Posted by Paula Mullen, ALDF's Executive Assistant on July 30, 2007

RedI first met Red the pit bull in the spring of 1995. He was a fighting dog who was under protective custody at the shelter where I was working. He was rescued when a major dog fight in San Francisco, one of the largest fights in the country, was raided by local law enforcement and animal control agencies. People arrested at the dog fight had come from Nevada, Texas, Oregon, Montana, and different parts of California. Red had been injured that night in a match but not fatally, unlike two other dogs that were found there. He was recovering from his wounds when he came to our shelter, and he stayed there while the criminal case made its way through the courts.

From day one, we who were in charge of his care had an unspoken understanding that he was to have every toy imaginable in his kennel run. When we would approach him, he would stuff as many toys as he could in his mouth and wag his tail so hard that his whole rear end would move. We also gave him soft, comfy blankets, despite the fact that he would sometimes gleefully shred them to bits.

And his food bowl… He adored throwing his metal food bowl up in the air, and seemed to delight in the fact that it made a loud crashing sound when it would land on the floor. He would also hold his bowl in his mouth when he would greet you, with that signature Red tail wag. The bowl-in-his-mouth-thing became known as his trademark. I can still see him trying to stuff two bowls in his mouth, proud as can be to have something as wonderful as two bowls at once.

We weren’t allowed to take him out of his kennel, which was always securely locked. So, I would sit in front of his cage and talk to him as he blissfully snuggled in his mounds of soft blankets, with all his toys gathered around him, tail gently wagging. I’m sure this was the first time in his whole sad life that he had experienced a bed and toys, or someone gently telling him what a good boy he was.

Most pit bulls used at the more organized levels of dog fighting have been bred and trained not to bite humans. This is so the handlers (despite the dogs’ injuries, level of pain or dog aggression) won’t receive a redirected bite while breaking the dogs apart or pulling them out of the pit. As a result, most of these dogs have an extremely developed bite inhibition with people. And because they are starved for attention – a very cruel thing indeed, as those who are familiar with this sociable breed well know – they are especially loving to any person who will give them the slightest bit of affection. Their incredible love of people, even after all the terrible things people have done to them, is without a doubt one of the most heartbreaking things about dog fighting.

Red was so affectionate that some small part of me dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, he could go to a special, pit bull-experienced home with no other animals. Then one day, something happened that catapulted me out of my denial. I saw him react to another dog being walked by his kennel. This didn’t happen very often, since his kennel was out of the way and in a quiet area with very little foot traffic. To most people, his reaction might not have been very noticeable, since there was no obvious growling or lunging. But I noticed – I saw him go from a loving, tail wagging ball of love to a dog that became completely stiff, staring at the other dog with an eerily intense focus. Once the dog passed, his sweet self was back again, leaning against the cage door to get as close to me as possible. But I knew then that there was no hope for him. Red had shown me his dark side, a dark side that was not his fault, but was bred and trained into him by unbelievably cruel humans. If given the opportunity, he would have killed cats, dogs and other animals. There was no magical, pit bull-experienced adopter who could give us a 100% guarantee that he wouldn’t be given that opportunity.

One day I came to work and, as usual, went to greet Red. His kennel was empty. With an increasing sense of dread, I went to find out what happened. The order had come from the court that morning, and the shelter supervisors had spared us, his caretakers, the agony of euthanizing him. I was overwhelmed with grief, as were my coworkers who had also grown to love him. The kennel area was now too still and quiet without the sound of his metal bowl crashing to the ground.

The Michael Vick case has brought up these memories as if they happened yesterday. It is painful to think about the dogs that Vick and his associates allegedly abused and killed so brutally. It’s painful to think about Red again.

But one thing gives me hope – this country’s collective outrage regarding Vick’s alleged actions. This outrage is spreading like wildfire across the nation. Now that so many people know about the dog fighting world, perhaps we can make some significant headway in stopping this terrible, cruel activity.

I am grateful to have been one of Red’s caretakers, and for the chance to give him some kindness and affection. And although we couldn’t give him the forever home he deserved, I’m glad Red knew, if only for a few months, what it was like to feel loved and safe at last.

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