Little Red, a Wyoming pit bull with a nationwide following, died three months ago.
Owner Susan Weidel of Laramie, Wyoming, never heard her bark during the five years she had Little Red, but the diminutive American Staffordshire terrier didn’t need a voice to leave a legacy.
Indeed, as part of a cohort of pit bulls rescued from a dogfighting operation run by former NFL quarterback Michael Vick, Little Red helped change the way such dogs are handled. Instead of being automatically euthanized, the large majority of Vick’s kennel were rescued and rehabilitated.
For Weidel, Little Red’s life was a testament to the gentleness of dogs, if given a chance.
“She was always a dog that just wanted to be loved and have a quiet life,” Weidel said. “She didn’t want to fight.”
Little Red, named for her size and brownish-red fur, has more than 16,000 friends on Facebook.
When Weidel posted news of the dog’s death in early April, she received an unexpected outpouring of support from friends and strangers across the country.
She received hundreds of notes, along with gifts and mementos that decorate her house north of Laramie, where she lives with a small pack of rescue dogs.
“I was overwhelmed,” Weidel said.
A new home
Little Red spent the first five years of her life living on a 15-acre plot of land in Virginia with dozens of other pit bulls. She mothered multiple litters of puppies, her teeth were filed down and her body was scarred. Dogs on the property were chained to car axles in the woods.
When authorities busted the dogfighting operation known as Bad Newz Kennels, owned by Vick, in April 2007, they seized 51 dogs, including the one they named Little Red.
Vick was later sentenced to 23 months in federal prison for running the illegal dogfighting ring, and during his trial, details emerged of a gruesome operation where dogs that didn’t perform well were drowned, electrocuted, hanged or otherwise tortured.
Before the Vick bust, it was common practice to euthanize dogs rescued from fighting rings. As unsocialized dogs bred for aggression, they would never be safe around people, the thinking went.
But because of Vick’s celebrity status, the dogs themselves became celebrities, and a public outcry arose to save them. In response to public pressure, a team of animal-behavior experts evaluated the dogs to see if perhaps they could be saved.
The team admitted they hoped to save a handful of dogs, but after evaluating them for socialization and aggressiveness, they decided 48 could be spared. Some were sent to foster care while others, like Little Red, were sent to sanctuaries for professional care.
Little Red was sent to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, where she lived for almost four years.
Weidel, a retired lawyer and former general counsel for the University of Wyoming, is a longtime sanctuary volunteer. When she met Little Red, she fell in love and applied to adopt her.
It was a complicated process: Weidel needed a variety of references; Little Red had to pass a behavior test. When every hurdle was cleared, Little Red moved to Laramie in 2011.
Little Red had a hard time adjusting to her new surroundings and was often frightened by new noises and open spaces. But after a long adjustment phase, she found a new home.
“The first time she took off and started running across the pasture, I started to cry,” Weidel said. “It was such a leap of faith for her.”
Weidel knew Little Red was frail and fighting a host of chronic health conditions, but she didn’t expect her death. The day before she died had been a good one.
“She had a really great day … just dancing around and loving her treats,” Weidel said.
The next day brought unexpected vomiting and a visit to the veterinarian. Little Red spent the day dozing, and as Weidel planned to go to bed that night, she noticed the dog had stopped breathing. She suspected the 14-year-old dog had liver cancer and possibly some internal bleeding.
“I took comfort that she died in her sleep, and she didn’t suffer,” she said.
A new perspective
Author Jim Gorant first wrote about the Vick dogs while covering the story for Sports Illustrated. He followed that effort with “The Lost Dogs,” published in 2011, about their rescue and rehabilitation.
As the 10th anniversary of Vick’s arrest approached, Gorant revisited the dogs in a follow-up called “The Found Dogs,” which is available as a digital download or in paperback. Rather than a book-length narrative, “The Found Dogs” consists of two essays and biographies of each dog.
“There was a question in ‘The Lost Dogs.’ Is this a good idea? What’s going to become of all of this,” Gorant said. “This is an attempt to answer that question.”
On the cover is a photo of Little Red. Gorant chose her for the cover because she typified the trajectory of her cohort. She also proved to be a photogenic subject.
“The story of her and Susan and their connection is really powerful, but also typical of a lot of the stories about people and these dogs and how they connected,” he said.
Not every dog found a happy ending quite like Little Red, but Gorant said the stories are mostly positive. Seven served as therapy dogs, and many others made public appearances to raise awareness about dog fighting.
“I think the success rate was surprising to everyone involved,” he said.
The youngest dogs in the group are now at least 11 or 12, and about half have died.
Gorant said they’ve changed the way fighting dogs are handled. Instead of being viewed as perpetrators, they were seen as victims — a crucial switch in perspective.
“They proved worthy of that,” he said. “It had never been done before, and they showed that it could be done.”
The Humane Society changed its policy regarding such dogs, he said, recommending they be evaluated individually and given a chance. Law enforcement is now more liable to prosecute dog fighting, both because such cases receive public support and because dog fighting generally occurs in conjunction with other drug or gun crimes.
“All that really came about because of this case,” Gorant said.
Little Red had many friends and followers, and she represented something larger than herself. She was also shy and loved to run, eat and curl up on her bed.
“She just was a gentle little dog,” Weidel said.