Kathleen Price with her pit bull, Jhumpa Jones, who was rescued from
Michael Vick's dog fighting ring in Virginia.
A stranger enters the room and the thick black pit bull slumps to the floor and lets out a faint growl from behind the gate to the kitchen.
Kathleen Pierce tells her dog, Jhumpa Jones, that it's OK. The gate opens. Jhumpa slowly stands up, trots toward the unfamiliar face, looks up with her soft, dark eyes and follows Pierce and her visitor to the kitchen table.
"Here," Pierce says, handing the stranger a package of string cheese.
Jhumpa leaps at the stranger's lap before she sits. Her tongue is dangling out of the side of her mouth as she bows at the stranger's hand. Jhumpa licks a small piece of mozzarella out of the stranger's fingertips, smiles, and sits down for more.
"That's it," Pierce says. "You guys are good now."
Pierce says Jhumpa has gained about 25 pounds since the day she was seized from the backyard of the home owned by NFL quarterback Michael Vick in Smithfield, Va.
"I spoil her rotten," Pierce says. "I can't help it."
Pierce estimates Jhumpa is six years old. Likely born on Vick's property, there is no record of her birth. No one knows what Jhumpa saw or what she went through at Bad Newz Kennels, the clandestine dog fighting ring financed by the football superstar.
One of 47 pit bulls formerly owned by Vick that were released to animal sanctuaries or adopted by foster homes, Jhumpa has been living with four other dogs and four cats at Pierce's Slingerlands home for three years.
"Once she saw the other dogs, she relaxed and started acting like any old dog," said Pierce, who said Jhumpa was timid around other humans at first. "She had never been around other people before."
Pierce didn't tell anyone outside of her family about Jhumpa's background until a year after she adopted her.
"When I went down to see her for the first time, in my head I thought she was going to be just this massive, massive dog," said Pierce. "But, I looked into her crate and all I saw was this winsome, wise beyond her years, innocent dog. There was spirit oozing out of her eyes."
The dogs recovered from Vick's property were the first group of pit bulls recovered from a dog-fighting ring that were not euthanized.
Vick's pit bulls were held as evidence at six different animal control sites in Virginia from the day they were seized to the end of his trial -- he ended up serving behind bars -- in October 2007. Dogs were kept in individual cages for six months, never let out. Cages were hosed down with the dogs inside and they were never handled by humans.
Intense media coverage of the case stirred such a response to save the dogs that they were each individually tested by experts to see if and where they could be placed into adoption.
"In a strange way, because Michael Vick was who he was and the case got so much attention, the dogs were able to be saved in the end," said Cydney Cross, the co-founder and president of Out of the Pits, a non-profit organization based in Albany that rescues pit bulls and places them into foster homes.
Out of the Pits was one of the dozens of animal rescue organizations that applied for adoption rights for the pit bulls. Cross was allowed to bring in two dogs, both of which had to be eased into domestication at veterinary clinics for six months before they could be placed into homes.
Cross said Jhumpa stood upright in her crate for the entire eight-hour ride from Virginia to upstate New York in October of 2007.
"She just stared straight ahead. She was frozen," said Cross. "There was no life in her eyes. They were flat"
Jhumpa was slowly rehabilitated at Troy Veterinary Hospital.
"She wouldn't walk at first," said Pierce, who was contacted by Cross to possibly adopt Jhumpa in March of 2008. "The girls at the vet would call her 'Pancake,' because she'd just freeze and lie on the ground when they tried to take her outside."
Pierce and Cross think Jhumpa may have been used exclusively for breeding and not for fighting. Jhumpa had a few scars, but not as many as a pit bull used for fighting would have typically. However, her uterus is stretched more than normal.
Hazel, the other pit bull seized from Bad Newz Kennelz and placed into adoption by Cross, nearly died because her uterus was so severely damaged and infected. Hazel lives in Vermont with a woman who only wanted to be identified as Sally, fearing Hazel may be stolen or harmed if people knew she was a "Vick dog." Sally and Cross believe Hazel, who moves with a limp from a previously broken leg and has a sleek black coat, may be Jhumpa's mother but there is no way to tell.
Jhumpa and Hazel have never bitten another dog or person since being seized. Neither has Hector, a pit bull rescued from Vick's property by the California rescue group Bad Rap and placed into the care of Andrew Yori in Amenia, N.Y. Hector, who's is believed to be six years old and has a caramel-colored coat, scars up and down his stomach and legs, and several missing teeth.
"Honestly, I was a little hesitant and a concerned at first because of all the scars," Yori said about adopting the dog. "I know they killed the dogs that didn't win. He had to do something to stay alive."
Yori said Hector wrestles, sleeps and plays with his five other dogs without incident.
"They're great teachers for us," Pierce said. "All of these dogs come from neglectful, abusive situations. But, somehow, they just don't lose their love of life."
By Bryan Fitzgerald
Photos by Michael P. Farrell/Times Union