MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — It’s a dog’s life. And for Leo it couldn’t be better.
Leo — rescued from heavy chains that confined him as one of the pit bulls in former NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring — is a lover, not a fighter. He now happily frolics in a clown collar as he makes the rounds at the Camino Infusion Center, where he brings comfort to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Despite his training as a killer, Leo is a sweetheart as he visits his friends on the ward.
“He is wonderful, and all the patients love Leo,” said Paula Reed, the facility’s oncology director. “They really love his eyes and gentleness.”
Six months ago, Leo should have been dead.
When officers raided Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels in Smithfield, Va., last year, they found dogs, some injured and scarred, chained to buried car axles. Forensic experts discovered remains of dogs that had been shot with a .22-caliber pistol, electrocuted, drowned, hanged or slammed to the ground for lacking a desire to fight.
Vick, an All-Pro quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, was suspended indefinitely and is serving 23 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in August to bankrolling the dogfighting operation and helping to kill as many as eight dogs. Three co-defendants also pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison.
About 50 dogs were rescued.
Animal advocates are divided over whether fighting dogs can be trusted to have new lives as pets or working dogs. One of the dogs seized at Bad Newz was put down as too aggressive, but the others were dispersed to sanctuaries and training facilities across the country.
An ‘incredible’ difference with patients
One of them was Leo, who ended up in the care of Marthina McClay, a certified trainer and counselor in Los Gatos, near San Francisco. McClay is president of Our Pack, an advocacy group for pit bulls.
“He was a little like a caveman at a tea party,” McClay said. “He didn’t have a lot of training.”
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But after five weeks of intense instruction and supervision, and more weeks of acclimation, Leo is now — with all due respect —a pussy cat. He loves putting his head on a patient’s lap and batting his big brown eyes.
“The difference that he’s had with our patients has been incredible — the smiles on their faces, the joy when they see him,” said Reed of the cancer center.
“Leo is a survivor and our patients are survivors, and I think they can relate to each other,” she said.
Leo also touches young people on probation at the Alternative Placement Academy in San Jose, where the young men seem to identify with the former tough guy.
“I think they saw this dog’s awful background, and it communicates to the kids that you can end up being what you want to be,” McClay said.
It’s the age-old story of second chances. By living his, Leo helps tear down entrenched stereotypes that pit bulls are irredeemable killers.
“Leo is definitely an ambassador to the breed,” McClay said. “The staff at various facilities will say, ‘I will never see pit bulls the same again.’”
By Marianne Favro of NBC affiliate KNTV of San Francisco and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. NBC affiliate WAVY of Hampton Roads, Va., contributed to this report.