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A Better Life for Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls


Cohen and Jonny Justice after a long day of training.

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.

Fast Forward
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.





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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