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Pit bulls traumatized by life in dogfighting ring find a caring foster home in Maryland

The Baltimore Sun

Daisy and Lili gingerly padded around the fenced-in backyard yesterday afternoon, still a little nervous at their new surroundings.

The sweet-tempered pit bulls rescued from the stable of fighting dogs once overseen by former NFL standout Michael Vick are still shaking off their traumatic experience, said Catalina Stirling, a longtime advocate for ill-treated animals and the dogs' new foster "mom."

"I've worked with a lot of abused dogs," Stirling said. "But these dogs had really shut down."

Anything but aggressive, caramel-colored Daisy and Lili arrived for a temporary stay at Stirling's Western Maryland home last month completely docile. A still-shy Lili had initially been so frightened that workers at a temporary shelter put a tent inside her personal kennel to reassure her.

A federal court handed three dogs over to Recycled Love Inc., a volunteer nonprofit organization based in Baltimore devoted to saving unwanted dogs and cats. Until Friday, groups in Utah, Georgia, California, Maryland and elsewhere had been unable to provide details about the 47 dogs taken from Vick and placed in their care because of a court gag order.

Concerned about someone who might want to steal a "Vick dog," Recycled Love nevertheless allowed a reporter and photographer to visit two dogs on the condition that their new hometown not be disclosed. A third dog is in the Baltimore area, officials said.

Group members believe the two dogs in Western Maryland were used as breeders, and not combatants, for Vick's dogfighting ring. Still, Daisy's snout is flecked with small scars.

It's evidence, dog advocates say, of the rescued dog's rough encounters with other pit bulls.

Motivated by the city's pet overpopulation and cases of abuse, neglect, and abandonment, the animal advocacy group currently has 53 dogs placed in foster homes and has helped hundreds more since its founding three years ago, according to Recycled Love President Paul De Santis.

The news about Vick's Bad Newz Kennels came last year when the Atlanta Falcons quarterback was charged with illegal dogfighting.

Under his watch, poorly performing dogs were killed, often using extreme violence. Vick is now serving a 23-month sentence in federal prison.

Many of the 52 pit bulls seized from Vick's property were examined by experts and placed at a sanctuary in Utah to live out their days. But the others now in the care of other animal groups such as Recycled Love may be ready in the near future for adoption after passing a behavior test.

Recycled Love Vice President Karen Reese said that she was heartened because experts at first had recommended that many of the Vick dogs be euthanized, a decision later overturned by other animal behaviorists.

In Maryland, Lili was so skittish that Stirling spent days trying to persuade the dog to go on a walk. But now the strolls outside are the brightest part of her days, Stirling said.

Though they have two children younger than age 4, Stirling and her husband, Davor Mrkoci, said they had no qualms about taking in Daisy and Lili after meeting them in a Washington shelter.

Stirling said her love of dogs started during childhood, when her German shepherd, Malebo, would walk with her to school and then walk himself back home.

She has been taking in dogs with problematic histories for more than 10 years.

Stirling said the family did not give Daisy and Lili the run of the house.

The pit bulls, she said, are kept in a finished basement in the home with ample time for play in the family's backyard and two long walks a day in the neighborhood. The family has two other dogs, including a blind cocker spaniel.

The sight of Stirling or her husband walking two pit bulls has already attracted some attention.

"Some people see us and cross the street," Stirling said. "But others come right up and ask about them. I mean, look at them. They're so sweet and so beautiful. They wouldn't harm anyone."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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