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Jonah's Story--my friend pit bull

by Fil Manley

A few weeks ago, I heard Jeff Styles of Talk Radio say something on the air that really bothered me. He was talking about dogs, and said something to the effect that all pit bulls should be killed, and that he would do it himself.

I've heard sentiments expressed like this so often, and might have agreed with them at one point in my life. I would like to tell you how one of these dogs affected my life, so that Jeff and maybe others can learn from my experience.

Five years ago, I was walking through the parking lot of Sam's Club, when I saw an awful looking dog, head down, cowed and broken. People skirted him, walking wide circles around him as I watched from a safe distance. As I examined him more closely, I realized that he was a pit-bull. He was about knee high, white all over, with one big brindle patch on his haunches. His head was as wide as my thigh. When I saw him, and his behavior, I was instantly curious and touched by the way he was acting. I had heard all of the stories about pits. I've always heard it said that they are savage monsters who maul and kill without warning. It's said that they are inherently bad and that they are mean no matter what. It was obvious to me, even though I had just met this dog that he wasn't looking for someone to bite, but for someone to love and for help. Not everyone is a "dog" person, but I've owned dogs my whole life. I've lived with a grumpy jack russell terrier for 11 years. I walk with him miles every week.

When I first saw this pit bull, I was shocked at his condition. The most obvious problem he had was malnourishment. His ribs stood out like steps. His spine was curved in a long odd shape and he walked sideways because of it. The ridge of his spine stood high over his back, with each individual bone standing, easily discerned from the next. I looked at him as he searched that parking lot for human kindness and it did something to me that I've never completely recovered from. It started a chain of events in my life, which would bring great change and great joy into my life. I knew at that very moment that I was either going to have to help him, or have him put down.

There was no way I could walk away from him, and know that this wonderful animal, who had so effortlessly reached out and touched me, a total stranger, would continue to live in such suffering. I went to my truck, and retrieved a piece of rope. I then went and sat on a curb near the side of the building. When he saw me, he came directly to me, and sat right beside me, as if we had come to the park to sit and talk.

This is the part that was hard to explain and it sounds silly to say it out loud. It seemed, though, that he knew immediately that I was interested in helping him, and it seemed as if it's what he had been looking for.

I was afraid. His appearance was intimidating to say the least. I decided that I would first lay the rope around the back of his neck and see if it made him angry. If it did, I would have to think of some other way to help him.

That gesture had an immediate and obvious effect on him. He sagged toward me, leaning on my right side, and seemed to deflate. The effect of the rope around his neck would have been comical if he weren't in such bad shape. He seemed relieved. There was nothing I could do. I tied the rope around his neck, and led him to my truck. My little Isuzu truck was very low to the ground, but he was too weak to jump into the back of it. I had to pick him up. I knew that I couldn't put this strange animal in my little two seat truck cab for the ride home, so my girlfriend drove, and I rode in the back with my new friend. My girlfriend was trying to remember how to drive a manual as the dog and I held on in the back, trying not to get whiplash. As we drove, I had a chance to look him over.

He was a wreck. He had only one front tooth, which was broken in half. The rest had been ground down to nubs. He appeared to have a large growth or infection under his skin, around his neck. It looked as if someone had inserted at 10 inch long piece of garden hose under the skin of his neck. It occurred to me that he had spent a lot of time on a chain that was too tight, and that it had cut into his skin. His right front foot was fractured. An 8- inch long gash had healed just under his right armpit on his chest. It had healed with no stitches, so it was a large lump of fused flesh. His head was covered with hundreds of tooth marks, as were his back and flanks. One of his nipples had been ripped completely off, and had healed back as a flap of skin hanging down. He had literally been chewed all over. His right ear was a stump, the rest chewed almost completely off. He was covered with other scars, big and small. His malnourishment was severe. There was no bone in his body that you couldn't trace on paper.

Despite all of this, this dog never, ever, in any way, shape, form or fashion, showed me the slightest hint of anger or violence, then or ever. From that day forward, this dog, gave me love. He gave me more love than any other dog ever has. There was a subtle intelligence in this animal and it was as if he realized that I had rescued him. I sensed gratitude in him that I never expected to sense in an animal. From that day forward he was my boon companion.

Our first task was to get him to the vet. The vet ended up costing us $2,200. We named him Jonah. For those of you who know your Bible, Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and lived through it. The pit bull reminded of Jonah because the artifacts of a past life, a past suffering I could only guess at, were etched into his skin and shined from his eyes.

Jonah was big for a pit bull. Emaciated, he tipped the scales at 49 pounds. Later on, he would bulk up to a healthy 64 pounds. That day at the vet, when we took him in, Dr. Federico just shook his head. They ran tests, poked and prodded. Dr. Federico, in his matter of fact way, felt him all over, and quickly grew to like him, as I had. Jonah took all of this, with that same look of gratitude. He never snarled, he never bit, he never showed anything but love to anyone at any time.

The diagnosis was severe. Heartworms, Infection, emaciation and starvation were our battle. He had hip and joint deterioration due to poor nutrition. He had all of these things, and he had them bad. The cost would be high, and we were given the option to put him down, but I just couldn't do it. We decided to fight. You could sense that he wanted to live, and we wanted him to. The doctor gave him a shot of something to kill the heartworms. There was a good chance that he would die during this treatment. Jonah had had the worms for years. The adults live in the heart, and when they die, the release from the wall of the arteries and travel downstream until they reach an area too narrow for them to pass, where they create a blockage in the arteries of the lungs. When this happens, lung tissue begins to die from blood starvation.

They gave him the medicine, and we waited. The next night, Jonah almost died. He could barely breathe. I lay beside him on his bed on the floor, holding his head as he gasped for air for hours. Finally, at 11pm on a Friday night, I couldn't take it anymore, and I took him to the emergency vet. They gave him a shot of steroids, and after a while he was ok again. We had one other scare, and one other trip to the emergency vet before he was finally cured of the heartworms, and through all this, he endured.

Most of the other problems, the infection, the cracked paw, got better over time. A round of antibiotics seemed to really help. Within 6 months, he was like a completely different dog and I loved him more than ever. I would walk with him, often. I live in North Chattanooga, and back then it was risky to walk late at night. With Jonah, I walked with relish, late into the night and early in the morning. There used to be a crack-head who lived on my street. He was a giant man with a bottle of booze always in one hand, half naked. He would break into empty houses and have "parties" with his girlfriends. I was on speaking terms with him and gave him a wide berth. One night, Jonah and I went out walking. We came down the hill at the bottom of my street and were bathed in darkness. There's a spot down there where the lights are far apart, and it's very dark. Ahead of us, my neighbor was walking with a strange, jittery man I had never seen before. The jittery man, looked back at us, and did a double take. He said something to my neighbor, and they had a brief struggle. It seemed the jittery man was saying something and my neighbor was saying no. The man turned back toward us and began to march up the hill. He walked in an aggressive manner. The set of his shoulders and the way he moved made me feel that this man was about to rob me.

We continued walking, and the man stomped toward us, I took comfort from the feel of the leash in my hand. I held Jonah close by my knee. The man approached to within 50 feet of us and suddenly saw Jonah. His back stiffened, he straightened up and stopped dead in his tracks. We continued walking toward him and then Jonah picked up his scent. I knew Jonah had been watching him. He was like that, he watched, and missed nothing. Miscreant number two, ahead of us, abruptly did an about face on a dime and walk/ran back down the hill. Jonah and I walked many, many miles together, at all times of the day and night.

Jonah's appearance, once he was no longer sick and suffering, reminded me of the old world war II Sherman tank. His head was bigger around than my thigh. I liked to call it his alligator head. His chest rippled with muscles and he walked with a panther like grace that can only be understood when it is seen. Jonah was with me for 5 years.

After he healed, Jonah was as strong as a mule. He could pull a car up a hill, if he had the right kind of harness. Jonah was great with people and children, but had little tolerance for other male dogs. Pits are bred as hunting and fighting dogs. They are bred to fight other animals, not people. I believe that he had been fought. His scars spoke volumes. Jonah would usually be tolerant of other dogs, but they would always approach, snarling and barking and he would only ignore it for so long. I think his appearance intimidated them. They would go after him but there always seemed to be an air of desperation in. It always seemed like they were barking at him because they were afraid of him. His bark reverberated down the spine in a primal way. It had a chopped, meaty sound that commanded respect.

Once we walked downtown to the coffee house and Carl and his dog Cowboy were across from us. I needed to use the phone and a guy offered to hold Jonah's leash for me. I told him to be careful. He swore to me that he used to raise Rottweilers, and that he "knew how to handle dogs." I let him take the leash, and he wrapped it around his arm. Cowboy must have looked at Jonah funny because before I knew it, Jonah had snatched the 220 pound, Rottweiler wrangler out of his chair and dragged him under a bench and across the sidewalk, trying to get to Cowboy. Jonah was great with people, but boy dogs were anathema to him. Jonah pulled that man like a paper cutout. I had to use a special collar with him, called a "pinch" collar. It's a collar that looks cruel, with metal spikes on the inside, but it's the only way I could keep him from choking himself on the leash. It's also the only way I could walk him on a reel leash and keep him from dragging me around.

He was forced to live in a tiny part of the front of my house. My other dog, Rocky, who I've had for 11 years and who was born in my closet, would not allow Jonah to be a part our regular life. On the few occasions, when I let Jonah into Rock's part of the house, Jonah would ignore him, for a while. He would be happy to be at the "big peoples table." He would stumble, dance and jump around gleefully, always ending up on my bed. Rocky would immediately lose his mind. He would attack Jonah, biting at him, snarling.

Once Rocky ended up with a broken jaw. He went after Jonah, and Jonah closed Rock's little mouth in his big one and one bite was all it took. Jonah would always ignore him for a little while. Usually it took about 5 minutes, and then the fight would start. So for five years, Jonah lived in half of my house, and Rocky lived in the other half. I can't explain to you how complicated this made my life, but I just couldn't bring myself to let go of Jonah, or to have him put to sleep. His zest for life now that he was healthy was wonderful to behold. There was something joyous about the way he greeted people and things around him. He seemed grateful for each day.

Jonah had so many wonderful and funny character traits. He was terrified of lightning. Any time the thunder rolled, I would go into the other room and find him in the bottom of the utility storage cabinet, with cans of wd-40 and paint knocked over and fallen on his head. He would push aside car wash buckets, paint-brushes and anything else that was in his way to burrow down into a dark space to get away from the noise and the flashes. Sometimes I would go sit beside him on the floor and hold his big alligator head in my lap when he was scared. He would shiver and shake.

Over the years, Jonah and I really got to know each other. Jonah was so tolerant of me. He loved to play. I would push him on the chest to get him worked up, and he would run at me, jump up in the air, and hit me hard with the side of his body. It was like a broadside tackle, and when he did it, it would knock you off your feet. When he really got going, he would run frantic circles around the tiny front yard, tearing large chunks of turf up from the ground. When he would get tired because of his worm damaged heart and lungs, he would run up to me and stop on a dime, leaning down on those giant front paws, butt sticking up in the air, tongue lolling, eyes rolling and daring me to do it again. He would jump up at me and play bite, always going for the underside of my arms. He would pinch me a little sometimes with his 1/2 tooth, but even with that he managed to tear holes in two of my shirts. He loved to play.

He took scolding very hard. Any time he did something I didn't like, I would scold him verbally and give him a slap on the butt. He took this so hard. His face would melt, his eyes would squeeze shut and he would cow down to the floor. He would turn his head and look up at me, trying to gauge the depth of my anger. For months after he came to live with me, he didn't bark. It was a long time before I heard his voice. For months, he would also cower in fear any time he saw me carrying something, be it a broom or a wrench in my hand.

Often, I would go into his little space to say goodnight to him, and sit on the floor beside his blanket. He would lay his head in my lap and we would sit there in the silence and the darkness. Sometimes, I would grab him his big head and his bony rear end, scoop him up and roll him over so that he lay face up on my lap. He hated this position, but he tolerated my doing it. He would lay in my lap looking put upon and uncomfortable, as I cradled him like an infant. His big orange brown eyes would be inches from mine and he would take one big paw and place it up against my chin, trying to keep my face away from his.

I liked to kiss him on the face. I would sometimes kiss him right on the lips, just to bug him, and he absolutely hated it. It bothered him so much. I would play games where I would try to get my face close to his, and the way he would avoid it was comical. He would always keep that stiff arm up against my chin, to ensure that I didn't try to kiss him on the face. He always stared at me from those eyes, which had seen so much suffering and they never changed. They were always full of tolerance and love for me.

My tiny yard was never enough for him. He wasn't fixed, and occasionally the urge to roam would overwhelm him. He would go to work on my fence like the expert escape artist he was. There were two doors in his part of my house. Once I locked him in the laundry room to keep him separate for a night. I can't remember the reason, but he was so upset by it that he ripped a hole in the door with his gums. Remember, he only had one tooth in the front. That door still has a sheet of plywood on it.

When he decided he needed to get out of the fence, he could do it. It took me a while to figure out how he did it, but once I did, I was amazed. Jonah would run his side along the fence, pushing, feeling for a weak spot. When he found the appropriate spot in the fence, he would use his one tooth, to pry a piece of chain link out like a thread from a sweater. He would then grasp that metal ribbon in his pink gums and work it back and forth, back and forth until eventually it would snap. He would then take his soft, black, wet nose, and jam it as hard as he could into the wiry hole made by the broken piece of chain link. He continued to push his face into this hole, working his head back and forth, as the hole grew larger and larger. Once the hole was big enough for him to get his entire snout in, he knew that he had won. He worked, eyes squeezed shut, pushing with his back feet, as hard as he could, until finally, bleeding and torn, he would jam his entire alligator head out of that tiny hole. Next, one foot would come through, then another. He would push until he crammed his entire 60 pound body through a hole in a fence that was barely 6 inches across.

The first time he did this, I found him missing from the front yard but I had no idea how he had gotten out. He escaped from my yard a total of 4 times. The longest he was ever gone was 45 minutes, but it always terrified me. I had grown so attached to this animal, that the thought of him back in the world, where he was mistreated made me want to pull out my hair. The animal shelter doesn't adopt out old pit's. They just kill them.

The first time he escaped, I examined the fence before setting out after him, and I saw nothing wrong with it. I thought that he must have climbed over, which he was certainly capable of. So, I put him back in the fence, and watched from the window to see where he was climbing over. As I watched from my perch, I saw him go back to the same hole he had gotten out of the first time. I was amazed to see him bow down, and slip out like a snake exiting its skin. I was shocked that this animal could make it out through that hole. Later on, as I examined the hole, I realized that it was perfectly round. It's edges were tight, and it had the look of a drawstring bag. It took me 20 minutes with pliers and wire cutters to pull the fence back together and wire it closed.

Jonah and I spent some really good years together. He taught me something about animals that I'm trying to share with you now, but which is something you can really only learn from experience. If there are any of you out there who think that pit bulls are bad, I'm here to tell you that they aren't. People are bad, and they sometimes shape animals in their own image. Pit's ban be mean, and vicious and all of those things, but they aren't born that way. That behavior is almost always the result of training.

Twice people approached me on the street and asked me if they could breed their female pit with Jonah, and I would smile a toothy, angry grin and say no. I could just picture this person throwing the puppy he raised into the ring to fight to the death, while he placed bets from the sideline. I would thank God at that moment for my self control, because I would wish in my heart that I could beat him within an inch of his life before he caused an animal like Jonah one moment of suffering.

This sounds extreme, I know, but I came by it honestly. After Jonah and I found each other, I began to do a lot of research on Pits and the way some people treat them. The pictures I've seen will make you sick and if you love animals, they will make you burn with rage. I think that people who fight pits should be treated just like they treat their animals. If you've ever seen a dog strangled to death with baling wire for losing a fight, after being beaten, starved and abused for years, you might know how I feel.

The old saying is true. You can't judge a book by its cover. I would've never guessed that Jonah would have the effect on me that he did. While I'm sure that I did a lot to help him, in a really important way, he did more for me than I ever did for him. He helped me. He showed me a depth of compassion, gratitude and love that I thought impossible in an animal. It wasn't something I can really express to you. It's not something you can hear. It's something that you have to feel to understand.

Have you ever met a person who always seemed to have a dark cloud hanging over their head? Jonah was the exact opposite of that. He always seemed to be walking around in a little bubble of sunny weather, where the wind was always cool and the flowers were always in bloom. Just being around him made people happy. He was like a big, goofy kid.

I had him put to sleep, Jan. 23rd, 2004. One final effect of the malnourishment he had suffered was arthritis. All of the cartilage had disappeared from his hip joints. It was bone against bone, and the pain he suffered was terrible. Finally, he began to succumb to paralysis. It came on him quickly, and I had seen it coming, but when it finally did, I wasn't prepared for it.

One day I looked outside and saw him walking on the knuckles of his back feet, impervious to the fact that his feet weren't flat on the ground. I knew then that his time was done. I wasn't going to watch him suffer through long final days, so I gave myself a few hours to say goodbye and then loaded him into the truck for one final ride to Dr. Federicos. When we arrived at the Dr's, I walked over to the drug store and bought a giant magic marker and some note cards. I coated his paw with black ink and made a paw-print that sits framed over my desk as I write this.

I gently lifted Jonah out of the truck, and we walked inside as I saw him wince from the pain in his back. It took me a few minutes to make Dr. Federico understand how I wanted to do it, and he never really did until I showed him. He put a catheter into a vein in Jonahs front leg and taped it tight. I sat cross-legged on the floor.

I pulled Jonah, flipping him upside down into my lap and held him tight in my arms. His alligator head lay in the crook of my right arm, and I pulled his nose to mine one final time. I wept. I howled. I held him in a vice grip in my right arm and stared into his eyes, while Dr. Federico gave him first the shot that drugged him, then the one that stopped his heart. His eyes never strayed from mine and mine never moved from his. I stared into his eyes as his life slipped away and long after he was gone.

That night I laid him out on a blanket in my front yard where he had lived. I kissed him a final time on the cheek and a friend and I dug a hole in the dark night, under the glare of a halogen work light. I let Rocky out into the front yard, and he sniffed at and growled at the dead form in jealousy. Even dead, Jonah intimidated Rocky.

That day I became an amputee. I lost a limb and I can still feel the phantom pains of it when I flex the muscles that were the overwhelming love that grew in me for this pit, this dog.

Jeff, you're wrong. If you want to point and rail against something, do it against the people who abuse innocent creatures for fun and profit. Get angry at them.

There are many myths about pits. One is that they are more likely to bite than other dogs.. Take a look at these statistics!

In Ohio in 1987 a breed restriction was placed on the Pit Bull because of claims that it was vicious. When reviewing Ohio's dog bite statistics within a 20-year period it was found breed restrictions do nothing to reduce dog bites from specific breeds targeted.

Ohio's Dog Bite Statistic (2001-2002)
Mixed Breeds ~ 34%
Shepherds ~ 7%
Labs ~ 7%
Rottweilers ~ 6%
Boxers ~ 4%
Chows ~ 3%
Pit Bulls ~ 2 % (ACF2003)

Posted by: nan porter at March 22, 2007

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