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Saving Sophia

Created date

January 14th, 2009

Before writing Pitbulls get a second chance, I, like many others, knew little about the world of dogfighting. I don t recall ever hearing anything about it until the explosion of media coverage following the 2007 raid on Michael Vick s Virginia-based Bad Newz Kennels.

As far as I knew, the NFL quarterback s high-profile arrest and imprisonment were among the first of their kind; his crime a sick glitch in an otherwise civilized society.

The unfortunate reality is that, despite their indisputably cruel and primitive nature, dogfighting operations still pepper the United States. The Vick dogs shed a much-needed light on the practice, but dogfighting rings rise and fall all the time without a word from the media, and all with the same damaging consequences for the animals that they exploit.

And while National Geographic s Dogtown has introduced millions of television viewers to the efforts of fully-staffed sanctuaries like Best Friends Animal Society, few hear about the ordinary families that provide the foster homes where rescued pitbulls start new and better lives.

In addition to affording them food and shelter, these people voluntarily assume the Herculean task of repairing the physical and psychological injuries that pitbulls sustain throughout their fighting days.

No one understands the challenges involved better than Shelly Ficerai. Last year, Ficerai and her neighbor, Robyn Horstkamp, volunteered to provide foster care to pitbulls rescued through a Fredericksburg, Va., organization called Bully Paws. Shortly thereafter, they received Sophia, an eight-month-old pitbull rescued from a Maryland dogfighting operation during a drug raid.

She was a mess when she came to us, recalls Ficerai, who works out of her home as a family daycare provider. She was aggressive, always frightened, and it was obvious at a glance that she was mistreated.

When you consider the details of Sophia s condition, mistreated is an understatement. The jagged edges on her pointed ears show where her previous owner crudely and careless clipped them with a box cutter. The scars on her legs tell of abuse inflicted by people and rival fighting dogs.

When she first entered foster care, Sophia had none of the social skills that most dogs develop in their first few months. Animal adoption agencies believed her case was hopeless, some even recommending euthanasia as the only solution. Ficerai balked at this suggestion and adopted Sophia herself, taking charge of her rehabilitation.

She has made so much progress in the time that we ve had her, but getting there wasn t easy, Ficerai says. I had to teach her how to interact with people and other animals, which involved repeatedly putting her in a particular situation, seeing how she d react, and reinforcing or correcting her behavior accordingly. It takes a lot of patience.

Through this unwearied guidance and determination, Ficerai transformed an emotionally damaged pitbull into the dog that many believed she could never be. Even so, she soon noticed evidence of other wounds that patience alone couldn t fix.

What started as a periodic limp in Sophia s right hind leg progressively worsened to the point where she could barely walk. An X-ray of the limb revealed a completely torn knee ligament--possibly the culmination of a small tear from trauma sustained before her rescue.

The only remedy for this injury is a $3,000 operation that, when combined with the numerous diagnostic costs, brings the bill to about $9,000. Even with her family and friends donating what money they could to Sophia s cause, Ficerai is struggling to pay the thousands that remain.

I had to do everything I could to see to it that she had this operation, says Ficerai. The life that she was dealt seems unfair, especially when you add to it the constant pain that she s in.

In December 2008, doctors at Virginia Tech s Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine performed the surgery, but X-rays also showed the same injury in her left leg. This meant she would need yet another expensive operation in order to lead a normal, active life again.

The next procedure is scheduled for February 13, a day that Ficerai hopes will help erase any remaining traces of Sophia s former life. Bouncing back from the physical and emotional abuse that she suffered is no small thing, she says. You have to take it step by step, and every little bit counts.

Donations for Sophia, however small, can be sent care of:

Sophia Ficerai/Bully Pups C/O Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine (0443) Attn: Business Office, Teaching Hospital Virginia Tech Blacksburg, VA 24061For more information, please contact Theresa Collins in Virginia Tech s Business Office at 540-231-6811 or 540-231-4954.