Michelle bears three small white scars on her black nose, another above her left eye and marks on both her front legs — left by metal grips of a device used to hold her still for forced breeding. A tear in her lower lip has healed nicely after surgery.
Considering where she's been, the tan, 41/2-year-old terrier is lucky. Michelle is one of four dogs at the Baltimore Humane Society in Reisterstown that were seized in an animal cruelty case. These dogs are at last getting a taste of what life might be like as a household pet, learning about walking on a leash, heeding commands, playing dog games that don't leave them bloodied.
As Larry Alston, from whom they and five others were taken, awaits a sentencing scheduled next week, shelter workers say they are preparing the dogs for a new life. Given the nasty reputation of dogs labeled "pit bull" or "pit mix," the people working with the dogs know they could have a tough time finding homes. Many do; on any given day at the Humane Society, about six of every 10 dogs available for adoption fit into this group. At the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter in the city, the number is about eight in 10.
"There's still a stigma attached to pit bulls," said Jen Swanson, the Humane Society executive director.
BARCS' executive director, Jennifer Brause, said she often hears people saying that "they don't want a pit bull" — a term loosely applied to several pure breeds and mixes, including Staffordshire terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, American pit bull yerrier, bulldogs, boxers and even some Labrador retrievers.
The abundance of these dogs in shelters has moved "many animal advocates to take up the cause, because [people are] killing them left and right" when they cannot be adopted, said Marty Sitnick, associate executive director of the Humane Society, a no-kill shelter. "If you like animals, it's a sad situation."
Across the country, advocates are waging a two-pronged campaign to save individual dogs and to polish a tarnished brand.
Some animal welfare advocates say the case of Michael Vick, the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who served 23 months in federal prison for running a dog-fighting ring, helped put a spotlight on the plight of these dogs — perhaps contributing to some shift in public attitude.
"This is kind of a turning point for dogs in this situation," said Chris Schindler, manager of animal fighting investigations for the Humane Society of the United States and a longtime pit bull owner. "Changing minds is helping give these dogs a chance."
Michelle and the other dogs seized from a Woodlawn-area home in the criminal case against Alston are American Staffordshire terriers, a name suggesting the breed's early British ancestry. Originally a blend of bulldog and terrier, the dogs are known for "courage, strength and loyalty," as the Staffordshire Terrier Club of America puts it on its website. Their intelligence and eagerness to please make them easy to train — for laudable or nefarious purposes.
Alston, who turns 37 this month, was keeping dogs at his house on Gwynndale Avenue. According to an affidavit filed by Baltimore County police, a county animal control officer was alerted by an animal welfare official in Beaufort, N.C., where 17 dogs had been taken from Alston on grounds of "cruelty and possible dog fighting." The Beaufort officer reported that Alston had gotten some of the dogs back and moved to Baltimore.
County police and animal control officers visited Alston's place on Nov. 23, 2009. On the front and back porches they found metal cages covered with heavy tarps. Inside the cages were dogs, some whimpering as the officers approached, several badly scarred, all apparently malnourished. The floors of the cages were covered in feces and urine.
The authorities seized seven dogs that day and two more the following February.
In early November 2010, Alston was arrested and booked on 22 counts, including charges of mutilating an animal, illegal drug and weapons charges. Court records show that in August he entered Alford pleas on seven animal mutilation charges, meaning he was not admitting guilt but acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to convict him. The other charges were dropped. His sentencing is scheduled for Tuesday. The maximum penalty would be three years in prison or a $5,000 fine on each count.
Dr. Robert Tishman, a veterinarian who examined the five female and two male dogs seized in November, wrote in typed notes that all the dogs were "severely underfed" and all had "pressure sores" indicating that they "were kept in crates and cages for long periods of time." All of the dogs, he wrote, "had lots of scars of undetermined nature."
One dark-brown-and-white male who has since been named Tippy had some teeth that had been painted silver, Tishman wrote.
The dogs were held at the county animal control shelter in Baldwin and kept there as the case unfolded, through many postponements, said Assistant State's Attorney Adam Lippe.
This spring, local animal advocates who had heard of the case began organizing to try to save the dogs from what they feared would be certain euthanasia if Alston were convicted and forfeited them.
In late September — with Alston's case resolved — the dogs were moved from animal control to a private kennel in Baltimore County. By then, three were dead. Two had broken through a fence at animal control and killed each other, said Mark Clark, a spokesman for animal control. A third was euthanized after a behaviorist brought in by a local pit bull advocate determined that the dog would not be able to adapt to life as a pet.
That left six: five females and one male, the "Pit 6," as they have come to be known: Michelle, Tippy, Bridget, Shelley, Meme and Meris.
On the morning of Sept. 24, a caravan of some 20 animal welfare advocates rolled into the county shelter on Manor Road. Not knowing what to expect of the dogs, Sitnick said, they came equipped with muzzles and spray shield to "keep everybody safe."
The first dog was "all wiggly" with excitement, he said, and was "licking faces, my face. By the time we took the third one out, it was kind of like Woodstock for pit bulls. …These six dogs love people."
Since Oct. 21, four dogs have been moved from the kennel one by one as space opens at the Humane Society. Two remain at the kennel. The dogs are being spayed and neutered and given medical checkups.
Michelle, the first to move, is furthest along the path to being ready for adoption. She's still probably about four to six weeks away, said Sitnick, who is taking part in training her.
Humane Society trainer Kate Silverstein said it's never been a question of trying to cure the dogs of aggression. She and Sitnick said the six dogs have never shown aggression toward people, and it's not clear that they were used for fighting.
The females were surely used for breeding and were overbred, said Dr. Mary Zink, the Humane Society medical director. They might have been used as "bait" dogs, placed between two fighting dogs to get them stirred up.
If not dangerous to people, the dogs are surely unruly and agitated. Most don't know how to walk on a leash; they don't know basic commands; they don't seem to know how to settle down. They have had to learn about playing with toys.
"These dogs have probably never been walked," said Sitnick. "They've never sat in a living room where people are talking. This is like outer space to them."
He was sitting in a visiting room at the "intake center" with Tippy, who arrived from the kennel Oct. 27. The dog with a big muscular chest wriggled with enthusiasm, jumped and lurched from one person to another looking for attention, never sitting still for a moment.
"You can see he needs to be taught some manners," said Sitnick.
Michelle moved this week from the "intake center" to the adoption center. She's still being trained and tested to make sure she's ready to be in a home.
Even when she is ready, she'll come with conditions. The information sheet attached to her cage "introduces" Michelle as a member of the "PIT 6," and mentions that she had a fight with a dog at BHS. For that reason, "I will be unable to go to a home with another dog. For this same reason I also need a home with a fenced in yard."
There are accounts of pit bulls living in harmony with other dogs and cats, including some that were involved in the Vick case. But even a strong advocate of pit bulls such as Ann Russell Ashton, who runs the Adopt-A-Homeless Animal program in Baltimore, acknowledges that "it's extremely fair to say that many of them should not be with other animals."
Ashton said she's been an advocate for pit bulls for 10 years, working chiefly along the East Coast to save animals. She said she knows of many cases of dogs that were probably involved in fighting operations and, after training, adjusted well to life as a household pet. She said she has not heard reports of any of these dogs attacking anyone.
The Vick case presents a mixed picture, although there have not been accounts of any of the dogs involved in that case later attacking a person. The federal court documents show that 49 dogs were released to a court-appointed guardian. One was euthanized right away; the remaining 48 were placed with animal welfare groups across the country.
The most current account of the fate of those 48 dogs unfolds in Jim Gorant's book, "The Lost Dogs," published last year. According to Gorant, 22 of the dogs had been adopted and had adjusted well to home life; 21 were still with the rescue organizations, including some whose behavior had not improved enough for adoption. Five of the dogs died, including one that was euthanized because she proved too aggressive for anyone to handle.
By Gorant's descriptions, however, it appears that many of the dogs in the Vick case had been more severely traumatized and showed more serious behavior problems than the "Pit 6."
Sitnick said the Humane Society is in no rush to put the "Pit 6" up for adoption.
"We need to be extremely conservative in our evaluation of them," he said. "We are going to take our time. ... We want to be able to point to these dogs as an example."