When Stephanie Heath Higgins met Grace, she could barely hold up her head.
The pit bull, at 7 or 8 years old, should have weighed around 60 pounds. But Grace weighed about 30. She was emaciated, dehydrated, suffering from an eye infection. She couldn’t walk. Her organs were shutting down.
But Higgins loved her anyway.
Higgins, founder and president of Cuse Pit Crew, led the charge to gather donations for Grace’s care after she was brought in by Syracuse Police Officer Rebecca Thompson, the SPD’s dedicated animal cruelty officer. The dog’s owner, Marquette Jamison, 35, of 1511 W. Onondaga St., was charged Oct. 3 failure to provide medical care to an animal that needs it and failure to provide proper sustenance. Both charges are misdemeanors. Jamison was released on an appearance ticket to appear in Syracuse City Court.
Meanwhile, though the community rallied around her, Grace was unable to recover from the damage that had been done to her. She had to be euthanized Saturday, Oct. 6.
“As a result of months of neglect by her owner, Gracie’s condition was not curable,” Higgins wrote on Cuse Pit Crew’s Facebook page. “She fell into advanced kidney failure. I can assure this great community who has rallied behind her that she had the best care and every medical avenue was exhausted. I know in the short time I befriended this sweet girl that she felt the love and energy from all of you. I genuinely feel that through all of your emotional support that Gracie knew what it was like to be loved before she died.
Grace’s death prompted Cuse Pit Crew to author an online petition through Change.org calling for State Sen. David Valesky to lead the state legislature in moving companion animals in New York out of NYS Agriculture and Markets Law and into NYS Penal Law. Doing so would allow those charged with the abuse or neglect of an animal to be charged with a felony; under the current statute, they can only be charged with a misdemeanor. Valesky was chosen not only because he represents Central New York, but because he is a member of the Agriculture Committee in the New York State Senate.
Higgins said the change would be a fitting tribute to Grace.
“We believe that Grace will be the vehicle for change in New York state,” she said. “We cannot allow other animals to suffer at the hands of their owners. The Central New York community can come together to make a change for these animals. They need a voice, and we can be that for them.”
At press time, the petition had 1,176 signatures.
To view the petition, visit Change.org/petitions/new-york-state-senator-david-j-valesky-sponsor-legislation-to-strengthen-nys-law-for-neglected-companion-animals.
The petition is one of a number of efforts Cuse Pit Crew is undertaking in order to improve life for pit bulls. The organization’s mission is to “refuel the human-animal connection in the city of Syracuse through community outreach and educational programming, while advocating for pit bulls and other misunderstood breeds.”
Cases like Grace’s prompted Higgins, a Liverpool High School graduate and North Syracuse resident, to found Cuse Pit Crew in 2011. The group falls under the umbrella of the Animal Alliance of Greater Syracuse.
“I worked at a shelter where I saw the pit bulls were being euthanized because there weren’t enough homes for them, or people had the wrong idea of what a pit bull was,” she said. “Personally, I just felt very bad for them, working in the shelter. Obviously, other shelter dogs need to be adopted, as well, of course. It’s just that these dogs are overlooked in shelters because of the general idea of what people see them as, these mean, vicious dogs.”
However, Higgins said pit bulls have a very good temperament naturally.
“In fact, pit bulls have always been known as family dogs,” she said. “At the turn of the century, they were the nanny dogs. They would watch the kids. That’s still their temperament. What ended up happening is that some bad people figured out that they’re really strong dogs, and they’re very loyal dogs, and those two traits worked against them. They figured out, ‘I can train these dogs to fight, and I can make money off them, because they’re going to listen to me when I tell them to fight.’”
In order to change that culture, Cuse Pit Crew has undertaken projects like free dog training within the 13204 ZIP code — Syracuse’s poorest neighborhood, the Near East Side. Residents can bring their pit bull or other bully breeds and receive free training from a certified trainer. They must live within that ZIP code and meet certain income qualifications. The training takes place at St. Lucy’s gym on Gifford Street. For more information, check Cuse Pit Crew’s web site. One six-week session is currently in progress; another is coming soon.
Another component of Cuse Pit Crew’s mission is humane education.
“What we really want to do with that is get into community centers, more of the kids and the teens on how you’re supposed to treat an animal, not just pit bulls, but in general, this is how you treat animals,” Higgins said. “There is research out there that people who abuse people have abused animals, as well, so we’re trying to get to that nook of everything to change things right off the bat. Some cultures believe that dogs are meant to be tied outside. They are used as protection. We’re going to try to get in and change the way people see dogs. The humane ed is a big thing.”
The group also helps connect people with medical help for pets when necessary. Eventually, Higgins said she’d like to get enough funding to help people with spaying and neutering.
“In the meantime, what we’ve been doing is helping people who’ve contacted us either about a loose pit bull or just being a resource for people,” she said. “People who are looking to adopt a pit bull come to us, which is a great thing. We can kind of facilitate that for them by sending them to local shelters and rescue groups.”
While Syracuse’s dogs certainly benefit from Cuse Pit Crew’s activities, they’re not the only ones.
“It’s definitely about the community,” Higgins said. “We want to try to give some of the residents in the community something positive to focus on. We’re using that dog — the pit bull or any other bully breed that comes down — as the vehicle for bringing about positive change… It is so much more than just the dogs. I love this community. I love Syracuse, and I want to see the residents feeling empowered. This is definitely a way to do it.”
To learn more about Cuse Pit Crew or to donate, visit cusepitcrew.org or Facebook.com/CusePitCrew.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.