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Abused pit bull captures hearts around the world

During a volunteer orientation this week at Pets Inc., Michelle Curtis met Cowboy, the shelter's most famous resident at the moment.

A friend had emailed Curtis a news story about the skinny, grey-and-white pit bull. So, the first thing Curtis did when she got home from orientation was make a phone call.

"Guess who I got to see?" Curtis asked her friend. "Cowboy!"

Cowboy gained international attention this week when local TV stations told his story, and the story of the rail-thin dog with teeth busted to stubs and puncture wounds across his face tugged at people's heart strings. He now has a Facebook page with 1,500 fans, and the West Columbia pet shelter has heard from people as far away as Denmark and Germany.

Cowboy's caretakers at Pets Inc. suspect he came from a dog fighting operation, but Cowboy's story is not unique. Representatives from other pet rescue organizations said they frequently find dogs that obviously have been used in fighting rings. Those dogs have either escaped or been dumped by their owners. Some turn into family pets. Others never adapt to life with other dogs or people.

"There are so many other dogs like him," said Patti O'Rourke, a vice president at SQ Rescue, "We have tons like that - pitiful abuse cases."

But Cowboy has gained the spotlight.

Pets Inc. workers identified Cowboy as a "bait dog," saying he likely had been used to train other fighting dogs, and his teeth had been purposely sawed off so he would not hurt those he was matched against.

The Humane Society of the United States, which investigates dog fighting across the country, said people who use pit bulls to fight do not file off teeth for training dogs. Instead, the dog's teeth most likely have been ground to stumps because it has chewed on its chains, said Janette Reever, deputy manager for animal fighting investigations in the national office.

Fighting dogs spend a lot of time tied up, and they become excited, anxious or frustrated by their surroundings, Reever said.

In dog fighting circles, the trainers don't file off a practice dog's teeth, she said. The owners want their fighters to train against dogs who can challenge them.

The term "bait dog" is most common with street fighting, Reever said.

"Kids on the street will want to see what their dog can do," she said.

Reever said she had seen a picture of Cowboy and said the puncture wounds on his face and feet are in line with injuries commonly found on fighting dogs.

Since Cowboy can't talk, no one will know for sure what kind of life he led before arriving at Pets Inc.

He was found July 9 walking along Sandy Run Road in Gaston and taken to the shelter. He was more attached to a tennis ball than people. But he was quiet and gentle, said Pat McQueen, one of Pets Inc.'s founders.

Cowboy has no muscle tone on his hips, and it's easy to count his ribs. He has scars on his muzzle, below his left eye, around his front paws and on his tail. And his teeth are broken, yellow nubs.

While he waits for someone to adopt him, Cowboy lives in a foster home at night but spends his days at Pets Inc. On Friday, he wandered around the store front, greeting people as they walked in. He sniffed other dogs but didn't show signs of aggression.

Cowboy's Facebook page, "Prayers for Cowboy," had 1,568 fans as of Friday night.

Yolanda Rios of Bethlehem, Penn., created the page after several friends sent her links to his story. She has been involved with animal rescue efforts for years and often starts Facebook fan pages for dogs who have been abused.

"His story caught my attention because he survived," Rios said. "I follow those stories involving pit bulls and German shepherds. I have a soft spot for them."

The people at Pets Inc. hope the brutality behind Cowboy's brings awareness to the public.

"The story is just so horrible," McQueen said. "It takes a monster to do that. The more horrified people are, the more their consciences will bother them."

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