By Rosalie Tirella
Worcester Animal Rescue League’s Dorreen LaPorte was driving in the Webster Square area last summer when she saw something that broke her heart: a young pit bull dog – younger than 1 year – was straining to pull three gray cinder blocks in the summer heat. The cinder blocks (weighing about 45 pounds each) were attached to three heavy chains and the chains were attached to the dog’s collar. Pit bulls are – believe it or not – crazy about people! They were bred to bait bulls and later used to fight dogs. Without their desire to please their masters, they could not endure the insanity of the bloody dog-fighting pit or tortured bulls. Also, a less sociable dog woud not allow himself to be extricated (by his master) from the pit, in the middle of a fight. (Hence, the relatively light weight of the turn-of-the-20th century pit bull dogs – 45ish pounds).
Combine the pit bull’s fierce loyalty, love of their master/mistress, innate intelligence, stamina and steely will and you have the scene LaPorte witnessed: a pit bull on Webster Square, who when his owner says “mush,” mushes. In 90-degree weather. All heart . LaPorte, who has been the executive director of WARL for more than 10 years, knew what the owner was doing – training his pit bull for dog fights.
“There’s a [pit bull fighting] dog ring on Southbridge Street,” LaPorte says. She has called the Worcester Animal Control Officers – and their bosses – and they have done nothing about breaking up the ring and rescuing the dogs. LaPorte believes there are “multiple” dog fighting rings in Worcester.
The Worcester Police Department officials and Animal Control Officers say they don’t know of any pit bull fighting ringsin the city. WPD public affairs head, Seargent Kerry Hazelhurst, says Worcester pit bulls are a “nuisance” to the police because drugs dealers have them guarding their drugs (and them!) in inner-city appartments all over Worcester. The department’s Vice Squad often encounters a charging pit bull (or more) during drug busts.
Says Hazelhurst of the fighting dog-fighting rings: “We don’t have knowledge of any … . None of this has been brought to our attention.” But if the WPD got wind of a pit-bull fighting ring, “we’d raid them,” Hazelhurst says.
Hazelhurst and Worcester Animal Control Officer Patrick . explain that it’s all in the way the dog is trained. The dog officer says: “I’ve seen good ones, and I’ve seen bad ones.”
One that had definitely gone bad, according to Hazelhurst: March 21 a pitbull-mastiff mix attacked and killed a female companion dog (a pit bull) in a three-decker apartment. The police were called, the officers arrived to find the dog foaming at the mouth … and then it jumped out the third-floor window! The police chased it down some Grafton Hill streets – shot it once. The dog ran and ran, the officers persued him, firing two more rounds into the dog before it died.
A horrible ending to what most likely was a horrible existence.
Back at WARL LaPorte has confiscated some of the “equipment” that some of the pit bulls come in wearing – huge spiked collars, heavy chains. Torture tools. The fighters have to be put down. “If they just keep lunging at the bars [of the WARL kennels] … ,” LaPorte says, there is not much she or her dedicated staff can do to help the dog. But many pit bulls DO find great homes through WARL. They are great dogs.
LaPorte says WARL is the only Animal Shelter in Massachusetts that will take pit bulls and try to place them in loving homes. Last year 138 pitbulls or pitbull mixes came to WARL after being picked up all over Worcester County. Twenty nine were returned to their owners. The rest were adopted out. One was put down. Twenty six pitbuls were “surrendered” by their owners. Several of the pit bulls – the tougher cases, who had potential but needed extra rehab time – went to the Pitbull Rescue League. LaPorte has personally driven a pit bull who was too aggressive for WARL to a pit bull rehab center run by a loving family in metro Boston – just to give the dog a new lease on life. These rescue organizations have the hours and hours of time (most of the dogs need one-on-one attention for weeks and weeks) and/or the money needed to work with these special needs dog – which most agressive pit bulls are. The physical and emotional abuse they’ve endured on the street or in the pit have taken their toll.
“We don’t have the resources to do what they did with the [former star quarter back] Michael Vicks dogs,” LaPorte says, sitting in her office that’s brimming with animal books, nylon dog collars, little prizes and presents for the next WARL fund raiser, and of course, a water bowl for the WARL’s mascot, Joey, a gray tiger kitty who is celebrating his birthday with a WARL party this Saturday.
In a few minutes LaPorte gets up from behind her desk and goes to get a 6-week old pit bull puppy. “They are so cute!” she says, smiling.
And she’s right. When this reporter sees the black and white sweetie, with its nose all crinkly and its tail all a-wag, she smiles and takes the tiny puppy from LaPorte’s arms and sets it on her lap. The pit bull puppy is amazingly strong for such a little guy! And strong-willed! Squirmy and happy, it wants to jump, and then once on the floor, he explores everything in sight.
This pup, along with its nine siblings, is a happy ending to what’s probably not a very upbeat story. “We found the mother – pregnant – tied to the gate [of WARL],” LaPorte says. She guesses that: the folks who did this didn’t know if they needed money to put the dog up for adoption, so left her at the shelter after hours, when the shelter’s big gate is locked on the Holden Street entrance. The dog was probably from a poor, tough neighborhood. She wasn’t in great shape. Possibly she was a breeder – owner thugs breed their dogs (uncarefully and sometimes forced) – with her masters hoping to make lots of easy money off their dogs. Maybe someone in the owner’s circle knew the puppies would suffer sad fates and decided to rescue the whole family by removing mom from the streets and/or her callous owners. Then the good stuff happened: WARL staff took the female pit bull in, gave her lots of blankets in her clean, warm kennel, fed her lots of healthful food, made her feel safe and loved. Then they stepped back as mommy gave birth to NINE adorable, healthy pit bull puppies!
Liz, a staffer at WARL, says the WARL pit bull puppies and dogs are not adopted out to just any one. First, WARL does not allow folks from Worcester to adopt a pit bull if the pit bull is from Worcester. The families who have visited WARL and ended up adopting pit bulls from the rescue league come from the suburbs and rural areas, says Liz. Places like Athol and Holden. Further more, WARL will not give you a pit bull if you are a renter because landlords don’t want the dogs in/on their property/apartments. “They’ll just end up back on the streets,” Liz says. She explains you need to own a condo or house to adopt a pit bull from WARL – and she alerts new pit bull owners about the “rider” on their home insurance.
Most of the staffers at WARL love pit bulls. “”They are the classic underdog,” says staffer Allie. Allie, who adopted a pit bull several months ago (“he was the classic juvenile delinquent”) says her pit bull, “Champ,” has come a long way. He is super friendly, actually a bit of a baby, she says. He gets along well with other dogs. When she is at work, the young Champ snoozes on her bed waiting for her return. “These dogs will do anything for their owners,” Allie says, talking of the dogs extreme loyalty. “If you want them to kiss babies’ faces, they’ll kiss babies’ faces. If you want them to fight to the death, they’ll fight to the death.” [For local families’ experience with the dogs, please see sidebars and accompanying photos]
Says Patty, another WARL staffer: “They’re good dogs. I like them.” She adds that Chihuahuas can be nasty – and bite!
But, of course, when a pit bull bites, it can do much more damage. Yet the truth is: their jaws aren’t steel traps that “lock onto” something or someone. Their jaws are stronger than some breeds – including the German Shepherd – but they are equal in strength to a Rotti’s. A hyena, for example, has a jaw that is much stronger than a pit and Rotti combined!
Doreen LaPorte says thugs bulk up their dogs – work them so hard they look like canine versions of body builders. She is amazed that Vicks, who made national headlines when his huge dog-fighting ring, breeding/training grounds were broken up, just got 23 months in prison. And just in case people don’t know how horrendous a fighting dog’s life is, the National Geographic Channel TV documentary “Dogtown’s” Saving Michael Vicks Dogs, will give you the truth – without sensationalism. A few years ago, Vicks was found to have a dog fighting ring/training ground at his estate.. Authorities pulled 44 pitbulls from his estate – all of them pretty much on the brink of canine insanity after months and years of beatings, rapes [the top females were bred – their teeth were pulled out so they couldn’t bite the male dogs who were forced on them], electroshock, brutal training regimes, constant fights in bloody pits (hence the name pit bulls). The dogs were kept in cages when not “trainng” or fighting. Pulled out to fight. Shoved back in their small cages after the fight. They did not know what it was like to play, run free in a back yard, be stroked and patted – in short be be a pet. Many were drowned, hanged from trees, mauled to death by the other dogs, if they didn’t perform. Vicks even fed his pets to the pit bulls. For kicks. Vicks’ dogs were like modern gladiators without their ancient Roman counterparts’ swords and shields. One impressive part of the case – the judge’s decision to NOT euthanize the dogs but instead temperament test them and rehabilitate all the dogs, if possible. To make a long story short, all the Vicks dogs, except one, were found to be open to love. Only one was euthanized. Another one must stay in Dog Town, the canine section of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, forever. Half the pit bulls were placed in pit bull foster homes and rehabilitated. The rest – more emotionally damaged – were sent to Dog Town animal sanctuary for months and months of physical and psychological therapy. The judge also ruled that Vicks must pay $1 million for the life-long care of his former dogs. Please watch this excellent TV special – it will change your life! Or at least the way you view pitbulls!
WARL doesn’t have a million dollars to save pitbulls, but LaPorte and her staff resuce most of them. Love all of them – especially the ones that have suffered and died.
“They are such great dogs,” Allie says. Today, no matter how tough their persona, “they are the classic underdogs,” Allie says.
If you see a pit bull, don’t let the stereotypes influence your behavior towards it. Treat it like a dog – not a loaded gun. And if you want a great, strong, intelligent and loving buddy, adopt a pit bull today! They have a rich history in America! They deserve our respect and love.