Story and video by Nik Kleinberg




NEW YORK -- It was easy to miss. Simply worded and inconspicuous, the flier was tucked inside a clear acrylic sheet attached to an iron fence near the 114th Street entrance to Harlem's Morningside Park. In small type it asked, "How Strong Is Your Dog?" Beneath a nondescript black and white photograph showing a man holding an object in front of a dog, it read:

    LUG-NUTS
    WEIGHT-PULLING CONTEST
    CASH PRIZES!

Despite being less attention-grabbing than the typical ad for a neighborhood tag sale, the notice proved to be quite effective. From Muggsy Bogues-sized terriers to Butkus-necked bull breeds, the turnout of 40-plus dogs resembled a mass breakout from a well-stocked pet shop. Among them were Mojo, a stout "blue" pit bull rescued from the floodwaters of Katrina; Roxy, a taut and delicate Italian greyhound wearing a double strand of pearls; and Bridgette, a pug whose repertoire of tricks featured the yoga position known as "downward-facing dog."

Muscles rippling, noses twitching, eyes darting, the rest of the hopefuls included two Chihuahuas, a West Highland terrier, two French bulldogs, a blond curly-coated poodle, a Siberian husky pup, a Yorkshire terrier, an English sheepdog, a stately white Great Pyrenees, a Boston terrier and a healthy dose of mutts -- all assembled to vie for bragging rights in the 'hood.

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Even the pit bull puppies were revved up for action in their padded harnesses.

The organizers conceived the weight pull as a social event as much as a competition, a pleasant excuse for dogs and their owners to mingle on a crisp autumn afternoon against the bucolic backdrop of a rock-ledged waterfall and an oversized willow tree. It was the perfect cover for stealthier intent: luring in pit bulls, the urban equivalent of great white sharks.

"There's two different types of dogfighting," said Sue Sternberg, the founder and owner of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption, the group responsible for the event. "There's the professional rings. But I think the majority of the damage is done by informal dogfighting, street-corner dogfighting -- one kid taking his pit bull and sparring it with another. That's the population we hope to target with Lug-Nuts, with weight-pulling events to take the place of dogfighting."

It's questionable whether Sternberg would have recognized Michael Vick if he appeared that day in full Falcons uniform, but she fully recognized the value of the inadvertent but priceless attention his legal troubles had generated for programs like hers across the nation. "It's Michael Vick that made the story and brought it to the rest of the world," she said. "And you've got to thank him for that on some level because it's going to save a lot of dogs. It's making a lot of people aware about something that is a heinous thing."

THE TOUGHER THE DOG, THE BIGGER THE MAN
Tony Bickley, 42, came to Morningside Park with his son Alec, an eighth-grader, to enter their two dogs -- Cujo, a Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever resembling the flop-eared love child of a golden retriever and a yellow Labrador; and Isis, an imposing white Great Pyrenees. He also came with a past that connected him to Sternberg's mission.

"Back in the day, I had a pit bull, two or three pit bulls. We used to fight them, right up around 121st Street, where I lived," he said, gesturing toward the north end of the park. By "in the day," Bickley meant the early 1980s, when he was a teenager growing up in Harlem, surrounded by gangs and drug lords. At that time, the "old guard" of German shepherds and Dobermans were fading in popularity. Dobermans, in particular, saw a decrease in lionization, due to unfounded urban legends such as the myth that claimed their skulls close in on their brains as they mature, making them crazed and unstable.

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Guinness, a French bulldog, was evidence the competition was open to all regardless of size or breed.

"Pit bulls were the new fad at that time," Bickley said. "We didn't let them fight to the death, but they'd lock on, and it's a man thing. That's what we based our celebrity status on in the 'hood. Whoever had the baddest pit bull, I guess, was, like, on the top in the neighborhood.

"But I've never experienced somebody picking up a dog, slamming them because they lost, taking out a gun, shooting them, electrocuting them. I loved my dogs. ... I'd throw in the towel before letting my dogs get hurt too bad."

According to Bickley, his involvement in dogfighting stopped when he headed off to college in the mid-1980s, a time when big money started to come into dogfighting, forcing the fights indoors and underground. "People did wild things back then," he said. "Some people would lock their dogs in dark rooms for days and feed them gunpowder to make them crazy before a fight. Some people would hide tacks inside double-sided tape placed around the dog's neck." He claimed he also knew of shootings and stabbings that occurred after people "bet the house on can't-lose dogs" who lost.

RULE NO. 4
To get the competition under way, Sternberg and her small band of volunteers harnessed dogs to children's snow sleds loaded with weighted sacks of dog food. The object of the event: to coax the dogs -- with hot dog bits, aka "high-value treats" -- to pull the sleds a distance of roughly 30 feet. The winner would be decided by the highest weight pulled as a percentage of a contestant's body weight. In theory, this served to level the playing field so that a Chihuahua had an even shot at humiliating a rottweiler, and a Boston terrier could very well open a can of whup-ass on a Great Dane. The top prize was $40, a sum to be doubled if the winning dog had been neutered or spayed.

A bright red sign with white letters displayed the rules of the contest. For the most part, they outlined a generic code of sportsmanship, such as a request not to argue the judges' calls. Buried in the middle of the list, one rule stood out from the rest:

Rule No. 4: "Dogs with fresh fighting scars on face or front legs can compete but are not eligible for cash prizes."

The purpose of Rule No. 4? Sternberg wanted to draw as many pit bulls as possible to the weight pull, but she did not want to encourage those owners who were fighting their dogs by, in effect, paying them to do so.

"In the animal-shelter world, we're in a crisis situation with pit bulls," Sternberg explained. "There are many shelters in the Northeast that have upward of 90 percent pit bulls and pit bull mixes. And some of the dogs are really nice, and some of the dogs are really bad. And the problem is, you get really nice pit bulls, but nobody wants them because people think all pit bulls are bad."

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Tony Bickley looks on as his son Alec offers words of encouragement to their dog Cujo, the dog Bickley dubbed the favorite in the competition.

Cujo was one of the first competitors. Alec took hold of his flanks and pulled him closer for a final nose-to-nose pep talk: "You can do it. I'm confident in you, and I know you can do it. I know you can, right?"

Bickley, watching his son's attempt to embolden Cujo, summed up his own feelings: "It's a different reward in it for me, as I'm sure it is for Alec, to see your dogs compete against other dogs, and nobody gets hurt. No blood being shed, nobody wants to fight because their dog lost, it's good-natured fun, and I love it. You know, I love it."

He analyzed his dogs' chances with the conviction of a seasoned Daily Racing Form handicapper: "Cujo's definitely gonna win. Because I think all the other dogs underestimate him, 'cause he's a Nova Scotia duck-toller. He's not a pit bull, he's not a German shepherd, none of those big old strong [breeds]. ... But he's a strong dog, and he's got a lot of heart, got a lot of energy.

"Isis, hmmm, gets a little lazy on us. Sometimes, you really got to put the food in her face and then she'll pull."

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Tony Bickley calls out for more "high-value treats" to motivate Cujo on as Sue Sternberg guides from the rear.

How many runs each dog would attempt -- one or two -- was up to its owner. A second run was allowed to improve on the weight successfully pulled on the first. Cujo finished his first run, but didn't quite meet the lofty expectations set out for him. Convinced Cujo had topped out on his first attempt, Sternberg offered counsel. "Cujo pulled, um, that's 38.8 pounds, and that was at his upper limit," she said, while adding up the weights listed on the food sacks. "And I am sort of recommending that they hold it back and not do the round back, because if they add more and he stops pulling on the way back, they get zero."

Alec remained unconvinced. "I think he can do it," he told Sternberg. "It's just he's not focused. There's too many people around, and he gets nervous."

"Don't drop the food where he can eat it without moving," Tony advised Alec. "You got to be sharp." Turning to a group of onlookers, he added, "We solved this problem now. And Cujo's gonna handle this with no problem. The outcome is gonna be we got another champion."

On his return trip, Cujo launched himself briskly out of the starting gate but ran into trouble shortly after the first hundredth of a furlong (about six feet). The addition of five more pounds halted his progress as if an oak tree had been tethered to the other end of his harness. And then it began to rain. Bits of Oscar Mayer manna came showering down upon Cujo through Alec's and Tony's hands in quantities few dogs have experienced outside of their wildest, twitch-filled dreams. But the intensity of the feeding frenzy didn't translate into distance pulled. After a frustrating series of starts and stops, punctuated by barking, whimpering, more "high-value treats" and human pleading, Sternberg disqualified Cujo for using up all his time with only five feet left to the finish line.

"One of the ways that these dogs help the kids is the fact that they won't work if you force them, and they don't like punishment," Sternberg said. "You can't force a dog to pull, and that's the beauty of the sport."

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Mojo, a pit bull rescued from the floodwaters of Katrina, is coaxed toward the finish line.

IDEALISTIC, BUT NO BLEEDING HEART
Blue-eyed with a wiry build, her wispy blond hair slowly turning gray, Sternberg -- half idealistic crusader, half hard-nosed pragmatist -- is perfectly suited for the demands of her unique calling. The owner of a shelter located in Accord, N.Y., about 90 miles from Manhattan, she is a nationally known proponent of humane treatment of animals. She speaks all around the country to groups and individuals on topics ranging from shelter management to methods for accurately assessing an animal's temperament. She espouses a kind of dog-shelter bill of rights: the amount of daily exercise dogs should receive in fresh air, outside of their cages; minimums for time of contact with humans; the need for basic comforts, such as blankets to cushion the dogs from concrete floors.

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But she is no one-dimensional bleeding heart. A 2002 HBO documentary, "Shelter Dogs," painted Sternberg in a controversial light for her brutally honest belief that euthanasia is often the best way to deal with irreparably dangerous dogs. With both shelter space and funding in very short supply, Sternberg feels hard decisions have to be made regarding which dogs are suitable candidates for adoption and which dogs will suffer the most in captivity. "If you get a pit bull in a shelter, they start to deteriorate faster than other breeds," she said. "They don't deal well with the frustration of a kennel situation."

She is also far from blind to the attractions of dogfighting, especially to high-profile athletes and other macho types. "I don't think there's much difference between how much I love my dog and how much a lot of the guys who come to the events love their dogs," she said. "And I think, sometimes, people may get involved in casual fighting, or sparring, or mixed up in things they may not want to get mixed up in, because it's what's available. And, you know, if your friend does something with his dog, and your uncle does something with his dog, you end up doing the same thing with your dog -- which is one of the reasons we try to bring in other dog sports, instinct sports and weight pullings."

As for the Michael Vicks of the world, "Pit bulls are athletes themselves," she says. "Therefore, pit bulls are popular with human athletes. They're the quintessential athletes of the canine world. And they're also tough, and beautiful, and macho, and strong, and they symbolize all of that. And I think when you own one, and you walk down the street with one, I think, you feel a little bit more that way yourself."

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The proliferation of pit bulls in shelters is a worldwide problem, taxing a system already pushed to its limits.

Sternberg grew up in an apartment on the Upper East Side knowing she loved dogs and "they would be my whole life." When she was a small child, her father regularly walked her over to Central Park to play with dogs, and by age 8 she was able to identify every breed. An intuitive learner, she taught herself to play the fiddle by ear after her Audubon Expedition Institute high school on wheels (a yellow school bus with backpacks strapped on top) stopped at the home of an old master fiddle player in Maine. She now teaches and plays professionally, when time permits.

Her path to kennel ownership and status as a nationally sought-after canine specialist had humble beginnings. With a liberal arts degree from Amherst College, she accepted a job as dog control officer in Shutesbury, Mass., for $300 a year, payable in two installments spaced six months apart. "If a pack of dogs came and killed your chickens, you would call Sue and file a complaint," she says. To make ends meet, she also worked for both a veterinarian and a shelter. In 1993, when the owner of Holiday Kennels dropped the asking price by $100,000, Sternberg was in the animal adoption business for herself.

Together with Jane Kopelman, her shelter manager and director of the shelter's Training Wheels mobile community outreach program, Sternberg started weight-pull competitions in 2002. The two of them have continued to stage events around New York City, and in other urban areas such as Philadelphia; New Haven, Conn.; Muncie, Ind.; and Quincy, Ill.; as well as parts of North Carolina and Alabama.

A PERFECT MATCH
At the Morningside Park competition, dogs awaiting adoption at the Rondout shelter were matched up with at-risk kids who didn't own dogs so they could experience firsthand the positive effects of the program. Initially, a white pit bull mix named Ellie Mae, a cross between a pit and a shar-pei with a large brindle-colored patch circling her left eye, met with less than total flattery from the kids assigned to her. "That is one ugly dog," came the no-holds-barred assessment. The kids changed their tune and deemed Ellie Mae "pretty cool" when they saw how she could roll over and play dead when a three-finger "gun" was aimed at her and the magical word "bang" was uttered.

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Ellie Mae quickly won over the kids she was matched up with.

Wearing a vintage 1978 gray, blue and gold Milwaukee Brewers cap with the right side lifted 45 degrees off the side of his head, Miguel S. came to Morningside Park under the supervision of The DOME Project, a group dedicated to meeting the needs of kids who have messed up -- with the law, their schools, or themselves. Given a chance to rethink his "career path" through structured activities and schooling, he had behaved without incident for a year while being monitored by the courts. As a result, his record had recently been wiped clean, but he still faces five years of probation.

Over the past year, Kopelman had spent time teaching Miguel to be a dog trainer and had worked with him on identifying and responding appropriately to animal behaviors, including those specific to pit bulls. He observed the number of bull breeds in attendance at the weight pull playing freely with other dogs and saw in them a mirror for the stigmatization and fear that he believed people felt toward kids like himself.

"It's like when people see us, you know, they think that we're going to do something, and I'm just, like, you know, I'm not," he said. "Like white people when they see us, they want to hold their purse. That's how pit bulls are when they look at them in the face, they [are] scared of them, just like they look at us, they're scared of us, but we [are] real nice people, too. You know? And that's how the pit bulls are, too. They're nice. You've just got to train them."

LEAVE 'EM WANTING MORE
Reynaldo Perez's Diamond, a 60-pound pure-bred pit bull known as a "red nose," entered the playing field. Diamond looked every bit as imposing as her wide-bodied owner. "We wanted to see how she acts around other dogs," said Perez, a truck driver for Catholic Charities. "Because sometimes she can get aggressive with 'em, and I didn't want that. So I let her play with a lot of dogs. And," he added with a smile, "she's gonna make Daddy some money."

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A favorite chew toy was all that Diamond needed to get her wheels in gear.

On the subject of Michael Vick, Perez offered his take on both the federal investigation and the charges leveled against him. "I think it was kinda harsh what they did, but it was wrong what he did. I mean, there is no way you kill dogs. Dogs are living beings just like us. And they should have the right to be happy. Not go out there and kill other dogs."

With 42.3 pounds of dog food loaded onto Diamond's sled, Sternberg pulled the ponytailed, nose tackle-sized Perez aside and suggested a strategy that benefited his dog's psyche more than it did his wallet. "This is her first time, she's 17 months old," Sternberg reasoned. "I know you think she could pull a car, and she probably could. But the ground's really rocky, the dogs are having a hard time and, especially, it's her first experience. I want her to leave here feeling confident and strong, I want her to leave feeling it was so easy that she wants to do it again."

With a chew toy placed in her mouth serving as an ignition switch, Diamond quickly powered her way down the course and across the finish line. Unhooked from her harness, she looked a bit confused, wondering why the game had ended so quickly. Sternberg's first rule of weight pulling -- "always leave 'em wanting more" -- was borne out once again.

As weight-pull competitions for dogs typically go, this one hardly qualified as a contest of Grand National proportions. In top-level matches staged around the world, it's not unusual for thousands of pounds of weight to be stacked onto wheeled flatcars nearly frozen to the surfaces they'd soon be pulled over. Yank it for a distance of 15-20 feet, cross the finish line faster than the next bruiser and you get to wear the victor's belt. In those events, dogs contort their bodies by arching their backs into compact pyramid shapes, digging deep to find every last ounce of juice in their bones. Like a bulging Swede dragging a bus in a vintage "World's Strongest Man" competition, the dogs often accomplish the seemingly impossible if not bizarre.

It works as a substitute activity for dogs bred for centuries to work the farm, hunt game, or pull sleds over icy tundra but now finding themselves with little to do except watch TV, gnaw on dried pigs' ears and pass gas.

A RINGER AT DUSK
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Arturo Ortiz and his girlfriend Rachel made a late entrance with a formidable challenger in Red.

With darkness falling, Bridgette, the 19-pound pug best known for her yoga poses, looked like a shoo-in for the title with 18 pounds pulled. The smile on the face of Bob O'Hagen, her owner, belied his shock. "I actually just came down to have some fun," he said. "I didn't think we'd have a chance, unless she developed superhuman powers if a piece of roast beef was dangled in front of her."

Just then, a figure appeared out of the shadows with a small dog in tow. Arturo Ortiz, 20, came forward with Red, a small chestnut-colored pit-bull mix. He approached Kopelman and asked, "How much does he need to pull to win?" Kopelman turned to Sternberg and asked, "If he pulls 37, does he win?" Sternberg nodded. Ortiz felt pretty good about his 30-pound dog's chances, since Red had either won or placed in the same competition each of the past four years. Like a coach carefully timing his athlete's peak performance, Ortiz knew Red was race ready, the product and beneficiary of three hours of daily running alongside him as he bicycled in Central Park.

Whereas Cujo took 15 minutes to down half a dozen wieners in his futile attempt at a successful round trip, Red chose chasing human butt over gulping pork bits and finished his run in record time. Staying only inches from the heels of Arturo's girlfriend Rachel as she ran madly down the course, Red ran the distance jumping and barking at her rear end the whole way. "He chased the crap out of me," Rachel said, laughing as she pet the pit bull that wasn't even close to breathing hard.

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Red, in full victory pose, offers proof that heart can win out over size.

A REWARD FOR PINCHED JEWELS
Standing under the amber glow of a park street lamp, Kopelman double-checked her math by rifling back and forth through the entry pages. Red had nailed it again. Eighty bucks went into Ortiz's pocket, double the normal prize because a vet had pinched two of Red's jewels. For his troubles, Red could look forward to a tasty reward, even though his owner had recently shelled out $400 at the vet to cure an ear infection. "Tonight, Red's getting a steak," Ortiz said. "Seven dollars a plate."

Officially crowned champion, Red reacted by licking the two ladies on either side of him. Sue Sternberg's golden poster boy, Red had become the living embodiment of her philosophy, a philosophy that also fits troubled teens.

"Not all pit bulls are aggressive," she said. "Not all pit bulls are dog aggressive. And when you can take the energy of a dog and direct it into an instinct sport or into an outlet, an expression of the dog's mind and working ability and excitability, if you give him an outlet for something that's good -- lightweight pulling, or any type of dog sport other than some of the blood sports -- all that's left is a great dog."

Nik Kleinberg is a multiple Emmy Award winner and video producer who specializes in off-the-beaten-path stories including: the introduction of high school football to Barrow, Alaska; chessboxing in Cologne, Germany; the Tough Guy Competition in England and an attempt to use sports to combat AIDS in Zambia. The founding photo director of ESPN The Magazine, Kleinberg once convinced Ricky Williams to wear a wedding dress for a cover shoot. He also loves dogs. Click here to e-mail him.

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