This year’s Traverse City Film Festival brought many animal-related films to the screen. The documentary The Champions was a highlight of the festival for local many animal lovers, showcasing the journey of the Pit Bulls who were seized from NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation. The film follows several dogs through their recovery from their start with animal rescuers to being placed in loving homes. It’s an inspirational story that focuses on the dogs instead of the brutal dog fighting operation. It’s a story of second chances, redemption and hope. Many of these dogs, even after being forced into horrible situations, were not aggressive towards humans. The process of these dogs getting their lives back is more accurately described as “recovery” as was said in the documentary by Susan, Little Red’s owner. The rescuers did everything they could to make each dog comfortable and help them figure out how to be successful, how to survive. Each dog was individual and treated as such, which is apparent in the film.
In April of 2007, more than 50 dogs were seized from Bad Newz Kennels on Michael Vick’s property. Vick and the men involved in the dog fighting ring fought the dogs and also shot, electrocuted and hung dogs who didn’t perform well. Even though PETA and the Humane Society of the United States recommended euthanizing the dogs, most of the Pit Bulls were able to be saved and taken by eight different rescue groups, including Best Friends Animal Society who got 22 of the more traumatized dogs. The documentary, directed and produced by Darcy Dennett, follows the journey of five dogs and their caretakers during their recovery and shows their lives now with their owners. The film also spotlight dogs still at the sanctuary. Founded in 1984, Best Friends is the only national animal welfare organization dedicated exclusively to ending the killing of dogs and cats in America’s shelter and a leader in the no-kill movement. They run the nation’s largest no-kill sanctuary for companion animals, as well as lifesaving programs in partnerships with rescue groups and animal shelters all over the country.
Director and Producer Dennett is a New-York based documentary director producer and cinematographer. In the film’s press kit, she describes how she got involved in The Champions. “In 2008, I was working on National Geographic’s TV series Dogtown and found myself caught up in the drama that would eventually inspire The Champions. As producer of the series, I spent months at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah where their 3,700 acre sanctuary is situated. Through filming countless stories about dogs rescued, I came to understand what Best Friends no-kill philosophy means first-hand: that every animal deserves a second chance, no matter what. While filming the second season of Dogtown, news broke that Michael Vick was implicated in a long-running, illegal dog-fighting ring. The case shone a public light into the shadowy world of dog fighting, where men gather in secret to gamble and force innocent animals to fight to their deaths.”
Dennett continues, “Vick pled guilty to ‘conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture. He served 23 months in prison, none of this was for animal cruelty. Left behind in the aftermath were over 50 Pit Bulls, dogs whose only experience with humans involved fear and brutality. The judicial system had saved them from the fighting ring, but what was our duty to them now? The Humane Society of the United States considered the dogs the most-aggressively trained Pit Bulls in the country and PETA described them as ‘ticking time bomb.’ Both felt the dogs should be killed. A few smaller organizations like BADRAP, a San Francisco-based Pit-Bull rescue organization, stepped up to take the dogs considered more adoptable and Best Friends agreed to take 22 dogs that no one else could, the dogs considered the most difficult. It was a big responsibility and the entire reputation of Pit Bulls as a breed was at stake. We followed Best Friends’ trainers all the way cross country to the East Coast, filming the dogs’ first steps toward a new life at the sanctuary. There was a growing sense that the dogs were the victims, but in the beginning I was fearful while filming with them. But from the moment we started filming, as the Pit Bulls settled into the sanctuary, it quickly became clear that for the most part, the dogs were frightened, abused, under-socialized dogs who were completely misunderstood and deserved a second chance.”
Dennet says, “A small black male named ‘Cherry Garcia’ stands out in my mind more than the others. Cherry was terrified of everything around him. The dog had probably never known a kind gesture or wood, the stability of being fed twice a day, the comfort of a warm bed or toy, or the smallest shred of pleasure. When anyone came near, his body would hit the floor like a soldier under attack. We followed Cherry’s trainers for months, as they worked tirelessly to demonstrate that three was much more to life than just fear. We all hoped for rehabilitation and perhaps one day, adoption for some of the dogs. Years passed and life moved on, though I continued to follow the dogs’ story out of personal interest. A few years later, I attended a fundraising event organized by Best Friends called ‘Strutt Your Mutt.’ As the event drew to a close, I noticed a couple holding a small black Pit Bull on a leash – tail wagging happily as he interacted with people around him. I recognized that we had filmed with the couple during the course of Dogtown, but it took me a few moments to realize that the dog they had adopted at the end of the leash was Cherry – a Pit-Bull who was once so traumatized that he refused to even walk! Here was Cherry, a dog who had experienced so much trauma, but had learned to trust people and enjoy life. The transformation was beyond anything I could have imagined possible and looking back, through contradictory tears of realization and disbelief, it was in that moment that Cherry inspired me to make The Champions. Cherry’s story, and the story of the dogs, HAD to be told.”
Once the decision was made to do the documentary, another three years were spent on editing, fundraising, marketing and other necessary tasks to get the documentary finished and ready for the public. Bennett, who’s love for animals has gotten stronger since her involvement with Best Friends, ended up adopting a Pit Bull mix and two cats.
There were two screenings of The Champions at the Traverse City Film Festival and movie-goers got the extra treat of not only being able to meet and talk with the director, they also got to meet Best Friends co-founder Francis Battista and one of the dogs in the documentary, Cherry, and his owners Paul and Melissa Fiaccone. Cherry and his owners were brought to Traverse City by Pilots and Paws so that Cherry wouldn’t have the stress of having to travel in the cargo of a commercial airline plane.
Cherry, who now has his own Facebook page like many of the Michael Vick dogs do, was unsure of his home environment when he was adopted and first went to live with her new “parents” but they gave him the opportunity to be comfortable and guided him through scary noises and unexpected movements around him. One thing that helped Cherry build trust with others was letting his “fans” give him treats at public events. That was certainly obvious – and successful – in Traverse City. When they brought Cherry into their home, The Fiaccone’s had another Pit-Bull named Madison who showed Cherry the ropes and how to enjoy life as a spoiled dog. Madison has since passed away and the Fiaccone’s adopted a new Pit-Bull in March. Cherry is about 11 years old and was the third Michael Vick dog to be adopted out of the Best Friends sanctuary. Adopting a “Michael Vick” dog was no easy task. The screening included background checks, and stipulation from the court which included fencing, insurance, a dog door and a court ordered trainer. Cherry also has his own cardiologist and when he needed a leg removed in March due to pain from an ACL tear, five veterinarians looked over the case and recommended the amputation. Helping the Fiaccone’s with their journey is the ability to communicate with others who have adopted a Michael Vick dog through an email chain. Many also were able to meet during a “reunion” at Best Friends Animal Society in 2003 and caregivers at the sanctuary were able to see how great the dogs were doing and how much their time with them meant to the owners and the dogs. Cherry and his owners go to many public events because their believe they have been an opportunity to give back. They commented how it’s hard to know how many lives Cherry has touched –they’ve heard many stories about how people have been inspired to overcome personal issues after learning about Cherry’s life and how he was able to thrive.
During the question and answer session after the screening of The Champions, Battista talked about how Best Friends Animal Society was started by people who wanted to “change the world.” That has certainly been the case over the years with their involvement in saving so many animals, taking care of animals who couldn’t be adopted, advocating animal welfare legislation, running animal rescue sites after Hurricane Katrina and more. Battista commented that the Katrina operation was a good model which helped them work with the Michael Vick dogs years later. They were able to organize a plan and document their progress. Battista said that one of many positive outcomes of the Michael Vick situation was that it brought public attention to dog fighting. It allowed Best Friends to show the real character of the dogs by treating them as individuals. The same caregivers kept a chart of the dog’s progress, so even though it was subjective, it was consistent by being done by the same caregiver. Best Friends wanted the documentation of the dogs done in full public view – for the sake of the dogs, the organization and any future dogs who might end up in a similar situation. The fact that these dogs needed to be treated as individuals was the main point of the film. There are not only variations outside of different breeds, there are variations within breeds as well. Each dog has their own personality and needs. Best Friends worked hard to help these Pit Bulls discover what kind of dog they were truly born to be.
Currently, Michigan has legislation pending to ban breed discrimination in our cities that would have an impact on Pit Bull owners. It passed the Senate the end of last year and is still waiting for action in the House. It prohibits local governments from enforcing an ordinance that imposes regulations or restrictions on dogs solely on their breed or type (such as Pit Bulls or Dobermans). Pet owners know what the film reinforces – that all dogs should be treated as individuals and not put into any sort of “category” of good or bad dogs.
Locally, AC PAW founders June and Brian, inspired by the film, ended up saving and personally fostering two older dogs recently who are older and might have been euthanized at their county shelter. Just like the Fiaccone’s said in Traverse City, you never know who gets inspired along this journey.
For those of you who weren’t able to see the documentary, you can get it online here. You will be impressed and inspired by the great stories, beautiful cinematography and music. Each dog even has their own music!