Hi! I’m Bonzai! My story is a long one but my Mama told me it’s important for people to know. So here it is.
I was one of 27 dogs confiscated by Cleveland Police who were acting on a tip about a dogfighting ring. The police who arrived at the house where we were being held said that the smell and the noise was overwhelming. We were in crates and makeshift pens in the basement, the walls and floor covered in blood, urine and feces. A make-shift fighting ring, chains, a treadmill and other equipment associated with dogfighting was found in the basement. My Mom has the photos and she said it makes her sad every time she sees it.
Despite such brutal living conditions, the police officers said they could not believe how friendly and gentle we were.
We were brought into the Cleveland Kennel on December 23. Immediately, volunteers mobilized to wash us, socialize us, take us to the vet, walk us, perform behavioral assessments, etc. Approximately 100 people — many of whom had never been to the Cleveland Kennel and knew nothing about pit bull dogs or dogfighting — showed up to help with “the 27,” as we become known in the rescue community. More than a dozen rescues — including the Cleveland Animal Protective League, Pitty Love Rescue in New York and Love-a-Bull in Texas — stepped up to sponsor dogs and find fosters and forever homes for us. (Unfortunately, not all of us have happy endings.)
Everyone who saw me says I was one of the dogs in the worst shape at the kennel. I had a terrible case of kennel cough, had joint issues from injuries that never healed correctly, had missing and broken teeth and was covered in old and new scars. Twenty-six of us were diagnosed with babesia, a bloodborne disease often found among dogs in dogfighting rings and in racing greyhounds.
I growled at anyone who came near me or tried to help me. But this one volunteer did not back away. She grew close with me because she saw how desperate I was to get out of the cage and get outside, even though it was freezing outside. We would sit in the semi-heated service garage and snuggle. I was a favorite of a lot of other volunteers, including Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone, even though I was snarky and growly.
She told me that she fell in love with me. She agonized about bringing me into her home because she had five dogs already (three pits, a rottie mix and a lab) and they were all well-socialized with each other. Everyone who volunteered realized that I was one of the dogs in the greatest need of rescue and she worried that in the hands of someone unfamiliar with us and who was not willing to put in the work, I might not survive the transition to a normal life.
She knew that I would not be “easy,” but she knew I would be worth it.
Pitty Love Rescue offered to sponsor me and with their support, she pulled me from the kennel and became my Mama. (Well, she was a foster mama for about a week. )
She wished she could say our road has been an easy one, but as they say, anything worth having is worth waiting for.
Knowing that I had come from a terrible situation and that I had spent a month in the kennel (which is a pretty horrible place), my mom used an isolation/shut down protocol for me. For a month, I was not allowed to interact with the other dogs or with anyone outside of immediate family. I had my own room, with soft lights and soft music, and I spent most of my time there with kongs, bones and bully sticks. My mom says she needed me to relax and learn to trust people. I needed to realize that every time I saw people, I was not going to be hurt.
Eventually, I was introduced to the other dogs and to other people. I learned the difference between fighting and play, I learned that there was plenty of food for everyone, and I learned how to be an escape artist out of my crate.
I destroyed two couches and two ottomans. (My mom now padlock my crate when they are not home!!! ) My dog brother Meatball has been an amazing therapy dog for me. Mom says Meatball does a lot of self-handicapping during play and is very good at bringing shy dogs out of their shells. He also comforts fearful dogs like me.
Because of my past life, I gave no signalling when I was fearful or angry. I reacted by biting, drawing blood more than once on the other dogs and on my mom. Fortunately, she saw that I did show bite inhibition (I didn’t bite and keep biting — I bit and backed off). After experiencing a few bites and noticing the escalation in severity, she began working with a positive reinforcement trainer who studied my body language. The trainer shared what she had learned about me and gave my family training tools to use with me.
My family learned that I did not like having my butt or back legs touched, probably as a result of being pulled out of the dogfights by my back legs. Slowly they got me acclimated to having my back and butt scratched. My family did it by slowly moving down my back, inch by inch, and giving me my favorite treats at the same time…it took weeks for me to get to the point where I’m comfortable being touched.
There are some setbacks; at one point — after I was adjusting to my new life and had been excited to see people — I reverted back to being fearful and started to run whenever anyone came into the house other than “family.” Using lots of treats and love, my family had friends come over to visit and slowly, got me to overcome my fears. Now, I love visitors!
Our current hurdle is that I’m afraid of anyone who walks toward me holding any kind of towel – paper towel, bath towel, dish towel. My mom thinks it was because of the way I was treated after the fights. It makes bath time very stressful for everyone. My parents got me to the point that they can touch me while holding a towel. (The next step will be to try to rub me with a towel.)
In the meantime, I’m learning to vocalize and signal when I’m happy or fearful or tired. My family is probably one of the few households in the country that does a happy dance when the dog growls!! My family know it means that I’m learning to be a dog and had learned that my family will listen to what I’m trying to tell them.
My Mama calls me her holiday miracle. She told me that I changed her life; me and the other 26 dogs created an entire network of new friends and animal advocates. She said watching me transform and evolve has brought such joy.
Didn’t she know that SHE is my holiday miracle? I was a dog who didn’t seem to have a future, and she gave me hope. I hope other dogs would be as lucky as me.
Thank you for reading my long story.
Oh, by the way, Mama’s friend Laura Dumm used my likeness for the cover of a children’s coloring book which she created for a fundraiser for Friends of the City of Cleveland Kennel; Mama says I’m the star.
Editor’s Note: On June 19, 2015, Bonzai crossed the Rainbow Bridge. It was very sudden; he began hemorrhaging internally, probably as a result of babesia gibsoni.
His mom Sandy wrote: “My sweet ginger nugget. This is my love song to you. My life changed the day you entered it. We went on a magnificent journey together. Through you, I learned patience and compassion. I learned how to be gentle and move quietly. I learned more about myself than I thought possible. You learned to love and trust and came so far – farther than I ever hoped for. I’m so grateful that I was the one blessed to show you what a life filled with love could be like. From our first day to our last, I’ve never regretted opening my heart to you. Your mama loves you, baby boy. Sleep in peace.”
Bonzai learned to love life in the three and a half years he was part of Sandy’s family. And he was loved.
Run free, Bonzai.
p.s. Lives changed because of the 27…
The Cleveland Kennel is an animal control facility: old, damp, dirty and dark. Before Dec. 23, 2012, a few volunteers worked tirelessly to get dogs into rescues, walk the dogs, advocate for them, etc. Because of the volunteers who came together for the 27, more dogs are finding homes than ever before, more rescues are aware of the kennel, more connections for transport have been created and the morale of volunteers and employees at the kennel has improved 200 percent. Cleveland dropped pit bull dogs from its description of “dangerous” dogs and passed an anti-tethering law.
When the dogfighter who owned Bonzai and the others went to trial, more than 40 people attended his sentencing. The judge said that she had never received as many letters and phone calls about a case. Nearly 200 people from around the country and around the world wrote or called to ask for the maximum sentence for Collin Rand.
Also as a result of the 27, a new organization, Badges for Bullies, has been created by Cleveland Police officers and Cleveland Kennel volunteers to help raise money for pit bull related causes and educate the public about pit bulls, dog fighting and rescue. How often do you hear of police officers, as a group, helping pit bull dogs?
The 27 dogs transformed the way the city of Cleveland and Cleveland residents view pit bull dogs and raised awareness about the horrors of dogfighting. For Sandy, Bonzai has changed her life. As he has transformed from a scared, sick, reactive dog, to a relaxed, happy, “normal” dog, he has given her hope for so many other dogs that seem to have no future. She’s learned so much about reading dog behavior and positive reinforcement training because of him and her other dogs and any future foster dogs will benefit from that.