Island Life

December 28, 2011  

A veterinary student on the island of St. Kitts finds hope and friendship when she adopts an abandoned pit bull

By Rachel Norris

Chance came to me at one of the lowest moments of my life. Within a two-month period, my parents had divorced, I had had my heart broken, a giraffe I’d loved as an intern had died, and on top of all that, I was still adjusting to living in a foreign country and starting veterinary school. I moved to the island of St. Kitts in the Eastern Caribbean excited to open a new chapter in my life, but instead had been shoved into a deep emotional pit, and I was stuck.

I wasn’t thinking of adopting a dog when I went onto the website of my school’s animal rescue organization, PAWS (People for Animal Welfare on St. Kitts), and came across his profile. Chance had been found at the bottom of a 20-foot lime kiln at Brimstone Hill fortress on the northern portion of the island. A visitor reported him, and management called a fellow vet student out to the site. With help from the St. Kitts’ fire department, she muzzled him and carried him up a ladder and out of the hole. Besides being covered in dog bites and ticks, and having sliced up footpads, he had miraculously escaped serious injury. Judging from the bite wounds around his face, neck and front legs, the general consensus among his rescuers was that Chance was a failed fighter and someone tossed him in the lime kiln to get rid of him.

I adopted Chance about two and a half weeks after his rescue. He was one of the sweetest and most gentle dogs I’d ever met, but was very timid and unsure of people. He was afraid of the furniture, walked with his tail between his legs, and was permanently attached to my hip. Worst of all, he was very aggressive toward other dogs. It became obvious that his aggression was based on fear, but that didn’t make the issue any less serious. He learned quickly to trust and love humans, but was a danger to other dogs.

Pit Bulls on the Island

Unfortunately, dog fighting seems to be a big problem on St. Kitts and its sister island, Nevis. Although there are some loving and responsible owners, it appears that many pit bulls are either aggressive guard dogs, or they have been trained as fighters. Dog fighting is illegal, and it carries a two-year jail sentence, a fine of $5,000 ECD (about $1,850 USD), or both. However, in a third-world country there are more pressing issues than animal welfare, so it’s not strictly enforced. There’s a ban on the importation of pit bulls into the country, as well as on other so-called “fighting breeds,” but there are no laws regulating breeding and selling. According to the Nevis humane society, children are also encouraged to get in on the fighting, so the violence is passed from generation to generation. It’s a sad and frustrating situation.

The overall mindset about dogs is very different from that in the United States. A lot of dogs are free to wander the streets. Many are emaciated, injured and covered in external parasites. Some are pets that have been allowed to roam and some are true ferals. Because dogs just roam, a lot of people have been bitten. I’ve found that most Kittitians, citizens of St. Kitts, are wary of dogs in general but terrified of pit bulls because of their fighting status. People cross the street and stay in their parked cars as Chance and I pass them on walks. A man once told me I needed to put him in obedience training so he wouldn’t turn on me – as Chance sat perfectly at my feet. Once, Chance got out of the yard to chase a monkey, and while I ran up and down the street calling him, a woman stopped me and offered to keep an eye out. When I mentioned he was a pit bull, she gave me a look and said, “Never mind, I don’t mess with those pit bulls.”

Every now and then I’ll even get asked either directly or indirectly whether Chance fights and if I need help training him. Despite the fact that he is aggressive toward other dogs, I always say how friendly and submissive he is, and that he’d never hurt a fly. The truth is that I’m worried that if people knew he was aggressive toward dogs, someone might try to steal him, so I always talk him up as a big powder puff.

A Brighter Future

PAWS does a wonderful job educating Kittitians about animal welfare, with a successful outreach program for school children and their families that educates them about the importance of spaying and neutering, keeping pets fenced and proper veterinary care. It is through this program that the school hopes to better the lives of dogs and cats on St. Kitts, both pets and ferals.

Chance has made some tremendous strides over the past few months. He loves people and will happily walk up to anyone on the street even if they’re not as happy to see him. We’ve worked religiously on obedience training, and although Chance can’t be trusted to greet and interact with other dogs yet, he’s at a point at where I can walk him and keep him calm as long as other animals are leashed. My roommate adopted a 3-week-old puppy about a month after I adopted Chance, and through a very slow introduction process they’ve become the best of friends. I’ve begun socializing him with other dogs in controlled settings, and he’s learned to walk politely with my friend’s Chihuahua and pit bull/Rottweiler mix.

I hope one day that Chance will learn to love other dogs, but for now he’s already exceeded my expectations. He was a friend to me at my lowest point. We were both stuck in a hole –he literally, and I metaphorically – and we helped to pull each other out. He’s shown me the power of redemption and forgiveness and has overcome a presumptively dark and painful past. He’s also shown me that we can’t give up on victims of abuse and especially not ex-fighters.

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8 Responses to “Island Life”
  1. Chance is as handsome as can be. Your pictures are beautiful as well, both look happy to be alive! Keep socializing Chance he will come around sooner or later. Don’t pressure him and always remain calm when walking Chance by other dogs. Keep us posted on his progress!

    • StubbyDog says:

      @theprettychic We know, we feel like there is an update waiting to happen here.

      • RachelNorris says:

        @StubbyDog@theprettychic Chance is doing very well! He’s grown fond of my friend’s two dogs mentioned in the story and he’d doing very well staying calm and polite while walking around other dogs. We keep our distance and always quit while we’re ahead.

        • StubbyDog says:

          @RachelNorris@theprettychic Thanks for the update Rachel, we are glad Chance is doing well and it’s great that you set him up for success! Keep up all your good work on St. Kitts!

  2. blazer says:

    We’re fostering a bully girl that is leash reactive and not immediately welcoming of new doggie friends. The great thing is, after a slow, proper introduction, she is our two dogs’ best playmate! Sometimes dogs click, sometimes they don’t. Doesn’t make them a bad dog. I do now know how difficult it can be to manage when out and about — keep up the good work and keep getting out there! Lucky dog, lucky you!

  3. phnorris76 says: is an amazing and inspiring story of your zest for life..Your passion for animals and your love for Chance and the hope we find in the strangest places. I’m so very proud of you and your sister Jenna for your strength, courage and accomplishments. You both are my daily inspiration and passion for life I love you all..2 legs..4 legs and all! Dad…xoxo

  4. JendayiS says:

    my hope was to move to st. kitts to get more in touch with my family, BUT i can’t leave King Kong (my Pitbul)….. it sadden me that i just have to stick with my two week stays…..

    i hate that people find joy in watching dogs fight. humans have that choice to get into the ring but the loveble caring, AND VERY FORGIVING dogs do not. when i went home for christmas, i made it no secrect that i have a pitbull ( he has his own album on facebook) and the first thing one of my cousine ask me was “Do you lock him up at night”


    “aren’t you afraid that his going to Maul you while you sleep?”

    “My only fear is he will drown me with his slobber :0)