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Ambassador of adorable

Pit bull mix survives ordeal to become humane education superstar

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2012

Nikki’s damaged ears haven’t ruined her looks. The pooch has become an ambassador for victims of dogfighting, and a powerful face in the struggle against animal cruelty. Steve and Kelli Chickos of Dunedin, Fla., adopted Nikki from the SPCA of Tampa Bay after Kelli saw a story about Nikki on the local news. Nikki has become best buds with their dog, Jaxson, a Catahoula mix.

Pit bull-boxer mix Nikki is a lover, not a fighter—but had the SPCA of Tampa Bay not intervened, she might have turned out differently.

Nikki was picked up by humane officer Jill Purl in January 2011 when she was only 8 to 10 weeks old. She and her mother had been stolen, but her owner had found her again—tied up alone in a neighborhood backyard, with tiny rubber bands wrapped so tightly around her ears that they had sliced deeply into her flesh. Her ears were actually rotting off her head, and her mother was nowhere to be found.

Her owner had called the SPCA because he said he couldn’t afford the urgent veterinary care needed for her injuries. Purl came out to pick up the dog, and immediately took Nikki to the SPCA, so staff could begin treating her.

Cherie Buisson, a veterinarian formerly on the shelter’s medical team, was doing relief work that day, and remembers Nikki all too well. “If someone said the word ‘suffering’ to me now, the look on her face comes to mind. She barely acknowledged that I was there, and her ears were just swollen, and they stunk, and it was just awful,” Buisson says.

Buisson put Nikki under anesthesia. She found the rubber bands wrapped around her ears twice. Buisson took photos of the injuries to document them for a possible criminal case, then amputated her ears.

Buisson and Purl speculate that Nikki might have been bound for a fighting ring, and that her abusers had been attempting to crop her ears to deny her canine opponents a hold during fights. But it quickly became evident that she wasn’t a fighter by nature.

“We started to wake her up, and the first thing she did was start wagging her tail. … She started licking my fingers,” Buisson recalls.

News of the cruelty the puppy had gone through spread quickly through local TV broadcasts and the St. Petersburg Times. Steve and Kelli Chickos of Dunedin (pronounced “dun-EE-din”), a nearby town, saw the story on the news.

“It was just the most pathetic and sad sight, to see this little [dog], just the tiniest thing that you could hold in your hands, with her ears clinging to her head,” Kelli says.

Kelli had recently included SPCA Tampa Bay in her estate planning, and she’d been invited to attend a luncheon honoring shelter supporters. At that lunch, Purl walked into the room carrying Nikki, still recovering from her surgery just five days before.

“I star ted crying my eyes out, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I just instantly felt like I have to make sure the rest of her life is full of love,” Kelli says. She immediately began inquiring about adopting Nikki. Dozens of others applied too, but Steve and Kelli soon emerged as the leading candidates. They had already adopted two cats from the shelter, and had long been involved in greyhound rescue, sharing their home with four senior dogs of the breed, plus Jaxson, a Catahoula mix.

And they wanted to adopt Nikki in part to help other dogs like her. “The acting director of the SPCA said they picked us because I said that I would help Nikki be an ambassador for the breed … that could speak out against animal cruelty,” Kelli says.

She’s kept her word: Kelli and Nikki have become regular attractions at the shelter’s outreach and humane education events, showing up at events such as Pit Bull Awareness Day in October and Volunteer Appreciation Night.

In March of 2011, “they invited her to be one of the guest stars in their big gala, and we had this little black dress made for Nikki,” Kelli says, laughing. Nikki is also the inspiration for Nikki’s Ninjas, a team Kelli has formed to participate in SPCA Tampa Bay’s biggest annual fundraiser, a 3K pet walk.

Though Nikki has become a powerful symbol of the need to combat animal cruelty, no one has been charged in her case. Police were told conflicting stories about who injured her, and no clear-cut proof has emerged. Nikki has totally healed from her ordeal, showing no ill effects from the experience (apart from her closely cropped ears). She has a normal, active life in the Chickos household, where she is “besties” with dog pal Jaxson, Kelli reports.

In her “public” life, Nikki has become a humane education superstar in the community. “They always invite her back [to the shelter] for all sorts of things, and I’m just Nikki’s mom. Nobody really knows my name, and that’s just fine,” Kelli says, laughing.

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.