Little Red has more than 10,000 friends on Facebook. Nine years ago, she had no name.
The 13-year-old American Staffordshire terrier, commonly known as a pit bull, has the run of a 6-acre plot of land north of Laramie, with views of the Snowy Range to the west and the Laramie Range to the east.
She shares her home with five fellow dogs — a motley pack of rescues in all sizes belonging to Susan Weidel.
Cheeto, a heeler cross, is her closest companion. She dotes over Sparkle, a miniature pinscher-Chihauhua mix, like a devoted mother. Jewels, a fellow pit bull, shares the breed’s affinity for rough-and-tumble play. Another friend is Ella, a miniature dachshund. Pom-Pom, a 19-year-old, three-legged Pomeranian with no teeth, might be the alpha dog of the group.
“They pretty much bow and scrape to him,” Weidel said.
When two strangers stopped by for a visit earlier this week, the group popped outside to visit.
Back inside, after everyone received a treat, the dogs settled onto their beds, which were arrayed about Weidel’s living room.
Little Red, named for her diminutive size and brownish-red fur, curled up on a pink fleece blanket facing the wall and soon was snoring softly.
“This is what she does when she’s nervous,” Weidel said. “She’ll turn her back to the room and just shut down.”
In the more than four years Weidel has owned Little Red, she never heard her bark.
“She never makes a sound except when she’s having a nightmare, and then she cries, and it’s heartbreaking” Weidel said. “I wonder where she goes in those dreams. I don’t know, but it’s not a good place, that I do know.”
Survival and sanctuary
Little Red spent the first five years of her life living on a 15-acre plot of land with dozens of other pit bulls in Virginia.
She had repeated litters of puppies. Her teeth were filed down and she bears scars on her body, perhaps from being used as a bait dog for the fighting dogs to practice on. All dogs in the property except the top fighters were chained to car axles in the woods.
When authorities busted the dogfighting operation known as Bad Newz Kennels, owned by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, in April of 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, hung 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 due to 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 47 could be spared. Some were sent to foster care while others, like Little Red, were sent to sanctuaries for professional care.
“This was really the first time fight dogs were allowed to have individual evaluations,” Weidel said.
Little Red was sent to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, where she lived for almost four years.
A new home in Laramie
Weidel, a retired lawyer and former general counsel for the University of Wyoming, is a long-time sanctuary volunteer. She spends a week in Utah every year working mostly with older dogs.
After a couple years, when Little Red was integrated into the sanctuary’s general population, Weidel met her.
“When I saw her, I just fell in love,” she said.
No one else applied to adopt the pit bull, so Weidel did. 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.
That wasn’t quite Little Red’s happy ending. In fact, she had a tough time adjusting to her new surroundings.
Entering the house was scary. The Christmas tree terrified her. So did the dishwasher, vacuum cleaner and washing machine. She walked the fence line of Weidel’s property because she was afraid of open spaces. Trips into town were traumatic.
“Everything was new,” Weidel said.
Weidel relied on fellow adoptive families for advice and reassurance during a long adjustment phase. They reported similar behavior with their dogs.
“Sometimes she just looked bereft,” Weidel said.
But in tiny steps, she adjusted. She finds solace in other dogs, Weidel said, and Cheeto would lay next to her when she was too overwhelmed to do anything but lay down.
“The first time she took off and started running across the pasture, I started to cry,” she said. “It was such a leap of faith for her.”
To those who say former fighting dogs are a danger to society, Weidel scoffs.
“She is so sweet and so gentle,” she said. “She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.”
Finding celebrity status
Little Red definitely wasn’t scared when a camera crew spent four days at her house during the filming of a documentary about her and fellow rescued pit bulls.
“She really thrived on the process,” Weidel said. “I think she loved the attention.”
“The Champions” premiered in 2015 and is currently being screened at festivals and events around the country. It’s also available for purchase online. Directed by Darcy Dennett, the film follows six dogs from unlikely survival to adoption, with plenty of B-roll filmed in and around Laramie.
The film has won a number of awards, including People’s Choice for Best Documentary at the Denver Film Festival, where Little Red wasn’t allowed to attend because of a pit bull ban in the city.
These days, Little Red is slowing down. She has an autoimmune disease common among fighting dogs from the south. She has cancerous tumors and arthritis and lost sight in one eye about a year ago.
“It has been my privilege to care for and live with this special little pit bull,” Weidel said.
As her visitors prepared to leave earlier this week, Little Red followed them outside, where the group of dogs clamored for treats from Weidel.
Unlike many fighting dogs, Little Red’s ears were never cropped — a common practice to prevent damage during a fight. They’re perhaps her most expressive feature.
Out in the yard she stood by herself, ears alert, listening to the sounds of home.