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A Better Life for Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls

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!”

Susan McCarthy is the author of Becoming a Tiger and co-author, with Jeffrey Masson, of When Elephants Weep. natureofbeast.typepad.com

Photograph by William Widmer

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