When Mitch, a long-time volunteer at San Francisco Animal Care and Control (ACC), heard his name called over the intercom, he joked that he was being called to the principal’s office. “The voice on the loudspeaker was Rebecca Katz,” he says. Katz, executive director of ACC, had called Mitch to ask if he would consider fostering Capone, a badly abused and emaciated pit bull who won the hearts of ACC’s staff and volunteers. “I was one of Capone’s many advocates,” Mitch says. “I had recently fostered three pit bull puppies for ACC who all found great homes, so I told Rebecca as long as he got along with my pit bull, Pork Chop, of course I would.”
It had been a sad time at the shelter. Another pit bull, Fiona, had been held off the ground on her leash by her owner and punched repeatedly in the face. Despite heroic efforts, Katz couldn’t find anyone with the high level skills necessary to take on a dog so emotionally broken, and on a bare-bones budget, ACC didn’t have the resources or staffing to do it themselves. The private San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SF/SPCA), located just across the street, recently spent nearly as much as ACC’s entire annual budget on a remodel for their already state of the art facility (replete with San Francisco-themed decorations in condominium-style rooms for cats), but they weren’t willing to offer any of their enormous financial or staffing resources to help Fiona.
“It devastated all of us that after suffering a horrible lifetime of abuse, this was the way it ended,” Mitch says of the difficult decision to euthanize Fiona. “Her kennel was near Capone’s, and when I walked by I could see the hurt and mistrust in her eyes. I wanted to go in and just hug her, but I knew with her unpredictable behavior that just wasn’t possible.”
Capone, on the other hand, had gradually learned to trust staff and volunteers. He went from cowering and shaking in the corner of his kennel to greeting them happily and showing affection. “He was also incredibly friendly with other dogs, as is Pork Chop,” Mitch says. “When they met, Capone hadn’t been neutered yet. He’s definitely an adolescent pushing his boundaries. When we fostered the puppies, Pork Chop would groom them and they’d try to nurse on her, so she’s pretty easygoing. She and Capone got along fine, so we brought him home.”
Capone’s previous owner named the gentle pit bull after the notorious Chicago gangster, Al Capone, so the first order of business was a new name. “We called him Magoo because he’s sweet and goofy,” Mitch says.
On a warm Sunday in July, I knock on the door of Mitch’s apartment to a chorus of nervous barking. It’s been three weeks since Mitch brought Magoo home. “Come on in.” Mitch says, and then he turns toward the den. “It’s OK, Magoo; come say hi,” he coaxes, and an extremely thin but stunningly beautiful white and brown brindle pit bull cautiously emerges. “Hi Magoo,” I whisper as I extend my hand. At first he shies away, but within seconds he readily accepts my under-the-chin scratches. Pork Chop bumps him out of the way. She recognizes me from Buena Vista Park, where she and my pit bull puppy Skylar, also from ACC, have played together. “You always have good treats, too,” Mitch chuckles as Pork Chop sits before me, staring deep into my eyes while making her best little gremlin face. A pretty, petite fawn-colored pit bull with a muscular, compact body, Pork Chop’s name fits her perfectly. Mitch and his partner, Mario, adopted her from ACC after she was found wandering along Bayshore Boulevard. “She had some litters of puppies young,” Mario says.
Mario gives each dog a treat and they retire to the den together. Mario smiles. “He’s come so far in just a few weeks,” he says. Mario wasn’t sure how Magoo would react to him because he had been fearful of people, particularly men. “In the shelter environment he was different. Maybe it’s my background as a psychiatric nurse, but if you put a dog in a cell, you have a different dog when you bring him to a home. Quickly, I think. After only 15 or 20 minutes, Magoo was no longer afraid of me.”
It’s a big day for Magoo: He’s being adopted by another ACC volunteer, Francesca, who fell in love with him at the shelter. “Francesca was another huge advocate for Magoo,” Mitch says. “She’s taken him to her home a few times and he gets along great with her son, her husband, and her other dog, and Magoo adores her.”
While we wait for Francesca to arrive, Mitch and I go into the den. He sits down on the floor between Pork Chop and Magoo. As Pork Chop snores on a dog bed, Magoo cuddles next to Mitch. “This is his favorite,” Mitch says, putting a deer antler chew in Magoo’s mouth. Magoo rolls over on his back, holding the antler between his front paws as he alternately chews it and plays with it. “He’s gained a lot of weight since we got him,” Mitch says, rubbing Magoo’s belly. “When he came to the shelter he was a 3.5 on a scale of 10. But he’s eating good now, aren’t ya, Magoo?” He pulls Magoo into his lap and kisses his head. “I’m going to miss him,” Mitch says, and his eyes well up with tears.
“Francesca is here,” Mario calls to us from the kitchen. Magoo barks at the door knocking, but as soon as he hears Francesca’s voice, he runs to her. “Hi, Magoo,” Francesca says, and bows her head down to accept Magoo’s eager kisses; his entire body is wiggling with happiness (a well-known pit bull trait). “When I first met him at the shelter he cowered and wouldn’t make eye contact,” Francesca says. “It’s amazing how he has learned to trust people in such a short time after what he’s been through.” Mitch nods in agreement. “Pit bulls are such a resilient breed, more than any other,” he says.
Mario and Mitch gather up a bag of toys and help Francesca break down the dog crate. “This is his favorite,” Mitch tells Francesca as he hands her the deer antler chew. As we all pile into the elevator, Magoo casually sits down beside us. “The first time we got in this elevator, he was scared to death,” Mitch says. “But look at him now.”
Francesca’s husband is waiting downstairs to help load the crate and toys into the family truck. Magoo recognizes him immediately, greets him with that trademark full body wiggle, and then jumps into the truck. He peers out the window at Mitch and Mario, tongue hanging from one side of his huge pittie grin. Mitch and Mario rub Pork Chop’s head as they wave goodbye to a very lucky dog on his way to a beautiful new life.