The Newport Casino Theater was filled to capacity. The dignitaries were out in full force; the Director, the event organizers, representatives from Best Friends Animal Society, Wag Nation, Potter League for Animals, Handsome Dan's Rescue and Animal Rescue Rhode Island - the list was long and impressive. Walking into the venue, one could feel the electricity in the air and the anticipation of what was to come.
Ironically though, it wasn’t the Director who was the center of attention, or any local dignitary. Instead, that honor was bestowed on a four-legged, black pit bull by the name of “Cherry.” In true rock star fashion Cherry wasn’t fazed by the crowd which formed around him, gratefully accepting treats from unknown, extended hands. He wasn’t anxious or eager. He just took it all in stride. In a lot of ways he was no different than any other dog you’d encounter walking down any street with its owner in America.
But the simple truth is he is different, and if his first owners had their way, he would not have been in Newport, Rhode Island on this cold January evening. Instead he would have found himself in the center of a ring. There would have been no pageantry or star treatment but instead a simple fate in front of him: Kill, or be killed. That is because Cherry is one of the dogs prominently featured in the new movie "The Champions." He is one of the more than 70 dogs which were once owned by NFL quarterback Michael Vick. In 2007 a Vick owned-property, Bad Newz Kennels, was raided and Cherry and the others were seized in what was later revealed to be a multi-state dog fighting ring. Vick eventually served 21 months in prison for his involvement.
The demeanor that we saw from Cherry was something many never thought they would see. As we learn in “The Champions,” Cherry was one of the most severely traumatized of the Vick dogs. He was sent to Best Friends Animal Society in Utah along with twenty-one others for rescue and rehabilitation. In the beginning he was afraid to come out of his kennel, hiding in the back corner and “pancaking” himself to the floor in an effort to make himself invisible. Many wondered if he would ever be able to live in the outside world.
But that was a long time ago, and a lot has changed since then.
Today he is a happy, well-adjusted companion pet who lives with a family in New England which includes two small children, another dog and two cats. Cherry’s dad Paul Fiaccone said in an interview with the Huffington post in 2014, "We have learned so much from Cherry. This is a dog that had chemicals poured on his back, forced to fight for his life, and flat-out tortured, yet he keeps moving forward, he doesn’t have a rearview mirror. He doesn’t look at himself as a victim, he looks at himself as a survivor."
And experiencing Cherry’s story, along with the others featured in “The Champions,” is why we were all in Newport to begin with. Also in attendance was Heather Gutshall, President of Handsome Dan’s Rescue, who adopted Vicktory Dog Handsome Dan, another of the dogs featured in the film. Handsome, as his name would indicate, is an impressive and very majestic dog but he is also very shy and still bears the emotional scars of his early life. He was able to develop some sense of security at Best Friends but, as we watch his story unfold, we come to understand that life outside the sanctuary brought new challenges to which he is still adjusting. He is still fearful of anything unfamiliar. He is unable to go for leash walks (although he does get to ride around the neighborhood in a stroller his family calls the “Pope Mobile”). Common household noises such as emptying a dishwasher frighten him. Confidence has not come easily for Handsome Dan but he is comfortable and secure in his own insulated world with a small group of people he has learned to trust. He is the first of the Vicktory dogs to have a human “sibling” born after his adoption. His human sister Josephine and he are inseparable. Handsome is a gentle soul without a mean bone in his body. His family adores him and although he may never be “normal,” in the eyes of his family he is perfect.
In “The Champions,” Director, Producer and Executive Producer Darcy Dennett (whose extensive resume also includes the National Geographic series “Dogtown”), follows the progress of five of the Vicktory dogs; Cherry, Handsome Dan, Jonny, Mel and Little Red. There are no graphic images or dog-fighting scenes. There is no sensationalism or violence of any kind. Instead, Dennett conveys a message of hope. In the end it is the story of the kind, loving people who fought for these dogs and their right to live, and of course the dogs themselves, because, despite the pain and the torture they had to endure at the hands of humans, they show all of us the true meaning of forgiveness.
“The Champions” is a story of resilience, of overcoming obstacles and making the most of second chances. Furthermore, it explores the bond between humans and animals. It is an extremely powerful film that transcends all boundaries. Most importantly though, it is a film about love.
For those of us who are involved in animal rescue, “The Champions” reminds us why we fight so hard to save lives and give a voice to the voiceless. However, whether you are an animal lover or not, this film is a must-see. It is uplifting, your perspectives will be changed forever – it will restore your faith in humanity. Ultimately, “The Champions” reminds us that although the world can be unkind and sometimes brutal, in the end love wins.