A sad place for a pit bull

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1994:

by Shannon Lentz
Founder and Director, Kalamazoo Animal Rescue
We had Nikki euthanized this morning. She was a
purebred pit bull terrier, rescued from an animal collector
here in southwest Michigan. When we responded to the call
from Children’s Protective Services, who had gone to the
home for other reasons, we found Nikki chained to a dog-
house. The chain was bolted to her collar. It was the dead of
August, and Nikki had been without food or water for who
knows how long. She lay in the dirt, barely moving. We
were able to convince the collector that her dog was days
away from death, and she finally consented to let us take her.
At our veterinarian’s clinic we took photographs, in
case we were able to pursue cruelty charges against the col-
lector. Nikki was grossly underweight at 25 pounds, and was
full of worms, fleas, and mange. Her age was estimated as
two years. When her heartworm test came back negative, we
determined that she was salvageable. I took her on as a foster
project, and watched this pitiful wreck of a creature bloom
into a healthy, handsome dog. It took weeks. We kept her
indoors, though she was smelly and crusty from the mange.

She learned about living in a home, and reveled in the con-
stant affection she got from my husband, myself, and our
two boys. Though Jon and I had been battling in court about
the five dogs we already had, two more than the city limit,
we grew attached to Nikki. That she was a pit bull made find-
ing her a proper home more difficult. Most people who
would adopt such a dog had no business having one at all.
We intensified our search for a place in the country.
We moved to our 9-acre farm early in the fall. By
now Nikki was a spayed, healthy, 60-pound success story.
She and the other dogs spent leisurely afternoons with the
family, walking the pastures and woods on our farm. Nikki
loved to dig after the pasture critters, though she never
caught any. She’d come up for air after five solid minutes of
burrowing, her white face and head caked with earth, tongue
lolling out, smiling a joyous, dirt-filled smile. Our other
dogs, a Dane, a greyhound, and three mixed breeds, would
race through the pastures, chasing and teasing. Nikki, with
her great bulk, could not join them. She’d get up to a slight
run, then somersault over her own feet. So she mostly
tagged along with Jon and I, dashing away from us now and
again to dig another hole.
In the house she was a dream dog. Perfectly house-
broken, perfectly crate-trained, clean, submissive, and gen-
tle, Nikki dispelled our image of the raging, murderous pit
bill. All those pit bulls who turned on their families, well,
those people must have done something to make it happen.
Our Nikki was just a lover and a cuddler. Other than normal
playing and sleeping with the dogs, Nikki seemed indifferent
to our other animals. Then, late in the fall, a potbellied pig
came to us for foster care. After the initial pig-dog introduc-
tions, we saw that there was a potential problem between
Nikki and Petunia. Nikki was over-excited by the pig, chas-
ing and biting at her in a way that was not just playful.
Petunia brought out a side of Nikki that we had not seen
before, and we were concerned. We decided that the two ani-
mals would never be exposed to one another.
This worked for about a month. Then, late for
work one evening, I rushed out without telling Jon that
Petunia was unpenned. He called me at work an hour later to
tell me that he let Nikki out and she attacked Petunia, maul-
ing her face and head. I came home at midnight to find
Petunia still bleeding and frightened.
Traumatized and plagued with guilt, we immediate-
ly found Petunia another home.
“That dog should be destroyed,” our vet said. On
the most reasonable level, we knew he was probably right.
But we weren’t operating from that level. Jon and I rational-
ized the incident. Nikki lived next to a pig farm when she was
with the collector. On the day of her rescue we witnessed sev-
eral other dogs fighting over the remains of a pig who had
been slaughtered that morning.
“They probably had to kill pigs to survive,” we
protested. We kept Nikki, vowing to watch her every move.
In December a pit bull mix named Mac came for
foster care. Because he was heartworm-positive and a pit bull,
we knew he would be a longterm project. We started his
heartworm treatment and integrated him into the family.
Things were uneventful for the first month. He fit into the
routine easily, getting along with everyone but the cats and
one unneutered male dog who stopped at our home on his way
to another foster home. Otherwise Mac did not worry us.
Then one evening Mac and Nikki were playing in their typical
vigorous fashion, and suddenly both turned on Enzo, our
Labrador mix, who was sitting nearby. Within seconds
Mac’s jaws were clamped on Enzo’s hind leg while Nikki’s
were locked at his throat. The sounds of the fight were terri-
fying, and as Jon and I rushed to separate the dogs, I lost my
footing and fell. Mac bit hard on my ankle and I screamed
until Jon was able to shake him off. Jon had Mac by the col-
lar; I grabbed Nikki’s collar. We had to twist and yank with
all our strength to get the pit bulls of Enzo. When we did,
Enzo crawled into the corner, injured and whimpering and
terrified. His leg was hurt and there were deep puncture
wounds to his throat, but there was nothing that required
stitches. My leg throbbed from Mac’s bite, but that bite too
consisted of deep puncture wounds that could not be stitched.
Mac was put outside and Nikki went to her crate. Because
Mac bit me, he was unadoptable by Rescue standards, and he
was euthanized the next morning.
Jon and I were forced to re-evaluate our beloved
Nikki. We had to face that she was a pit bull, and had the
potential to act every bit like those we’d read about in the
papers. I spent the next day on the telephone, seeking the
advice of professional dog trainers and animal behaviorists.
In essence, I was told that with pit bulls and other dogs bred
for aggressiveness, one “blood bite” would usually precipi-
tate others. Indeed, Nikki was temporarily preoccupied with
Enzo, sniffing the door to the porch where he stayed and
attempting to attack him again when we went to reacquaint
them several days later. We had a trainer come to our home
to evaluate Nikki and her capacity for further aggression. He
suggested obedience training and trying to de-sensitize Nikki
by having her see Enzo from a distance, then gradually bring
the two dogs closer together. He explained that even with
training, there would be no guarantees, and he reiterated his
point that dogs who have bitten are likely to bite again. My
husband and I, clinging to the slight possibility that this was
an isolated incident, vowed to keep Enzo and Nikki totally
separate. Nikki would become a fulltime house dog.
Within a few days we had developed a workable
system to keep the dogs away from one another. We felt that
it must have been Enzo’s timid, ultra-submissive personality
that caused Nikki and Mac to go after him the way they did.
Nikki was second highest in the pack order of our household,
the uncontested alpha dog being Rita, our five-year-old grey-
hound. Enzo had always been at the bottom of the hierarchy.
We had never seen anything between Nikki and Rita that con-
cerned us. The two dogs co-existed peacefully, and even
played sometimes, with Nikki consistently adopting a sub-
missive posture in the games.
Jon and I watched Nikki with eyes in the backs of
our heads. She ate completely by herself, and went out in the
fenced yard on a cable, just in case. She was kept from
Enzo, and she was crated whenever there was not an adult
available to supervise her. She lost her couch privileges,
since we didn’t want to encourage any illusions of dominance
she held. If she and Rita’s play got a little too rowdy, Nikki
went to her crate to calm down. We bent over backward to
safely accommodate our dog. Despite this, we saw her get-
ting worse. Within one week, Nikki broke out two windows
when she saw cats outside. When she was out on her cable
and saw cats, she would nearly choke herself trying to get at
them. We watched, tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It was a matter of weeks before it did. My mother
came for a visit. Because of deep snow, I had to move my
car into the driveway. I was on my way back in when she ran
to the door, screaming my name. Rushing in, I could hear
the dogfight. I ran to the dining room and grabbed Nikki’s
collar, and tried to unclench her jaws from Rita’s throat. It
took several seconds for me to twist and pull her away. I
mmediately crated Nikki, who continued to snarl and bark at
Rita from the crate. Examining Rita, I was amazed and
grateful to find her uninjured.
I knew then that our time with Nikki was over.
What we had dreaded most was now the only option. While
we had never seen Nikki act aggressively toward any person,
her behavior toward other animals was likely to result in their
death. Doing the rescue and sheltering work we do, there are
always other animals around. We could no longer jeopar-
dized their safety. We spent the evening grieving.
Readers of this story might ask, “God! What took
you so long to put that dog to sleep?” It’s a valid question.
Within the Rescue, we’ve euthanized dogs who behaved less
aggressively than Nikki, and I’ve advised many people to
euthanize their unpredictable or aggressive dogs. All I can
say is that we loved her deeply. The pit bull aspect of her
personality, while terribly frightening, seemed miniscule
compared to the dozens of endearing things about her.
People who weren’t dog people loved Nikki. When people
came to adopt our foster dogs, they were taken aback by
Nikki’s friendliness and silly antics, and often asked if they
could adopt her instead. Family members who had long since
stopped trying to keep track of our pets asked about Nikki
regularly. When we had her “before” and “after” pictures on
a Rescue donation jar, she gained fans we’ve yet to meet.
Truthfully, Nikki was adored by everyone who knew her,
and even by some who didn’t know her. The goofy, smiling,
happy, friendly Nikki was the one we couldn’t put to sleep.
Watching the pit bull take her over was like watching a loved
one succomb to mental illness. We denied what was happen-
ing until we just couldn’t any longer.
In the days since Nikki’s death, I find myself mov-
ing between grief and anger. Grief dominates when I think I
hear her barking, or when the boys, out of habit, call to her
to come snuggle with them while they watch TV. My most
tearful time so far was when I moved her crate out of the liv-
ing room. I gathered her blankets and buried my face in
them, breathing her sweet, clean smell, and my chest just
ached. The anger is much easier to deal with. In sadness, I
want to be left alone to cry for hours. In anger, I curse the
twisted idiots who breed these lovable time bombs. I think of
pit bulls who have killed people; killed children. I pity the
animal lovers who, like me, feel compelled to give a pit bull
the benefit of the doubt. The pain we’ve earned in so doing
defies description. I am aware of several other instances,
some within the Rescue, of other pit bulls killing or injuring
animals or people. Sorrow and regret seem almost inevitable
when we’re talking about this breed. I myself vow never to
take on a pit bull again. Should I find one crossing the high-
way, of course I’ll stop and try to get him, or her. And if I
succeed, straight to Animal Control is where I’ll go. Better
for me to euthanize the dog immediately and forever question
myself, than to take such a dog in, grow to cherish him or
her, and then face what we faced with Nikki.
I harbor no anger or blame toward Nikki. She was
as much a victim as her own victims were. My regret is that I
thought she was different, that she was incapable of the vio-
lence her breed is known for. Or maybe I thought we were
different, that if we just gave her enough love, enough disci-
pline, enough something, that love would override her pit
bull instincts. It hurts to admit we were wrong. It hurts to
think that because we took in this animal, our other animals’
lives were threatened. I have yet to admit to myself or to any-
one else that our children could have been in danger.
I know now that pit bulls have their reputation for a
reason. Fear of the breed is not unjustified. And while res-
cuers will be rescuers, I personally will advise my fellow ani-
mal people not to try rehabilitating pit bulls. Your chances of
success are too slim, while your chances of bringing tragedy
upon yourself, your children, and your other animals are too
high. As unpopular as my position might be with my peers, I
believe that a peaceful death is the best we can offer pit bulls.
Nikki’s ashes were scattered at the Special Place, a
serene wooded valley at the back of our property. It is easy to
visualize her there, digging and playing and just being the
goofy dog she was. Nikki loved the Special Place, and she
makes the valley even more Special by being there.
In 1993 Kalamazoo Animal Rescue took in and
found homes for nearly 300 homeless cats and dogs.
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