue that fight-bust dogs must be put down as menaces. “If it’s because there aren’t resources, then that should be the message, ” Reynolds says. “At least they’re not blaming the breed.”
If fight-bust dogs can be placed, that means more dogs to place, and shelters are already overloaded. “We’re not saying that you have to save all your fight-bust dogs, but they still deserve to be treated as individuals. Give them a blanket, give them a toy, give them a walk,” Reynolds says.
When I meet Hector again a few months later, he’s being fostered by Cris Cohen and Jennifer Long. Hector is the seventh dog the pair have taken in.
Leslie Nuccio’s fostering gave Hector needed socialization. “Hector deserved to have a good time, he deserved to get a lot of love,” says Reynolds. “Now it’s time to get to work.” Mr. Can-I-Chew-the-Chair? needs to get serious so he can find a permanent home.
Cohen is Hector’s boot camp instructor. He’ll make Hector the perfect ambassador and prepare the big pup for Canine Good Citizen classes. What will be hardest for Hector, we wondered? “Sitting politely for petting. He may want to kiss the evaluator.”
Earlier, Cohen and Long fostered Jonny Justice. At first, Jonny was afraid of running water—who knows why?—but by the time he left, could be bathed without a tether. “He didn’t like it, but he stayed. ‘I don’t like this. Can I go? No? Okay.’” Long says, “Jonny was cooked, Jonny was done.” He’s now in a foster home with other dogs and cats.
Long and Cohen say Jonny needed lots of repetition to learn commands, but readily accepted the basic concept. “‘I’ll do whatever you want! Can I have a cookie?’” Cohen says. “Things that took Jonny a month, Hector gets in two days.” But Hector’s smart enough to be manipulative. “‘If you don’t have a cookie in your hand, I’m not doing it.’” In which case, he goes back to his crate. “The smarter the dog, the slower the process.”
Hector, who learned about couches at Nuccio’s house, thinks it would be nice to get up on this one, but Cohen tells him no. “You haven’t earned that spot in our house yet.” Hector stops trying to climb up. “Look at me,” Cohen tells Hector. Hector pretends not to hear, facing away, with a phony ‘I have no idea you’re talking to me’ expression. So Cohen puts him in the crate and Hector gazes out with goo-goo eyes. “Oh, now you see me.”
A few months after meeting Frodo, I saw him again. He’s now at Kim Ramirez’s house. “He needed more life experience,” Reynolds says. “He needs to see that the world is more than our little household.” BAD RAP is in touch with someone who might adopt him. “She’s interested in him because he’s trying so hard to be brave.”
Frodo’s in his crate, and he’s delighted to see a visitor. Ramirez won’t let him barrel out; she makes him sit first. Then he charges over to say hello, licking my hands.
When Ramirez says “Look at me,” he shows her a relaxed, smiling face. The change in him is impressive. New things remain hard for Frodo, though. We take him for a walk, and after an hour or so, he’s had all the newness he can handle. We rest on grass in a park, and I unwisely offer him my notebook to sniff. Too much! He leaves and goes to Ramirez’s far side.
Back home, Ramirez gives the dogs ice cubes. Frodo takes his into his crate. Ice cubes are still news to him—good news. He crunches it peacefully, without bothering to check if the outsider is looking. Cohen’s right: Frodo has come light years. I believe in his happy ending.