Pit Stop: Canine artists spread anti-bullying message

Painting for a cause, these two pit bulls have a message to deliver via their artistic soul.

Betty Dillard bdillard@bizpress.net

Thanks to a six-year-old pit bull dog with a funny name, a growing number of local schoolchildren are learning that bullying isn’t cool – for an animal or a human – and are making a commitment not to bully. Turtle the Painting Pit Bull – the Pitcasso of and an ambassador for her breed – is the inspiration behind an anti-bullying program called “Bullying from a Pit Bull’s Perspective.” The campaign was begun in 2011 by Chris Huff, Arlington Animal Services manager, and Kristie Miller, founder and president of Respect A Bull Inc., an Arlington nonprofit organization. Through a partnership with the Arlington Independent School District, Turtle and Miller travel to schools and talk to kids about bullying and how to prevent and stop it. To date, almost 2,000 students have heard their message.

“Our mission is to educate children on bullying and animal abuse using Turtle’s story,” Miller said. “When children hear Turtle’s story from her perspective, they listen and understand better. I don’t know how we came up with the bullying from a pit bull’s perspective because we really wanted to talk to kids about animal abuse. But there’s so much bullying going on that this just fits.” Miller, a volunteer at the shelter, had rescued her first pit bull, an abused dog named Mooch, several years ago. Mooch became the catalyst for Respect A Bull. Established in 2008, the nonprofit aims to lower the number of pit bull dogs euthanized in animal shelters by offering free spay/neuter for pit bulls and education clinics for pit bull owners. Since then, more than 350 pit bulls in Arlington alone have been spayed or neutered. Miller has paid for most of those services from her own pocket. The partnership with Arlington Animal Services allows free use of the shelter for classes and programs when Turtle and Miller aren’t on the road championing their cause. “It costs $60 to $100 a dog to spay or neuter, microchip them, get their shots and license,” Miller said. “We think that it’s important so we keep doing it.”  

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Miller rescued Turtle from the shelter in January 2009. Two years old and weighing less than 12 pounds, Turtle was found abandoned on a golf course. Her ears had been cut off and she was covered in mange and bite wounds. She had probably been used as a bait dog for illegal dog fights. Miller said the dog looked like a turtle without a shell, hence the moniker. “Turtle’s story may start out a little sad but then it gets wonderful,” Huff said. “Kristie became Turtle’s mama and brought her back to life and made Turtle the dog she is today. Now, Turtle is a happy dog. She’s become a role model after being treated so poorly. We share her story because sometimes kids are mistreated in school and we try to tell it from our perspective but we’re not always heard. But when it’s given from Turtle’s perspective, kids relate better and they listen more.” Respect A Bull’s anti-bullying program, however, almost didn’t happen. Miller pitched the idea to several schools but Turtle was turned away because she’s a pit bull and considered too dangerous. This breed is often thought of as being aggressive and has gotten a bad reputation due to owners who raise them for the wrong reason, Miller said. “I went to her trainer and asked her to teach me how to get Turtle to paint. I taught Turtle to paint and then went back to Chris,” Miller said. Her dogged efforts eventually paid off.

“It’s just snowballed. Now we have a waiting list,” Miller said. “Apparently, a pit bull with a paint mitt isn’t as frightening.” Turtle’s technique is simple and effective. Miller and Huff discuss bullying with students and actions to take if a person is bullied. Sally Amendola, a former school principal and fellow shelter volunteer, often shares her story of being bullied when she was a child. Turtle’s story of cruelty and pictures highlighting her abuse and recovery are shown. At the conclusion of the class, Turtle, with support from her BFF Leroy Brown, a bulldog also used for therapy, paints a colorful picture for the kids. (She’s a southpaw, by the way.) Each student receives a “Remember Turtle” bracelet to wear in honor of Turtle and to serve as a reminder not to bully. Turtle’s work of art is framed and donated to the school, where it goes on display to further reinforce the anti-bullying message. “When they remember Turtle, hopefully, they’ll remember her story and remember how to treat other kids and how they want to be treated,” Huff said.

Miller says Turtle’s name and message are quickly becoming known. Her artwork is available at Rustic Crossroads in Cresson, and all proceeds from the sale of her paintings support the program. Turtle also plans to paw a series of children’s books on bullying. “We think we can nip bullying in the bud. Our goal is just to get Turtle’s story out there. She’s such a survivor and we want to tell her story in a positive way,” Miller said. “It’s not about her being a pit bull. We do want to show that pit bulls are not the monster some people believe them to be. Any animal can become aggressive. That’s why we take Leroy Brown to teach about bite prevention and how kids should approach a dog. “We explain how Leroy Brown accepts Turtle for the way she was. He encouraged her and has been there the whole time for her. You can either be a Leroy Brown or you can be a bully.”