- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

His back resting comfortably against her chest, Hector nestles his massive canine head into Leslie Nuccio’s shoulder, high-fiving pit-bull paws against human hands.

The big dog — 52 pounds — is social, people-focused and happy now, it seems, wearing a rhinestone collar in his new home in sunny California.

But as Hector sits up, deep scars stand out on his chest, and his eyes are imploring.

“I wish he could let us know what happened to him,” said Miss Nuccio, the big tan dog’s foster mother.

Hector ought to be dead, she knows — killed in one of his staged fights, or executed for not being “game” enough, not winning, or euthanized by those who see pit bulls seized in busts as “kennel trash,” unsuited to any kind of normal life.

Instead, Hector is learning how to be a pet.

After the hell of a fighting ring, he has reached a heaven of sorts: Saved by a series of unlikely breaks; transported thousands of miles along with other dogs rescued by devoted strangers, and now nurtured by Miss Nuccio; her roommate, Danielle White; and their three other dogs.

The animals barrel around the house, with 4-year-old Hector leading the puppylike antics — stealth underwear grabs from the laundry basket, sprints across the living room, food heists from the coffee table — until it’s “love time,” when he decelerates and engulfs the women in a hug.

Hector has come such a long way since he was trapped in the horrors of Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels.

Authorities who descended last year on 1915 Moonlight Road in Surry County, Va., found where Vick, the former NFL quarterback, and others staged pit-bull fights in covered sheds, tested the animals’ fighting prowess and destroyed and disposed of dogs that weren’t good fighters.

Vick is serving a 23-month federal sentence after admitting he bankrolled the dogfighting operation and helped kill six to eight dogs. Three co-defendants also pleaded guilty and were sentenced, and the four now face state animal-cruelty charges.

Officers who carried out the raid found dogs, some injured and scarred, chained to buried car axles. Forensic specialists discovered remains of dogs that had been shot with a .22 caliber pistol, electrocuted, drowned, hanged or slammed to the ground for lacking a desire to fight.

A bewildered Hector and more than 50 other American pit-bull terriers or pit-bull mixes were gathered.

The dogs, held as evidence in the criminal prosecutions, were taken to a half-dozen city and county pounds and shelters in Virginia.

Hector was bunked in the Hanover pound.

Nearly half have been sent to a Utah sanctuary, Best Friends Animal Society, where handlers will work with them. None showed human aggression, and many have potential for adoption someday. Others, evaluated as being immediate candidates for foster care and eventual adoption, went to several other groups.

Among the latter was Hector.

A team of animal-welfare authorities got things rolling in July, when federal authorities sought ownership of the seized dogs. The result, they say, was groundbreaking.

The Oakland, Calif.-based pit-bull rescue and education group Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls, or BAD RAP, which had done similar rescues from fighting busts in California, asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill for permission to evaluate and rescue as many of the dogs as possible, with the hope of eventually placing them in adoptive homes.

“Much to our amazement, he said yes,” said Donna Reynolds, who heads BAD RAP. “This doesn’t happen. People don’t say yes to pit bulls.”

As part of his plea deal, Vick agreed to pay for the dogs’ care.

Nicole Rattay, a volunteer from BAD RAP, spent six weeks visiting the Vick dogs in shelters every day, e-mailing and phoning her observations to special master Rebecca Huss, an animal-law authority who oversaw the dogs.

“Some dogs were ready to learn ‘sit’ and obedience,” she said. “Some needed more time to accept touch and feel comfortable in their surroundings. Sometimes I would just sit in their kennels.” For some, bits of roasted chicken became a “motivator,” she said.

BAD RAP won government approval in mid-October to transport a group of dogs to California foster homes to get them out of confinement.

Hector is settling into his new life, getting further and further from his past.

Weekly AKC “canine good citizen” classes are correcting his social ineptitude. And he’s taking cues on good manners from patient Pandora, a female pit bull mix who is queen of the household’s dogs. Once Hector graduates, he’ll take classes to become a certified therapy dog, helping at nursing homes and the like.

For now, he’s learning the simple pleasures of a blanket at bedtime, a peanut butter-filled chew toy, even classical music.

“I put on Yo-Yo Ma one day and he cocked his head, laid down and listened to the cello next to the speaker,” Miss Nuccio said. “He’s turning out to be a man of high class and culture.”

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