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It's wonderful to see a grinning dog run through a field or napping with their favorite person. To see a formerly abused dog enjoying these pleasures is something even more: it's a powerful argument in favor of second chances.
Not long ago, dogs rescued out of fighting situations were euthanized, by default. It was thought they were too dangerous and too damaged to live safely and happily out in the world.
That changed in 2008, when advocates convinced a federal judge to allow the Michael Vick dogs to be individually evaluated, so they could be rehabilitated and adopted into homes, where appropriate.
The so-called "Vicktory dogs" proved that dogs are the most forgiving, most resilient creatures.
We intended to share a dozen stories of dogs rescued out of fighting -- one for each of these states, to show how utterly wrong it is to rescue a dog, and then penalize the animal for having been abused. But we couldn't quite keep ourselves to 12. Each of these survivors is too inspiring to leave behind.
Princess Tia was rescued on Thanksgiving in 2012, as part of a massive dog fighting bust called Operation Broken Chain.
Jill Foster, a middle school counselor in Tennessee, took the then-nevous and severely underweight pup in temporarily, she thought at the time, through the group Nashville Pittie.
But the pup soon became an important part of the household, which includes Foster's mother and Sam the poodle. The sweet, stubborn, loving, still-sometimes-timid pit bull was home.
"Tia is like a different dog from when she was rescued. She is a petite 28 pounds of energy and fun. Not once have I every regretted Tia becoming part of my family," says Foster. "I couldn't imagine my life without her."
Monet is one of the "Fearing Six" -- a half-dozen dogs found chained and caged in a Toledo home in 2013.
The dogs' owner was convicted of five felony counts of dog fighting. The dogs themselves were the first in Lucas County, Ohio, not to be euthanized as a matter of course, after being seized under these circumstances.
After evaluations, two were euthanized for aggression toward humans. The other four were given the chance at a better life.
Monet is one of the lucky four. She now lives in Cleveland with Sarah Greywitt and Fred Mowery, who say their girl is incredibly smart and loving, and has a propensity for stealing socks out of the laundry basket.
"She's taught us so much about cooperation and companionship. She is a lover, and there is nothing like dog love," says Mowery. "It's been a long road for her, but when we see Monet curled up under a blanket in the house sleeping peacefully, you know she feels safe. We love her very much and we are proud she's a member of our family."
In 2011, Birdie was discovered tied up to a porch in Chicago. She bore the sorts of scars and injuries that indicate she'd been used in dog fighting.
Birdie was brought to the city shelter and slated for euthanasia. But Alicia Boemi, then with the rescue group Found Chicago, couldn't bear for this to be Birdie's end.
"This small pittie with scars everywhere and a big 'E' on her cage for euthanasia was furiously wagging her tail," she says.
Amy Haynes and her husband, Nate, had been looking for a dog to adopt through Found Chicago. Birdie's past made them nervous, at first.
Once they'd made the commitment to give this dog all the love and structure she needed to thrive, they found themselves with "the most beautiful, glorious dog in the world," says Haynes.
"Unabashedly affectionate, hilarious, loving, playful, totally devoted," she says. "How a creature that is so full of love could have been mistreated so brutally -- and healed from the experience -- is pretty astounding."
Homer is one of the "367 dogs," who in 2013 were rescued out the second-largest multi-state dog fighting bust this country has seen.
Homer emerged scared and shut down. He, along with two of the other survivors, went to live at the nonprofit group Bark Nation's foster facility in Detroit, where they were loved and socialized, and given the time and tools to become the dogs they were born to be.
Sydney Koehl, a Michigan-based artist and student, fell in love with Homer last summer while visiting Bark Nation.
The feeling was mutual.
"When Sydney arrived, Homer walked straight up to her," says Bark Nation's Kelly McLaughlin. "He seemed to be at peace in her presence, which was something we had never experienced before. It was truly beautiful."
It still took nearly a year more for the dog to complete his rehabilitation and to be available for adoption. The wait was worth it.
Homer went home in May, with a doggie bag full of his favorite things, like spray cheese, treats and toys.
As a full-time pet, he's proved to be "extremely silly," says Koehl, and a terrific companion. He is sometimes shy around strangers, but once he is ready, "he is so gentle and sweet."
Homer's made Koehl's life better, too.
"Life is hard but it's like Homer has taught me to use and take everything for the better rather than keep a negative attitude," Koehl says. "Dogs just have a way of showing you the life you deserve to live."
The first time Lea Fritz met her dog, Alice, she didn't even notice her scars.
It was 2011. Fritz was at the Delaware SPCA looking for a pit bull to be her new companion. Alice caught her eye.
"She looked so sad, head hanging down, shy," Fritz says.
The dog had been rescued about six months earlier, along with seven other dogs and five puppies, from a fighting situation. She was still physically and emotionally worn out.
Fritz sat on the ground and held out her arm, so Alice could sniff her.
"She walked right over and tucked her head in my armpit, and I just wrapped my arms around her and started crying," Fritz says. "That was it. We found each other."
Fritz notices the scars now. They make her hate whoever it is who is responsible for marking her dog's beautiful face, but they also give her hope.
"Alice is inspiring. She has come from such a hurtful and scary past, yet exudes such love and joy for life," she says. "Just like people, a dog can leave a bad situation and appreciate their newfound happiness."
Bonzai was one of the so-called "Cleveland 27" -- 27 chained, injured, sick and malnourished dogs, discovered in a suspected dog fighter's basement in late 2011.
The dogs' owner went on to serve six months in jail, while the dogs themselves won their first taste of freedom.
Sandy Smith knew that Bonzai could have serious medical and behavioral problems, relating to his past abuse. She was concerned about how he'd get along with her other five dogs, as well.
But when she saw him at the shelter, she couldn't not take him home.
"He looked at me with such misery, and with such hope that maybe I was going to take him out of that place, that I immediately fell in love with him and I knew that I would move heaven and earth to keep him safe and help him learn how to be a happy dog," Smith says.
Indeed, with time and training, "Bonzai learned how to be a dog."
"He experienced joy. He felt safe. He knew love and he radiated love," says Smith. "He was the most amazing creature I have ever known, the most heartbreaking, broken animal who was reborn and beautiful."
Bonzai died in June. Smith says he changed her life, in the few years they had together.
"He taught me to be patient because he needed to experience life in his own way, at his own pace. He taught me what true forgiveness meant," she says. "He taught me unconditional love."
Jacqueline Johnson's most famous dog is Ray, who was one of the 51 dogs rescued out of Michael Vick's dog fighting operation in 2007.
Back then, dogs rescued from fighting were euthanized as a matter of course. At the time of his rescue, advocates had to fight hard for Ray and the others to be given the chance to live.
Ray recently died. His good life with Johnson and her husband, Kevin, helped prove to the world that being abused shouldn't lead to a death sentence. That it is right, and safe, for dogs to be given a second chance.
Johnson and her husband have two other, slightly less high-profile dog fighting survivors, as well.
McCaela the Turtle is another of the Fearing Six dogs.
Bubba G -- found in Denver in March, with horrific injuries consistent with dog fighting -- came to live with the couple about a month and a half after Ray's death.
All three of the dogs are characters, with different quirks and different personalities, but one big thing in common.
"These dogs know what a bad life looks like," Johnson says. "And they appreciate their new lives more than I can explain."
Peyton was sick, scarred and scared after his rescue from a Baltimore dog fighting bust in 2010. Despite his horrific upbringing, staff from the shelter where he was placed found Peyton -- and his fellow survivors -- to be "loving and friendly."
In January 2011, Eric Vocke and his wife, Kate, founders of the nonprofit Baltimore Bully Crew, took Peyton home.
"We were new to rescue at the time [but] our path was clear, these particular dogs being so tortured and abused were the ones we really wanted to work with," Vocke said.
Peyton still has some health problems relating to his abusive past, but in his home and with his family, he has thrived. He's now a certified Canine Good Citizen -- that means he's passed a series of personality and behavioral tests -- on top of being a marvelous companion and an inspiration.
"Every day is truly a blessing with Peyton," Vocke says. "He shows me every day how much he loves life and how much it is worth living."
Sweet Pea was found in terrible shape, on a trash heap in New Jersey this past April. She was very badly injured, with swaths of raw skin and a missing ear. Because of her injuries, it's thought the animal had been used and then abandoned by dog fighters.
In the short time since, she's become a poster dog for dog fighting awareness in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie just signed legislation making dog fighting a criminal offense. She's also a canine blood donor, helping other injured pups heal.
Sweet Pea is now under the care of foster mom Kathy McGuire, president of the nonprofit NJ Aid for Animals, who has discovered that this dog rather astoundingly emerged from a bad past to be agreeable in just about every way (except one: Sweet Pea doesn't like cats).
"She likes the car, walks, jogging, sleeping, watermelon, swimming," says McGuire. "She is curious about everything, loves every single person she meets, including small children, sleeps soundly and snores and you can prod and poke and do just about everything."
Next step: taking all that charm and all those snores to a permanent home. Here's information about adopting Sweet Pea.
Rachel Johnson has a long list things she really loves about her dog Oscar, one of the 51 dogs rescued in 2007 from the Michael Vick dog fighting bust. Among them: listening to him snore, sniffing his frito-scented feet and their morning butt-scratching ritual.
"He comes over to me, turns his body away, and luxuriates in a good butt scratch," Johnson says. "When he’s had enough, he simply walks away."
Oscar passed his Canine Good Citizen test before Johnson adopted him in 2012, and he loves being around other dogs. Johnson loves meeting those dogs' owners, especially those who tirelessly work to make a better world for dogs like Oscar -- pit bulls and canine victims of abuse.
"Sharing my life with Oscar has brought so many wonderful people and experiences into my life," she says. "Without even trying, Oscar has taught me to be more compassionate and empathetic. There is a lot of evil in the world, but instead of dwelling on it, I look at the good that is being done to combat that evil."
Karma was one of the 400 dogs rescued as part of the 2009 "Missouri 500" dog fighting bust. She was probably a breeder dog for the dog fighters, since she was pregnant at the time of her rescue.
Karma was physically well, but emotionally fraught, when Cliff Froehlich and Ledy VanKavage adopted her.
"She was scared of everything. On our first walk, at a trail near our house, she flattened to the ground at the first sight of a car, and it required a lot of time before she was able to go on walks without fear," Froehlich said.
Over time, and with a lot of love, their girl came out of her shell. Today, Froelich describes Karma as "an absolute delight."
She is an friendly, enthusiastic companion, who loved going running (until a torn ligament benched her). She and the couple's cats even like grooming one other.
And best of all, Karma "loves, loves, loves people. She’s never met a person whom she doesn’t cover with kisses," Froelich says.
He is so glad to give Karma the life she deserves.
"These dogs have been abused, pure and simple. They did not ask to be part of a dog fighting ring; they’ve been forced into the situation," he says. "When they are rescued from such terrible fates, it seems incumbent on us to make every effort to bring them into loving homes and show them that not all humans behave in such reprehensible fashion."
Lester spent the first six months of his life chained up outside, until he was freed in 2014, as part of a dog fighting bust involving 38 dogs.
Lester was fearful when he went to his first foster home, through the rescue group Nashville Pittie. Within a year, he started showing a lot of pep -- maybe even a little too much, toward his canine foster siblings.
About a month ago, Lester went to live with a new foster dad, Corey Macey, and Macey's cat, named Cat.
Lester still shows anxiety when he meets new people. But Macey says that once he's comfortable, the doggie "is the biggest cuddler I have ever seen."
That includes cuddling with Cat, too.
"Nashville Pittie has allowed me to help give Lester a second chance and in return it makes me want to make sure Lester has the best chance at being a happy puppy," says Macey. "I think every underdog has the capability of being on top when given the right circumstances."
Bumper and Willis are the famous "pit bulls in a photo booth" doggies.
They are also both dog fighting survivors.
Bumper, the kisser, had been rescued from a St. Louis man who was trying -- unsuccessfully -- to fight her. She was adopted by Kelly Garrison and her husband, Jason, in 2009.
Willis, the kissee, was born to a dog who was pregnant at the time of her rescue from the Missouri 500 dog fighting bust. He joined the family in 2010.
Garrison says that living with these dogs for these years has been an incomparable joy.
"The best part of having them in our lives is the unconditional love they give us and the beautiful bond that grows between us," she says. "They also teach us what true forgiveness is."
Fay -- another of the Missouri 500 dogs; she became famous for her sweet disposition and missing lips -- is just one of the many, many dog fighting victims who's come through Gale Frey's home.
Frey is founder of a St. Louis-based nonprofit called Mutts N Stuff. Since the rescue group began in 2000, Frey has adopted some dog fighting victims, fostered others, rehabilitated and found homes for more still.
Sugarbear was the first. Rescued out of a drug bust in 2001, she was scarred, had clearly been overbred and was heartworm positive with skin ailments that the fighters had treated with motor oil.
"She became part of our family and lived until she was 15 years of age," says Frey.
Fay died in 2009.
"She was as sweet as she could be even though horribly disfigured by mankind," says Frey. "Fay now resides on my shelf. Safe from harm. Safe from those who wanted to exploit her. In a spot of honor and forever loved."
Leo went from Michael Vick's dog fighting operation, to becoming a registered therapy dog.
"Leo made a huge impact on the world by changing hearts and minds everywhere, being the first to be a therapy dog out of the Vick case," says his adopter, dog trainer and rescuer Marthina McClay, hugging her baby in the photo above.
Leo died in 2011, of brain disease.
"Leo was my working partner, friend and family loved one and I will never forget how wonderful he was," McClay wrote in a blog post, at the time.
Today she says the same.
"He was enthusiastic about life, fun, playful and very loving. He loved to cuddle and watch TV with us. His big head would lay on our laps and then he was start to snore, that was the best part. He also love to snuggle in bed," McClay says. "Leo was a sweet soul with a lot of love to give."
Gabe Bravo and his wife, Nicole, met Acadia at a Florida vegetarian festival last winter. They felt a spark of interest right away.
Cadi can be nervous around people she doesn't know but is loving with Bravo and Nicole, and she can't get enough of playing with other dogs.
Her new family can't get enough of her.
"It is rewarding to know that you can make a difference in a dog’s life that really needed it," Bravo says. "Cadi is a special dog. We love her."
Rebekah Batyah Freedman wasn't sure that Pork Chop would ever be OK.
Pork Chop is one of the 65 dogs rescued on Thanksgiving 2012, as part of Operation Broken Chain. At first, he was scared to eat and didn't wag his tail, he just seemed to want to disappear into the floor.
"I remember walking with an empty paper towel roll and when he saw it he cowered so quickly, it made me want to cry," says Freedman.
Some two years later, these problems have not entirely gone away. Pork Chop isn't great with people he doesn't know and he can't go to dog parks. When he's feeling unsure, he hides.
But he's feeling unsure less often, and for shorter amounts of time. And the rest of the time, he's wonderful.
"He is one of the silliest and sweetest doggies I've ever known," says Freedman.
On sunny days, Pork Chop loves hanging out and nibbling grass in the yard at the Nashville home Freedman shares with her boyfriend, Jared, and their other dog Lola. The couple teases that he is part cow.
Pork Chop also loves to gaze out the front window. He loves smooching and snuggling and romping with Lola. He loves following Freedman around, from room to room, being close to his favorite person.
"He persevered," says Freedman. "Pork Chop has shown me what the power of love can do."
Rhode Island-based dog trainer Heather Gutshall has two dogs rescued from fighting.
Handsome Dan is a former Vick dog -- who is indeed, a gorgeous boy.
Tillie is one of the so-called 367 dogs. She came out with bad medical problems -- among them, bowed legs and a body riddled with tumors.
Tillie also came out with the gentlest, friendliest disposition you've ever come across. She wears pearls around her neck, and a big smile on her face.
Gutshall, along with these two dogs, advocated for Rhode Island to become the most recent state to de-stigmatize dogs rescued out of fighting.
It worked. Lawmakers took action, and as of July, dogs rescued out of fighting are no longer deemed vicious under the law in Rhode Island.
Now there are just 12 states left, that continue to punish dogs like Handsome Dan and Tillie, and all these others, for the terrible things that have been done to them.
"Dan and Tillie just want to be dogs," says Gutshall. "We are so happy that sharing their lives and stories of success will help other survivors of dog fighting have the same chance at a happy life. "
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Lester was said to have been freed as part of Operation Broken Chain.