Military spouse plays drill sergeant for Bluffton shelter's pit bulls

gmartin@islandpacket.comJuly 23, 2012 

Cera Fletcher walks slowly past the newest pit bulls at the shelter she helps run, straining to be heard above the din of excited barks and thumping tails.

"We found her completely bald, covered in mange, fleas, ticks, just being eaten alive," she says, pointing to one dog that was pressing its face against the cage to be closer to Fletcher. "Oh, and she's 100-percent deaf."

Other dogs have arrived at Bluffton's Three Black Dogs kennel in even worse condition.

One was severely malnourished when it was seized by police during a raid on a drug operation in Orangeburg; two puppies were recently delivered to the shelter after being thrown in the May River and left to drown.

Beyond their medical problems, the pit bulls housed at the kennel were fearful, mistrusting and sometimes aggressive toward people. Under Fletcher's behavioral rehabilitation, however -- she refuses to be called a "trainer" -- they're not just healthy but calm, playful and ready for adoption, she says.

She also wants to rehabilitate the breed's reputation for violence, one she says is undeserved.

"A lot of times, police officers just write 'pit bull' in their reports about dog attacks when they don't know what breed it is," she explained, citing a July 4 incident in which a dog fatally attacked a Chihuahua-poodle in Port Royal.

Fletcher, the wife of an active-duty Marine stationed in Beaufort, seems more drill sergeant than dog whisperer as she barks orders and hauls some of the animals by their necks around the kennel.

"You have to let them know who's in charge," she said. "It's not pretty, sometimes."

Kennel owner Holly Zusack agrees that Fletcher's authoritative nature is key to improving the dogs' behavior.

"She works really hard to move the breed forward," she says. "She's the only one around here having this kind of success with pit bulls."

Fletcher didn't grow up around the breed. Her family dog in Florida was a miniature poodle, but she felt called to help a few years ago after coming across a pregnant pit bull stranded along the road.

The animal was a "bait dog" used for dogfighting -- just like one named Malachi that Zusack rescued last year and who was later used as the namesake for a foundation to rehabilitate and prepare pit bulls for adoption.

Since The Malachi Foundation was founded in September, it has helped more than 80 dogs get adopted.

The Beaufort County Animal Shelter and local police departments often deliver new dogs to the kennel, Zusack said, adding that she generally has to turn away three to five dogs a week because there's no more space.

Such dogs are so unaccustomed to receiving care from people, Fletcher said, that they don't know how to walk on a leash or eat from a bowl.

In working with the dogs, Fletcher says she's not so much rehabilitating their behavior as restoring it, calling pit bulls one of the most mild-mannered of breeds.

"They're very smart, loyal and passionate," she says. "We work hard to share what we know."

Related content:

Port Royal official calls for 'one-bite' ordinance, July 13, 2012

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service