If you have ever seen the 1920s-1930s series of short films Our Gang, re-released in the 1950s as The Little Rascals, you probably fell in love with Petey, the dog. Petey was an American pit-bull terrier who was loyal, lovable, protective, and the perfect children’s pet. At the time pit-bulls were America’s favorite dogs and they were seen everywhere and even used on advertisements for Buster Brown Shoes (Buster Brown and his dog Tige). Today, associating the pit-bull as America’s favorite family pet would be unthinkable.
Indeed, in The Champions, Darcy Dennett’s documentary about the pit-bulls that Michael Vick used for his dog-fighting exploits, one learns that pit-bulls are the most euthanized of all the breeds that end up in shelters. The shelters don’t even try to adopt them out. For them it is a fait accompli that the “fearsome” dogs are untrainable. Their reputation for viciousness precedes them. Who wants to adopt a dog of terror? In less than a century, the pit-bull has gone from being loved to being loathed and feared: 50 counties, 14 states, and in many cities nationwide, there is a ban on pit-bull ownership.
The canard of pit-bulls‘ monstrous natures was made even more extreme in the case of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s dog-fighting compound; it was believed that all of Vick’s dogs that were groomed to kill were blood-lusting horrors. In The Champions Dennett proves this to be a fallacy through eye-witness testimony, interviews, video clips of the dogs and organizations like Best Friends Animal Society and BADRAP whose prodigious efforts recovered the shut-down, traumatized dogs and got them adopted. These organizations sponsored most of the dogs and provided them with retraining. They promoted quiet, love and healing which returned the dogs to wholeness and afforded the opportunity for them to be adopted into a loving home and family. In the instance of a few dogs (Lucas and Meryl), Best Friends provided them with sanctuary for life. In the film it is evident that both dogs are recovered from the abuse and violence and love their lives at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
The film is a vivid chronicle of the road to transformation for the dogs who were adopted and the people who adopted the most troubled and challenging of the pit-bulls from Vick’s compound. The documentary intersperses the varied scenes and settings of the pit-bull owners with the intimate views of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society and BADRAP. The film elucidates the reasons why such organizations improve and empower the lives of all of us and underscores how we as individuals can improve ourselves by shifting our views of animals as sentient, worthwhile beings. Dennett reveals how the individuals and the dogs they adopted impacted each others’ lives and if the individuals felt they were the ones rescuing, they discovered that in equal measure, the dogs rescued them and enriched their personal well being.
What is particularly meaningful about the documentary is that it is an excellent case study in the power of hope, patience and courage to stand in the face of a lie, call it down and prove the truth to be very different. Dennett’s revelations through the testimony of those like Susan who adopted Little Red, Melissa and Paul Fiaccone who adopted Cherry, Chris, who adopted Jonny Justice and Toronto Blue Jays baseball star Mark Buerhle who owns Slater are particularly heart-felt. In each instance myths about pit-bulls are blown-apart. The media sensationalism is exposed as the tawdry profit-making attempt that it is. The principle theme of the film, the concept that every life has great value which is promoted by Best Friends Animal Society, is uplifted. It is the central focus of Dennett’s work and as such is shouted out clearly to advocate for those who can only bark, but who love, hurt, smile, feel, and communicate in non-verbal ways.
Dennett elucidates the courage that was required to give these animals a reprieve from the death sentence that PETA and The Humane Society strongly recommended. Ironically, their death sentence and pronouncement that the dogs’ lives had decreased value coming from Vick’s deadly ring was similar to Vick’s. His was a death sentence pronounced on all of his dogs, the ones who died in the ring and the ones who were killed because they refused to fight. The only ones considered valuable were Vick’s “champions,” because they won and brought in the money.
For PETA and The Humane Society to advocate the same death sentence, even though the reasons were different, is unconscionable. It cannot be justified, especially with these dogs that went through so much (the Federal report showed evidence of abuse, neglect, starvation, maltreatment). Vick’s, PETA’s, The Humane Society’s death sentences have at the heart, though different rationales, money. Because Best Friends Animal Society’s rationale and philosophy are counter to these other “rescue” groups, they are to be highly credited and magnified for their mission and purpose.
What Dennett explains about the Vick pit-bull rescue is telling. It was not understood until much later, after a Federal investigation and report was filed, that many of the dogs of the 50 or so that were recovered were survivors of a horrific dog holocaust. Many of the dogs refused to be manipulated to fight and were deemed a worthless bother. The product required was death of another dog. If they couldn’t or wouldn’t produce death despite neglect, torture, abuse, dysfunctional manipulations by their handlers, they most probably were put down. A pit-bull traded or bred to fight without the brutal spirit required for a champion fighter, was drowned, hanged, electrocuted, tortured, shot. To this day, it is not certain how many dogs may have been killed, though numbers have been bandied around. For all the pit-bulls who were rescued, they were saved from either dying in the ring or from being electrocuted, drowned, etc., as worthless. And if they were to be traded, their misery was just being prolonged. For them to have made it to rescue only to be put down by PETA or The Human Society? The thought is monstrous as is the lie about the dogs’ infamous reputation.
In the 1980s the convenient mythology of the pit-bull as bellicose and dangerous served owners of pit-bulls who bred them for the growing number of illicit dog-fighting events. By stigmatizing pit-bulls as ferocious, blood-lusting killers, dog-fighting gamblers increased the value of their “champions” and ensured a profitable crowd for their exciting, action-packed, Subrosa events. The media, salivating for shocking stories, further blackened the once adorable family pet as a menace to society.
The seminal, but whispered point Dennett makes quietly in her film The Champions is that the fault of fierce temperament lies not with the breed, but with the intent of the owner. If pit-bulls had to be drowned, shot, electrocuted and hanged because they were “worthless” and refused to fight, then it is obvious that the pit-bulls’ nature is not to destroy. Indeed, Dennett, in my interview with her stated that most dogs do not want to fight. However, there is another animal that continually makes war with its own kind, wantonly kills animals for pleasure, uses them for research, exploits them for profit, discounts their sentience-a fascist tactic, and destroys its own environment and habitat. And most of these violent actions are accomplished in the name of profit.
The judgment must fall where it truly belongs, on people. If pit-bulls are ferocious, then they have been bred or trained through abuse and dysfunctional manipulations to be that way. It is a sure sign that they are being used for their profitability and exploited in illegal dog-fighting ventures. Because Vick was a celebrity, a spotlight was focused on how pit-bulls are so abused. How many exploit pit-bulls in dog fights and abuse and violate this wonderful breed to this day? To take a lovable, wonderful intelligent being and to want to convert it into a savage killer is militaristic and mechanized and inhuman. Can life and health exist in such individuals; or are they already dead inside to want to perpetuate killing? One must look to the humans who effect such actions. The dogs are the hapless victims.
In her vital film Dennett separates the truth from the lies and presents hope as a fact. For those who desperately want peace and contentment as these pit-bulls did, the love demonstrated by Best Friends, BADRAP, and the individuals who adopted the dogs, provided the way to healing. Second chances are possible. The Champions shows how. The documentary is an official selection of the DOC NYC Festival.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=159240667X]