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Pet Tales

Giving a home and second chance at life to 'killer pit bull'

Wednesday, October 27, 1999

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

They branded him a "killer pit bull" and said he must die because there was no hope he could ever be anyone's pet.

For 18 months his world was a windowless 4- by 6-foot pen at the Animal Rescue League's East Liberty shelter.

For 18 months he never felt the warmth of the sun or the touch of a human hand. Shelter staff and volunteers were not permitted to walk him or give him a name.

On Friday the 13th of August, the nameless dog had "only hours left to live," said the prosecutor who made an 11th-hour plea for a stay of execution for the dog she calls Big Boy.

At that point, the dog's life took on a fairy-tale quality, complete with a happy ending.

Assistant District Attorney Deborah Jugan won the support of George Bills, a criminal defense attorney whose job typically pits him against prosecutors.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty against 15 of his clients "but not one of them was executed," Bills told me three weeks ago, as he volunteered to represent his 16th death-row client. "It has become my mission to save this dog."

But it would take a village to save a dog who killed a pit bull puppy and was deemed dangerous and unadoptable by officials at Animal Rescue League.

Big Boy was 18 months old when he was sent into the fighting pit with an 8-month-old puppy.

"Big Boy is as much a victim as the pup that died," Jugan told anyone who would listen. She admits he probably should not live amid children or other pets.

Lawyers who call Jugan "Doggie DA" jumped on the Big Boy bandwagon. So did a judge, a local dog-breeder/trainer and a Texas woman who operates the largest pit bull rescue effort in the country.

Animal Rescue League officials complained that the 65-pound black dog was taking up space that could be used for nicer dogs. They said it costs $8 per day to keep a dog at the East Liberty shelter.

Jugan gave them $80, defense attorney Steve Swem donated $40 and legal secretary Suzanne Filiaggi donated $20. Jugan figured $140 would keep Big Boy alive for 17 more days.

Bills went to Common Pleas Judge Kathleen A. Durkin, who had handled the cases of the two men charged with animal cruelty for staging the dog fight. Jugan prosecuted them. Marlo Robinson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail. Almasi Billings was convicted and sentenced to 14 months to five years.

Animal Rescue League officials, court-ordered to keep the dog till the trials ended, asked Durkin to sign an order allowing them to kill Big Boy.

Durkin refused. Instead, she signed an Oct. 6 order for Bills to take Big Boy "for walks and outings away from the shelter ... to facilitate possible adoption."

"If I live to be 100, I will never forget the look on that dog's face when he saw the sky and the grass for the first time in 18 months," Bills said.

I was with Bills when he made his second and third visits.

The battle-scared face of the "killer pit bull" lit up and his skinny tail wagged furiously when Bills put a collar over his head.

He dragged Bills toward the door, ignoring the sad-eyed dogs whose cages lined his exit route. Once outside he put his paws on Bills chest and slathered his face with sloppy dog kisses. Then he gave me the same treatment.

Pit bulls are famous, in circles of knowledgeable dog people, for the love and loyalty they bestow on anyone who shows them a smidgen of kindness.

They are smart and extremely willing to please, which is why they fight when told to do so. Those same qualities make them good candidates for rehabilitation. They were bred to be dog-aggressive and people-friendly.

Big Boy and Bills are clearly smitten with each other. Bills would love to take him home to Fox Chapel.

But Beau and Caesar -- the attorney's Doberman pinschers -- are 8 years old, which is elderly by Dobe standards. They're not likely to accept a new dog on their turf.

Jugan and her husband already have rescued two dogs -- Moose, a Doberman mix and Sweetie, a Lab mix.

Here's where I became a small cog in this rescue effort. I told this story to Lora Bauer of Ambridge. She owns one American pit bull terrier and two American Staffordshire terriers, the betterbred up-town "relatives" of street fightin' dogs.

She's looking for homes for Blossom and Annie, two abused pit bulls the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society released to her custody.

Bauer called Leah Purcell at Spindletop Rescue in Houston, Texas. Though the one-woman operation already has 45 homeless dogs, she wants to take in Big Boy and Blossom, who was earlier featured in Pet Tales.

In the past 14 years, Purcell, 32, has saved 300 pit bulls and Am Staffs.

She keeps them for three months to two years. She trains, socializes and places them with people who know how to handle these breeds.

Spindletop graduates have caused no lawsuits. They have not bitten or attacked anyone. In 14 years Purcell has put down five dogs because, she said, they were irredeemably aggressive toward people.

Her monthly kennel expenses are $3,500 to $4,000. She receives $3,000 to $4,000 per year in donations. She runs a boarding kennel and a cleaning service and uses all of her profits to help the dogs.

Bills is buying Big Boy an airline ticket to Houston. He expects to ship him to Spindletop this week. He's also sending a $1,000 check.

"My next dog will be from Spindletop," says Bills, 54, a lifelong dog owner and a former breeder of Weimaraners.

To be fair to the Animal Rescue League, about 12,000 dogs and cats are sheltered there each year. About half are placed in new homes and the rest are euthanatized.

Many shelters euthanatize every pit bull and rottweiler that comes through their doors. Liability is a major concern, as is the fear the dogs will be used in dog fights.

Pit bulls are usually portrayed in the media as the devil dogs from hell. Jugan, Bills and Purcell hope Big Boy will prove that many of these dogs deserve a chance to live and a chance to love.

To contact Spindletop Rescue, call 713-856-6246 or write them at Spindletop, PMB 106, 10807 Jones Road, Houston, 77065. The Web site is: http://www.geocities.com/thepitbullrescue



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