Two puppies tussling in a government-run canine playpen raise the hope for the happiest of endings for almost two dozen dogs.
They are survivors from what authorities describe as one of Mecklenburg County s largest dog-fighting rings, and many bear physical and emotional scars of their former lives.
Not Marta and Pu-A. The 3-month-old pit bull sisters are being readied for open adoption at the police department s Animal Care & Control. They are healthy, sweet-natured and obvious favorites of the staff and shelter volunteers.
They are also orphans. The pups mother, pregnant at the time, was one of 27 dogs seized in February on Carelock Circle in east Charlotte. Marta and Pu-A were born at the Animal Control shelter.
While the sisters are considered good bets to find new homes, their mother was not. The Animal Control staff believed she was too big a safety risk for adoption, and she was one of the seven so-called Carelock dogs that were put down this spring.
That still left almost two dozen pits with a chance for a new life.
Two have been adopted. Two more will leave this weekend for homes with out-of-state rescue groups. The rest will be cleared for future adoption once they receive more training from local rescue groups or more intensive work with rehabilitation centers in other parts of the country.
Which brings us to the problem: Only two groups have stepped forward, each helping one dog. Almost five months since their rescue, nearly all of the pits remain at Animal Control.
Spokeswoman Melissa Knicely says the dogs were evaluated in late May by a visiting team from a New York rescue foundation. Most were found to be good, if future, candidates for new homes. But Animal Care still has very few places to send them.
The dog-rescue market, as it were, is already glutted with pit bulls, Knicely says, and area rescue groups and national training sites lack the facilities to take on new animals. Animal Control is also brimming with pits, including 15 seized in late January from a fighting ring in Grier Heights.
Even if groups step forward, the long-term prospects of the pits remain murky. Former fighting dogs can carry a permanent stigma for potential new families.
For now, the dogs remained housed out by the airport, taking up time, money and kennel space.
While Knicely says there s no hard deadline for finding the dogs new homes, the shelter is required by law to euthanize them if relocation efforts fail. Last year, the shelter took in more than 16,000 dogs and cats. Almost 10,000 were destroyed.
It really tugs at your heart, Knicely said, as Brono, another of the Carelock dogs, licked her hands. These dogs have had such a hard life up to now, and everybody just wants them to have a good life.
Under the shelter s care, Brono has never lived better. No one can say how long that will last.
Breeder not a fighter
The lives of the pit bulls changed forever on Feb. 8, when police arrived at a backyard in east Charlotte, near Harrisburg and Albemarle roads.
Some of the pit bulls had injuries that appeared to come from fighting, and police said they collected evidence that indicated the yard, not far from an elementary school, was used for training and fighting dogs.
Authorities called it one of the largest dog-fighting operations they had ever investigated something that we never have come across before, especially with the number of animals that were found, Capt. Chris Dozier said at the time.
Lefonze Williams, the dogs owner, and another man were arrested. Williams was later indicted on 36 counts of dog fighting.
His attorney said in court that Williams loved and bred his dogs but didn t fight them, that he sold pit bulls overseas and bought them from as far away as Russia.
In April, Superior Court Judge Hugh Lewis ordered Williams to pay $13,698 so Animal Control could treat, feed and evaluate the animals for a month.
Instead, on May 10, Williams turned them over to Animal Control.
Letting the dogs speak
In other places or other times, that would have amounted to a death sentence. But the Animal Control staff prides itself for taking a more progressive approach that tries to salvage a fighting dog s life.
You can t lump them all into one stereotype, that they re all bad dogs, all aggressive, all killers, says Julia Conner, Animal Control s humane-education officer.
So on the week of May 26, some staff members of the Animal Farm Foundation in New York, which specializes in working with pit bulls, arrived in Charlotte.
Bernice Clifford spent about 45 minutes with each of the dogs and worked with several of the Animal Control staff. She stayed almost four days.
We let the dog speak for him or herself and let us know who they are, said Stacey Coleman, the foundation s executive director. Every single dog needs to be treated as an individual.
A case in point: One of the pits Clifford met went by the name of Hit Man.
Oh my goodness, he was so lovely, just so soft and gentle when we had him in the play yard, Clifford said this week, Just a really, really, really good dog.
Overall, Clifford said, the 30 pit bulls ran the gamut. Some will require extensive retraining and socialization. Others were playing with other dogs in a matter of hours. A few even qualified for immediate adoption.
The foundation s efforts didn t end there. This week it will take two of the animals, Snezha and Juma, to New York for retraining.
Coleman said the New Yorkers were impressed with what the Animal Control staff is trying to do.
The most important part of the story is that folks in Charlotte are part of the future, and this is happening all over the country, she said. We are no longer relying on criminals to tell us who these dogs are. We are seeing them independently. That s the wave of the future, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg is already there.
Back in the Animal Control play yard, Brono is coming to the end of his visit.
Conner, who has worked at Animal Control for nine years, clearly likes the dog, but when asked to assess his future, she answers almost clinically.
He s young, just a year old, and playful, which is always a plus, she says. And his white coat with brown spots gives him a clear advantage over darker-coated dogs. He also has fewer visible scars than many of the other Carelock pits.
She likes his odds.
The question remains: Will anyone else?
Want to help
If you d like to help the Carelock dogs or any other animal at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control, go to the group s website at bit.ly/jMNcTp, or call public information officer Melissa Knicely at 704-336-3627.