Vicktory Dogs: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary celebrates the legacy of rehabilitated dogfighting pit bulls

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KANAB, Utah (ABC4) – Though he never enjoyed the beautiful, serene setting of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Southern Utah, the death of Frodo, a 15-year-old black pit bull who was living with his adopted family in California, still reverberated at the sanctuary.

Frodo’s death, which by all accounts was peaceful and loving – some reports share that he got to enjoy one last steak before passing away – marked the end of a project that denied popular opinion and theory.

He wasn’t supposed to complete his life surrounded by a loving family.

Frodo was one of 48 dogs taken from the Bad Newz Kennels dogfighting ring when the operation was discovered by authorities in Spring 2007. Frodo ended up, along with a bunch of other dogs, trained to savagely fight and kill, at BADRAP, an animal welfare nonprofit in Oakland, Calif. Twenty-two other dogs were sent to Best Friends in the hopes of a possible rehabilitation.

When the dogs arrived at the Kanab-based sanctuary in January 2008, many experts of animal welfare believed it wouldn’t be possible for any of those animals to live and die happily, co-founder Francis Battista recalls.

“Several of the national organizations at the time advised that they shouldn’t be adopted, or that they were just ticking time bombs,” he remembers of even many animal welfare groups at the time. “This was like profiling to the end, because without even being given a chance to show who they are, what they were about what kind of animal they are, what kind of individual and personality they have. They were simply killed. So that was one of the things that we were staunchly against.”

“We knew it was crap,” Bautista firmly states.

To Bautista, the process of reprogramming dogs that had been rewarded for killing and traumatized for doing otherwise draws parallels to an issue that plagues some humans in various parts of the world. He likens it to rehabilitating child soldiers who are taught little else than to kill or be killed.

“If you talk to people who are really into pit bulls, they’ll tell you that basically, they’re sort of dopey couch potatoes, and they’re incredibly affectionate and very sweet,” Bautista explains, citing funny photos that circulate online of pit bulls wearing party hats or silly costumes. “But that level of compliance and willingness to please and desire to please is very easily manipulated and in the case of fighting dogs, it’s manipulated towards fighting. It’s incredibly sad to think that this innocence, trust, and desire to be part of the family to find some security is turned into something like that, but that’s exactly the case with child soldiers.”

The only consideration or apprehension the team at Best Friends had was a bit of certainty as to where to put almost two dozen pit bulls all at once. However, they figured out the accommodations and the work began.

Cherry, one of the stars of a documentary on the dogs, was one of those animals who gradually came to trust the humans around him. It came slowly and took a lot of time and patience. Battista explains that Michelle Weaver, the sanctuary’s Dogtown Manager, eventually helped him feel comfortable around people by simply sitting next to him, calmly and lovingly, for days on end.

He needed to know that the person next to him wouldn’t hurt him. Weaver had no plans to hurl him by his hind legs, or hold his head underwater, or force him to breed with an unwilling female; all things Cherry had undoubtedly witnessed at Bad Newz. She was teaching him that he was loved and cared for.

The simple approach paid off. Cherry broke free of his fears and eventually found an adopting family to live the rest of his life with.

“We sat with him for days and weeks, and the slightest little head movement, sitting a bit closer, inch by inch, everything was given that opportunity, and everything was rewarded,” Bautista illustrates, crediting Weaver for her commitment to helping Cherry. “And that patience and commitment are what made the difference.”

As the rehabilitation continued, the progress was documented and closely monitored with the assessments made easily available for outside review. There was a lot on the line for the sanctuary, whose mission is to achieve a full and loving life for all animals.

“We knew that we could change the way that people related to these animals, and also the way the laws related these animals,” Bautista says.

Not all of the dogs that went from the hellish environment of Bad Newz to the nurturing landscape of Best Friends had an ending as happy as Cherry’s or Frodo’s, but all escaped death without the chance of redemption. The success of the ‘Vicktory Dogs,’ along with the rehabilitation methods at Best Friends, is hoped to transform the former idea that some animals are too broken to change, love, and be a part of a family.

And their legacy will live on, the leaders at Best Friends Animal Society say.

The Society’s CEO, Julie Castle, proclaimed such about the dogs on a blog post on Best Friends’ website, shortly after the deaths of Frodo and Jonny Justice, another rehabilitated dog who passed two days before the former.

“RIP, Jonny Justice and Frodo. You, along with all the Vicktory Dogs are loved more than you will ever know, and your legacy will endure long after Michael Vick is forgotten.”

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