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Darcy Dennett Talks ‘The Champions,’ Her Film About Michael Vick’s Dogs

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Darcy Dennett, The Champions, Hampton International Film Festival

Darcy Dennett, director of the documentary ‘The Champions. Photo from the website.

The Champions is an amazing and heart-felt documentary about the “infamous” dogs that PETA and The Humane Society advocated should be euthanized because they were ferocious killers incapable of “rehabilitation.” These were the pit-bulls who had been rescued from the dog fighting compound of Michael Vick, the NFL Atlanta Falcon’s star quarterback. Vick secretly and illegally bred pit-bulls for his lucrative gambling events until he was arrested and spent 23 months in prison on other charges, not the charge of wanton animal abuse and destruction. It is an irony that Vick was never charged for animal abuse.

Director Darcy Dennett, who produced National Geographic’s Dogtown series, has the unique perspective and inside track on the Vick story when Vick’s dog holocaust was discovered. She was present when the rescue of 50 pit-bulls occurred, and saw the condition of the hapless victims, many of whom were terrified and in shock from their abuse, neglect and mistreatment at the hands of their amoral, meretricious, “macho” handlers.

Would anyone even consider taking in pit-bulls in such a state? Wouldn’t it be better to put down the fierce killers? For how could they ever recover from the murderous habits that had been beaten into them by Vick and his trainers? Dennett’s documentary answers these hard questions. In a poignant and candid way she reveals the struggle of the courageous individuals who cared enough to see beyond the fear, beyond the media sensationalism into the crying heart of the dogs who yearned for love and who were desperate for a kind word, affection, a home. Dennett follows the dogs’ beautiful story of reclamation from the brink of death into life, from despair into joy. It is an uplifting journey of the complete transformation of these pit-bulls who were exploited for their “infamous” reputation. It was a brutal reputation Vick capitalized upon, a reputation, as it turns out that is a chimera, a confabulation. The ongoing discrimination against this breed is a grave injustice to the stature of one of the most incredibly sweet and loving breeds of dogs.

Hamptons International Film Festival, Darcy Dennett, The Champions

The Maidstone, headquarters of the Hamptons International Film Festival. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The Champions enjoyed its World Premiere as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s “Compassion, Justice and Animal Rights” Segment. It received the Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” Award at the Hamptons Festival Award Ceremony. I was honored to interview the director Darcy Dennett about her very human and emotionally uplifting documentary at The Maidstone, headquarters of the festival.

Darcy, tell my followers about the film The Champions.

The Champions is a documentary about the pit-bulls rescued from Michael Vick’s fighting ring in 2008. It’s a story of second chances and redemption. The film is not about Michael Vick. It’s about the dogs and how far they’ve come.

Who are some of the dogs in the film?

There are a handful of dogs. There’s Cherry, Handsome Dan, Little Red, a dog named Mel and a dog named Johnny Justice. That’s five dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s fighting ring. Then there’s a dog named Slater who’s not a Vick dog, but a dog who’s owned by a famous baseball player named Mark Buehrle who has suffered greatly from breed discrimination against pit-bulls.

What was the average age of the dogs?

The rescue was in 2008. At this point the dogs are getting up in age. So one of my concerns was that we tell the story before the dogs started to pass away. There was a dog I really loved who I wanted to feature, a dog named Georgia who was one of Michael Vick’s fighting champions who I really wanted to be in the film. I loved this dog. I spent a lot of time with this dog on the ground when the dogs were first rescued. Georgia passed away. She was probably 11 or 12 and we weren’t able to get to it before she passed away. So in getting the film made there was a lot of time pressure to tell the story because the dogs were getting up in age.

The age of the dogs varied when they were rescued. Some were much younger than others. Cherry, one of the dogs most featured in the film, is around 11 or 12. This isn’t in the film, unfortunately, because there isn’t enough time to cover everything, but a lot of the dogs have a blood borne disease called Babesia. It’s an immunocompromising disease similar to what HIV might be like in humans. It is passed through blood. So a lot of the dogs rescued have Babesia including Cherry. So it’s something that had to be managed long term. The disease has contributed to the declining health of the dogs. Little Red featured in the film is a much older dog. And Little Red has had a lot of surgeries to remove mass cell tumors. Little Red isn’t going to be around much longer. So there was a tremendous amount of pressure to tell the story.

I was a series producer of National Geographic Dogtown. When the dogs were rescued in 2008, I was on the ground. These 22 dogs were considered the most challenging. Some as far as anyone knew might be spending the rest of their lives at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. So I was there on the ground for two or three months when the dogs first arrived. I followed them when they first landed at Best Friends Animal Society. Best Friends Animal Society has an animal sanctuary and their work with the dogs was based there the whole time. I filmed them at length when they first arrived.

During Dogtown we did a Special called “Saving the Michael Vick Dogs.” We featured four dogs: Cherry, Handsome Dan, Georgia, who passed away, and Meryl who is in the film briefly. We featured some dogs more prominently. I gravitated toward them because I knew that we had footage that I could pull from the film to tell the story of when they first arrived. Best Friends Animal Society had footage that they shot which we used. I also used footage that the families shot to tell the middle part of their story. Then two and ½ years ago, I worked on the film full time. And we followed up where the dogs are now. So we cobbled all this footage to tell their story.

The Champions, Darcy Dennett, Hamptons International Film Festival, Cherry, pit-bull

Pit-bull Cherry in ‘The Champions,’ directed by Darcy Dennett. Photo from ‘The Champions’ website.

What’s wonderful is that the process is longitudinal. You have the record from 2008 to 2014.

Well, we finished in May of 2015.

How long did it take to edit it? Well, you are probably editing through selection as you went along.

I knew very well the material that existed that we were able to pull from because I was very involved in it. So I knew where to go to find the material that we would need to tell the story. And I knew the stories really well, because I had been following the stories of the dogs even after we finished Dogtown. I had a pretty good sense, fortunately, of what was needed. In Dogtown, we only told the first part of the story. Nobody had followed up with the story. I knew that it was an incredible story because I knew how far the dogs had come when they were first rescued. Nobody had told that story.

Well, the media focused on Michael Vick and then they dropped it and went to something else.

Possibly. I do like to say that the story is not about Michael Vick. It is about the dogs and is a story that nobody has told. And I do think it is a story of resilience and strength and overcoming the odds. One of the inspirations of the documentary was Cherry. When Cherry first arrived at the sanctuary, Cherry couldn’t walk. In the film you see visuals of him flattening called pancaking. The dog flattened, covered his stomach which is a vulnerable spot and he refused to move. It was almost like he would flatten so nobody would notice him.

The Champions, Michael Vick, Darcy Dennett, Hamptons International Film Festival

Georgia, one of Michael Vick’s fighting champions. passed away before making it into the film. Darcy Dennett loved Georgia. Photo from the website.

Why?

It’s a way of disappearing and making yourself small. It’s a way to disappear from the world, like “Maybe you won’t notice me.” It probably was a result of when the dogs were fought. If you have the time, I would encourage you to check into the USDA’s lengthy investigative report with multiple eye-witness accounts, including Michael Vick’s testimony. All of it reveals what it was like to be there. And then Jim Gorant wrote this book called The Lost Dogs which talks about what it was like for the dogs to be at the fighting compound.

These dogs were kept in cages, on chains. They were probably underfed, under-socialized. They probably had very little contact with humans. They were probably dragged out by leash to the fighting ring. I would imagine that all of those things were traumatizing. Most dogs refused to fight. So when a dog refuses to fight, it’s killed by the dog fighters. They’re not given away. They’re not saved. They’re killed.

The USDA report talks about all the brutal ways the dogs were killed. There’s something called being rolled or being tested for their fight worthiness. Many dogs refused to fight. I think that to get a dog to fight which is not really in their nature, but I think that the ways, I’m not a dog fighting expert, but I would imagine that to get a dog to fight you neglect and torture dogs until they become so frustrated that they will snap. They use drugs and so that’s how you might introduce a dog to fighting. If a dog’s only choice is to fight or to be murdered, which they wouldn’t be aware that was their alternative, if they then snap and fight at another dog out of frustration, then the dog fighter might reward the dog with steak or salmon. Even though it’s a dysfunctional relationship between the dog and the fighter, the dog looks to the human as if they’re fighting to please them. “You’re my human so I’m trying to do this thing you’re asking me to do so that you’ll love me.”

So it’s a very exploitative situation. And there are a few dogs that when pushed will fight. Some of the dogs, like Georgia whom I wanted to feature, with conditioning are able to get past their aggression with other dogs. The aggression dogs have toward humans and dogs can be very different. A dog may have aggression with other dogs, but be amazing with humans. The two never overlap. There are still dogs left at the sanctuary that still have aggression issues with other dogs. So if you are a pit-bull and you have aggression issues toward other dogs, it makes it very difficult to be adopted.

There are still dogs at Best Friends who will very likely be there for the rest of their lives. But these are dogs from a very specific, unique situation. It makes sense that some of these dogs would have lingering issues with aggression against other dogs. But with the majority of them, their issues were lack of socialization. Cherry probably never had a kind word from a human ever, never any affection. Probably no one ever pet the dog. Probably food was scarce and unpredictable. He probably never had a toy or a blanket. So that kind of socialization never occurred. Possibly, Cherry was born there. They trade them or buy them. So when he arrived at Best Friends, he had no context for positive interaction with humans at all.

When Cherry first arrived, he would flatten on all fours and refuse to walk on leash which probably reminded him of being taken into a fighting ring. Michelle Bezman from Best Friends who’s featured in the film spent months literally just sitting with the dog in the same room. So she would start socialization by sitting with the dog in the same room. She wouldn’t force him she would just sit with the dog in the same room for months. She was very calm. Eventually, she would sit closer to him and spend days doing that but not touching him. Then after doing that, she would start to pet him. And she would hope that he would approach her and come up to her for affection. And this process took months.

Little Red, The Champions, Hamptons International Film Festival

Little Red, a pit-full featured in ‘The Champions.’ Photo from ‘The Champions’ website.

She was building trust, assuring him that he was not going to be abused again.

I’m a human, you can trust me.

Here’s a new relationship. Here’s a new way for me to communicate with you, relate to you in another way. It’s re-teaching the dog.

Yes. The people who adopt the dogs don’t like the word rehabilitation. They prefer to use the word recover. It’s showing the dog that positive things can come from a relationship with a human. So Michelle was super patient with Cherry. She helped him to discover that good things can come from humans. Still it would take years for this dog…it would take two or three years after Cherry arrived for him to be socialized to humans. He was one of the first dogs to be adopted. You’ll see in the film when Paul and Melissa Fiaccone come to adopt Cherry.  The concern was, “Will these people be patient enough with Cherry when he goes into their home to know that when he is in the corner not moving that they just need to give him some time?”

Did Best Friends work with Paul and Melissa?

Best Friends is really amazing. These dogs had a lot of paperwork with them to be able to adopt them. I think the court predetermined or maybe Best Friends came up with predetermined criteria in adopting the dogs. It had to be someone who was definitely not going to fight the dogs. It had to be somebody who had a fence in the backyard. If the people had a dog what kind was it and was the dog good with other dogs? Did they have a child? Did they have the means to properly take care of the dog? Are they adopting for reasons other than to publicize them in a way that is exploitative, and about the fact that you are adopting a dog rescued from Michael Vick? It was these factors versus the idea that the people wanted to have a dog for the family as a reason for adoption. It was incredibly difficult to adopt one of these dogs. You had to jump through crazy hoops. This family was definitely committed. Also Best Friends would make sure that the dog passed the “Canine Citizenship Test…”

Meaning, no biting?

I used to know what it was. One element is that the dog has to be able to pass another dog and not react. People come up to you and if they pet the dog, the dog doesn’t react in a way that’s negative. Basic obedience is on the list.

In other words the dog is not going to be a danger to a child or society. Sounds like they’ve made wonderful progress with these dogs that are in better shape then a lot of other dogs who are neurotic and who have major issues with family or other dogs and are in need of Cesar Millan, “dog whisperer.”

Oh yes. Some of them have gone on to be agility champions, therapy dogs and spokes-dogs for the breed. And also, as with Cherry, when any of the Vick dogs were adopted and went into new homes, a trainer from Dogtown would fly out with the dog and spend three days with the dog and family to help them get settled into their new home. I think they would check in with the trainer over a period of time because these dogs were Michael Vick’s fighting dogs. So if anything were to go wrong, it would be bad for everybody. So there’s quite a lot of pressure connected to adopting these dogs.

Actually, the people who owned Cherry came to the festival yesterday. Everyone wants to meet Cherry. They’re careful not to publicize where they live. Also, there was another concern at Best Friends with these dogs. They were on watch that people would try to steal the dogs because they’re Michael Vick’s fighting dogs. The dogs have street value.

So the dogs you listed at the beginning have all been adopted.

Yes. The sixth is Slater. All of them go to adoptive homes. So here is one of the inspirations for the film along with finishing the discussion of Cherry. I walk my dog in an event called “Strut Your Mutt” in New York City. It is an event sponsored by Best Friends to raise money. I walk my 20 pound chihuahua-miniature-pinscher mix in the event. I was walking when I saw this black pit-bull. I looked up and recognized the people walking him and recognized them as the couple who adopted Cherry. I could not believe that this little black-pit bull that was so shut down and couldn’t walk was wagging its tail and so excited by these people who surrounded him and wanted to meet him. I was so overwhelmed. I started to cry because it was amazing to me. You know, folks say, “People never change.” They say, “Don’t expect to marry this person and have them change.” And here’s this dog that was traumatized. He did a complete 180 over the course of time. I just thought that was so inspirational.

That was your motivation, inspiration for the film. So you went up to them and talked to them?

Yes.

Is that when you asked them to be in the film?

Handsome Dan, The Champions, Hamptons International Film Festival

Handsome Dan a pit-bull featured in ‘The Champions.’ Photo from the website.

I have a really close relationship with Best Friends Animal Society because I did all their work for 2 ½ years. The family are really close to Best Friends. And they’re very guarded about whom they will allow to film with them because typically the story of the dogs is sensationalized and the media is going to focus on the blood and the gore and all that. They are very sensitive about that. They don’t like that, so really they would look to Best Friends for approval to be involved in a film. I have a very trusting relationship with Best Friends, so of course, they gave me their seal of approval. The film very purposely avoids any imagery of violence against animals. Have you seen The Cove?

Yes, forget it. And the film Blackfish? I am one of these insane people who believes that animals are sentient beings. I believe they communicate with us telepathically. I am avoiding at all costs meat. I did have salmon today, but fish are sentient beings as well. I’m very close to being vegetarian, but not vegan.

With our diet it’s very hard.

But getting back to The Cove.

I think The Cove is a fantastic, amazing movie. I am an animal lover. It was hard for me to decide to see it. I saw it on a plane, and, I don’t think it’s that hard to watch. I mean there’s a hard scene to watch at the end. People are really afraid of settling in to a movie where they think they’re going to have to watch animals suffer. So we were very careful to avoid that imagery so that people wouldn’t have to be afraid of going to see the film. That makes the families happy too.

The association of brutality is not there. You and the families are saying those events of horror are over and they’re not going to be a part of Cherry’s life ever again. And the hope actually, well it’s beyond a hope and thought, it’s the reality. That’s wonderful you don’t have to worry about seeing animals in torment.

It seems like people appreciate it.

Of course. You appreciate it. You could have done another documentary.

I thought about it and thought that without visuals of animals suffering it was a risk. It was not what was expected. I was worried that it would make the film seem flat or not dynamic enough.

That is so mainstream. Did anyone give you difficulty about not having blood/gore?

No. It was my own internal dialogue, because how do you tell a story about these dogs without showing where they came from? Wouldn’t it make their story more powerful? I was worried about that.

The Champions, Mel, Hamptons International Film Festival.

Mel, a pit-bull featured in ‘The Champions.’ Photo from the website.

Most people know the story. Is that not true? So the fact that the dog pancaked and the fact that you went into that because you’re so knowledgeable, we can visualize that in our imaginations.

Hopefully, the audience’s imagination is stirred. There is a segment where we have some footage of Michael Vick walking through the old dog fighting ground. One of the dog owners named Susan who lives in Wyoming and who adopted Little Red is talking about why Little Red didn’t want to walk over the threshold of her home when she first arrived. Little Red refused to walk through the front door. Susan had to carry her for months into the house. She was really worried that Little Red was never going to make the leap, of never going to be able to walk through the front door of her own home.

That is a phenomenal symbol because of what that threshold means to the dog, the fear of going back to the hell of that experience where she fought, if she fought.

Well, Little Red had a lot of scars on her face. I’m sure she did fight. It’s hard to know if the dogs ever were fought even if they came from Michael Vick’s fighting ring. Some dogs didn’t have scars. Maybe they were just neglected. But Little Red had lots of scars and clearly, she had been bred for fighting and fought. So you see these visuals of Little Red. Susan recounts why Little Red might not want to walk through the threshold. She thinks that the dogs might have seen Michael Vick opening the door to these sheds painted black and walking up these stairs to the fighting ring. Jim Gorant does a really good job talking about it in The Lost Dogs. These dogs were probably dragged on a leash and then carried up the stairs and then thrown into the pit. And so it makes perfect sense that they wouldn’t want to walk through the front door. I think that it speaks to the level of sentience that these animals have. They have memory. They were traumatized.

It’s like PTSD. I think what you’ve done in following the story is really vital. It should easily find its audience. So, you won an award?

Zelda Penzel, Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award, Hamptons International Film Festival, The Champions

Zelda Penzel who bestows the “Zelda Penzel Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award” at the Hamptons International Film Festival. ‘The Champions’ won the award this year. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

We did. We won the Zelda Penzel “Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award.” And I have to applaud the Hamptons International Film Festival and also, Zelda Penzel who was a champion of the film from the beginning. Everyone here, says they love her, the festival staff. I met her a few times and I adore her. I feel so fortunate. I think we couldn’t have asked for a better place to have a world premiere. The festival has been such a support. That’s not the best word. They’ve been the best possible place to have our premiere and it’s so wonderful that they have this new category, “Compassion, Justice and Animal Rights.” Hopefully, it will encourage other filmmakers to tell stories about animal welfare issues. I think that a lot of festivals are afraid of taking on a film about animal welfare issues. I think that there’s a real need. I think they’re more interested in maybe social issues about humans.

It’s the same subject. I can see so many analogies between what you’re describing in animal welfare and human welfare. The slavery issue of women in the world and what happens as a result: they have PTSD. They don’t want to “walk over the threshold of a new life” because they can’t leave the past, caught by fears of torture and abuse. Maybe I’m taking too much of a leap, but what I’m trying to say is what humans do to creatures whether they be humans or animals is frightening.

By not having such films, it’s a way to continue not to give them a voice. Film has such power to make change. A film like this can make real change. I think that Zelda Penzel and the festival have given us a platform to have a voice.

You mentioned you finished the film in 2015. Did you feel pressure to get it to this festival, to get it done in time or did you feel, well, I’m going to just do the best bang up job I can?

Gosh, I guess there’s always pressure for any number of reasons on a given day. Pressure the way things unfold and pressure in how things change. I feel really fortunate that we submitted to the Hamptons and it was the best possible place to find a home, a good loving adoptive home.

Tell me about Best Friends Animal Society.

They are an amazing organization. They were founded in the 70s by a group of really idealistic people who envisioned a world where there were no homeless animals. At the time there were like 17 million animals euthanized a year or some crazy number. Today, there’s something like 3-4 million animals euthanized, killed. It’s a staggering number. They envisioned a world where there were no homeless pets/animals. In fact their mission statement today is “SAVE THEM ALL.” So they’re working to make America “NO KILL.” They have an initiative in LA called N.K.L.A., NO KILL LA. They’ve made huge strides. They’re about to open a facility in New York, in Soho which is fantastic. Their point of view is that every life has value. Their founders are all vegetarians, and they believe strongly in that, and they’re wonderful people. They are very idealistic, which I love. And they really put everything they have into the work that they do.

Some of the animals that are at Best Friends will be there for life. There’s a dog named Meryl in the film. Meryl and Lucas were court ordered to go to a place that would keep them for life. They were never to be adopted out. Best Friends took them in. They have a huge facility of 33 hundred acres in Southern Utah. They have quite a lot of support from the public. They’re like one of the only places in the country that could take on a commitment like that. And so Meryl went to snap at somebody when she was being assessed by a group of people. A group of people surrounding her from the dog fighting situation could have reminded her of the pit where a group of people circled her as she stood in the ring. She had been in a shelter for months, waiting to be assessed and placed. She was probably pretty frustrated. Based on her snapping, she was court ordered to remain at The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary for life. Today, I love Meryl. Meryl is really great with all her caregivers. She is an amazing dog, really well trained. Loves people, great with other dogs. Meryl will never leave.

Hamptons International Film Festival, Darcy Dennett, The Champions, Award Ceremony

At the HIFF final award recognition ceremony. Darcy Dennett is the top row, fourth from the left. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The Sanctuary is an amazing place to be, but it’s not the same as a loving adoptive home. But Best Friends does great work. For me they embody the sense that every life is valuable. There’s no life that you can justify extinguishing for any reason. And I think that’s a nice ideal to aspire to. BADRAP the other organization featured in the film is equally amazing. They’re a small group and they’re focused and dedicated to pit-bulls.

They have a terrible reputation, and of course the press jumps all over that. Hopefully that’s changing. Anything that you want to share about the film that you didn’t go into? Where is it going to be shown? Who’s your distributor?

Well, we have a bunch of festivals coming up. We’re going to Heartland next week. And then we’re going to Denver where there is a very serious ban of pit-bull ownership. We are going to St. Louis where Mark Buehrle’s family lives, the family who suffered against breed discrimination. Then we’re going to Miami and Toronto where Buehrle currently pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays. And we’re playing at Sidewalk ScreenTalk Series2015 in Alabama. And another festival in New York that we’re very excited to announce next week.

Is that DocNY?

I don’t think I can tell you until Wednesday. (I discovered that The Champions has been officially selected for the DOC NY Festival. It will screen in NYC on Sunday, November 15 at 11:30 AM)

OK.

We don’t have distribution yet.

The film will be picked it up. Are you kidding me? It’s going to be like Virunga. Leonardo DiCaprio got a hold of Virunga at one of the festivals. I saw it at Tribeca Film Festival in 2014. I’m just trying to think of how many celebrities are into animal welfare and animal rights?

Jon Stewart has three pit-bulls. He was busy when I introduced the film. Jessica Beal has a pit-bull. Ira Glass has a pit- bull. Rachel Ray has a pit-bull. There are many celebrities who are pit-bull fans.

Did any of these celebrity owners see the film?

I don’t know about Jon Stewart. We sent him a link. I’m not sure he got it.

I am excited to screen and review the film. Thanks, Darcy and good luck with the film.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.
  • Alex Riddin

    Informative information, thanks!