| By Elizabeth Kennedy
Uba, a petite dog with a fondness for soft beds, must be dreaming. As one of the 47 dogs rescued in a historic bust of former NFL star Michael Vick’s gruesome dog-fighting operation, he’s since become a pet celebrity. With his coat shining in the sun at Berkeley’s Aquatic Park, Uba spent a recent Saturday displaying his ace moves in obedience class. Sit, stay, down, look, leave it—Rachel Ray’s film crew captured it all as they roamed the sidelines taking footage for a TV feature. After class, photojournalists from People magazine, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle jostled to catch the pup in celebrity action, repositioning this ever-patient pit bull in front of the lake, beside the poppies, looking up at his owner, bowing into a “down-stay.” By the time Uba finally returned to his new home in San Francisco’s Sunset district, he fell into instant sleep, snoring thunderously and looking like just another dog.
Uba’s foster parents, Letti deLittle and Jamel Freeman, know their new dog has lived anything but an ordinary life. The 2007 bust of the Bad Newz Kennels operation in eastern Virginia, an internationally publicized spectacle, revealed that these dogs survived atrocities and brutality that continued to mount with each new account: dogs reportedly tethered by tow chains to buried car axels out in the rain and snow, forcibly bred on confining “rape stands,” driven into life-or-death pit fights under extreme duress and killed by violent means for underperforming or refusing to fight.
Dozens of dogs unwilling or unable to fight, whose temperaments were probably sweet like Uba’s, did not make it out of the Vick ring alive. Their remains were found in shallow graves on the compound property. But thanks to the founders of Oakland’s BAD RAP (Bay Area Dog-lovers Responsible About Pit bulls), and other die-hard animal advocates, just over a dozen dogs got a second chance here in Northern California. Among them were Uba, the lover, and his classmates Jonny Justice, the superstar showoff; Teddles, the big-eared clown; and Hector, who is covered in scars and full of forgiveness.
Oakland residents Donna Reynolds and her partner Tim Racer are pit bull experts and advocates who have seen stories like this one play out before. With over a decade of experience codirecting the East Bay–based animal education and outreach organization called BAD RAP, they knew they needed to act quickly last year to make any difference for the Vick dogs. Reynolds said that if an organization like theirs failed to petition for rehabilitation, every dog “rescued” from the compound would be held as evidence during Michael Vick’s criminal trial, then euthanized as alleged dangers to society.
Reynolds and her colleagues demonstrated to the public and Virginia authorities the missing link in the treatment of dogs rescued from past fight rings: animals are not the ones choosing to fight.
Just as most people would defend themselves when forced to fight for survival, dogs participate because they’re left no other option. And even with no way out and their lives on the line, many dogs, regardless of the breed, still lack a quality called “gameness”—the will to fulfill a goal. For fight-ring dogs unwilling to do battle, Reynolds explained, that amounts to a death sentence.
“These were dogs that were going to be tortured for not fighting,” she said. “They weren’t performing. Many pit bulls want nothing to do with fighting.”
While representatives of animal rights organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society recommended euthanization, Racer and Reynolds asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill and U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson, both in Virginia, permission to evaluate the behavior of the 48 dogs in custody and present their findings first.
In an unexpected victory for pit bull advocates, the judge agreed. BAD RAP’s Racer and Reynolds caught a red-eye to Virginia to conduct a systematic assessment that considered each dog’s relationship with other dogs and people, as well as their sensitivity and stability. “What we’re looking for,” said Reynolds in an interview following the assessments, “are dogs that are true to the breed, that are especially people-focused. That relationship will allow them to adjust to the real world.”
As the BAD RAP experts and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) behaviorists tested the dogs over three days and nights, proponents of fair trials and temperament testing for dogs all around the country held their breath. Would any of the dogs, in fact, check out as sane and sound? The experts had to be sure not only that the dogs passed the battery of tests, but that they could then integrate into society as adoptable, loving pets.
“We’ve tried them all. We’ve instigated these dogs. We’ve shoved dogs in their faces,” said Racer. “We’ve taken life-sized mannequins of children and gotten nothing but licks and wags. We wouldn’t put ourselves in that position. We would not rescue any dog that was not perfectly safe.”
On the Virginia shelter grounds, Racer worked around the clock with colleagues and heavily documented the temperament tests, producing written assessments and more than 24 hours of video recordings that were subsequently delivered to Judge Hudson for review.
The team’s findings ran counter to the prevailing assumption that all dogs associated with fight rings are inherently irredeemable. Of the original 48, just one dog was found to be dangerous and beyond rehabilitation and was euthanized at the shelter.
BAD RAP and other animal groups organized a large-scale plan to pack up dogs from various Virginia shelters and get them on a road to their new lives—22 of the dogs headed for the Best Friends Sanctuary in Utah, 12 to shelters and rescue groups around the country, and 13, Uba among them, packed into an RV bound for California.
In the six months that passed from the Vick fight bust to the start of Uba’s new foster life, shelter volunteers said he sat pressed against the chain link of his kennel in Virginia, a small cement space that was routinely hosed down while he sat inside it. Held under quarantine in tiered kennels of concrete and steel, Uba fell victim to an overtaxed shelter system straining to absorb droves of unwanted animals annually, already overcrowded due in part to popular resistance to spaying and neutering. Languishing in some cases without any playtime, direct human interaction, or exposure to sunlight, each dog faced the prospect of yet another death sentence when, as the months passed, animal rescue advocates began to question the cumulative effects such trying conditions might have on the dogs’ sociability. And after months of isolation, Uba hunkered down to the ground, his confidence visibly diminishing.
Then, against many odds, Uba’s new life began. With his crate luxuriously positioned by the window, he sat in the sun for the first time in over six months and waited as the 12 other California dogs were loaded up around him, their blankets, chew toys and water bowls set in place. BAD RAP volunteer Nicole Rattay and her husband Steve drove the dogs cross-country, trading shifts for more than two days, stopping only for walks and meals three times a day. The couple had to consult the map and choose their route carefully because some cities and counties ban pit bulls outright.
The Bay Area is friendlier to pit bulls than other areas of the country, but several counties either legally require or strongly recommend sterilizing pit bulls and pit bull mixes. San Francisco pit bull owners, for example, are legally required to spay or neuter their pit bulls. In Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the East Bay SPCA offers free sterilization for pit bulls owned by county residents, but it is not legally required. Sterilization helps reduce the number of unwanted pit bull puppies and can curb aggression in males.
As unwelcome as the dogs may have been in hot zones that ban pit bulls, they received a hero’s welcome upon arrival in California. Considerable work on the part of BAD RAP, Virginia shelter workers and ASPCA-appointed animal behaviorists was involved in getting Uba to a situation many families take for granted—the company of adoring parents like deLittle and Freeman, of the family cat William and his bossy littermate Angus, and an older pit mix named Lulu who is all too happy to spend her twilight years doting on this mysterious new charge. Uba is an unwitting symbol, a vindicator of his breed’s reputation.
“We challenged him and he rose to the challenge,” said deLittle. “As long as he’s moving forward, we’re moving forward. In so many ways.”
Flung into a media circus, Uba and the other Bay Area dogs have been busy living like stars, attending press conferences, sitting and shaking for news crews with cameras all around them, tangles of wires running circuitously at their paws. Both Uba’s parents are relieved the attention has begun to recede.
“You have to remember they’re just dogs,” says Freeman. “They’re great dogs, really funny. And each one has his own personality.”
Freeman doesn’t see Uba as a symbol, a vindicator or an ambassador. But it’s probably just as well. At the one-year milestone of his new life, Uba sits up wide awake now, his tail thumping each time either one of his parents speaks. They have just been granted full adoption rights and from the looks of it, Uba will have the happiest ending imaginable. He is just another dog who’s found his place in the sun.
Elizabeth Kennedy is a freelance writer living in Oakland, California. Keep up with her at elizabethkennedy.org.
Dog (and cat) day afternoon: (top to bottom) Uba, one of 47 dogs tortured in the ring of former NFL star Michael Vick, snoozes with William the cat at his new Bay Area home; Uba sports a sweater; Uba gets some nuzzling from housemate Lulu. Uba and William. Photos by Jamel Freeman.