ST. LOUIS— It's hard to know what life must have been like for Jakob, Junior and Kali — as well as hundreds of other American pit bulls before they were seized this summer in the largest dogfighting raid in U.S. history.
But breed advocates said Wednesday they're upbeat about their futures. The three pit bulls, shown for the first time at the Humane Society of Missouri with other dogs from the raids, appear headed for gentler lives.
Jakob, a 1-year-old male, is headed to California for a new career as a therapy dog.
Kali, a 5-month-old female, is close to being adopted for training in dog agility competitions.
Junior, a gentle, senior dog with clipped ears, is being adopted. He nuzzled his handler, Tiffany McBee, as she explained the work of her Fulton-based rescue group, Broken Hearts Mended Souls, which aided the placements of both Junior and Kali.
"It's amazing that any of them come out of that experience and can be good pets," said veterinarian Marcy Hammerle, who works with St. Louis-based Mutts n Stuff, a breed rescue group that helped facilitate placements. "They still trust and want to be with people. I have fallen more in love with this breed."
Federal district courts in Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Texas and Oklahoma have begun to release the seized dogs to rescue groups even as those arrested in the dogfighting raids continued to plead guilty.
On Wednesday, Rick Hihath of St. Joseph, who taught physical education at a state school for the severely disabled, pleaded guilty in federal court in Kansas City to conspiring to promote and participate in dog fights said.
Hihath was among 26 people arrested in the series of federal raids July 8 in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas.
Federal agents seized more than 500 dogs, some of them pregnant. The dogs and their litters have been housed by the Humane Society of Missouri and other animal groups.
A dozen dogs released by a federal judge in Iowa last week are bound for rescue groups in Minnesota and California.
Donna Reynolds of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls, in Oakland, Calif., described them as "handsome young adults" that are people-focused and very affectionate. She said they are not only tolerant but social with other dogs.
The Humane Society of Missouri is working with 21 rescue groups around the country to place adult dogs and puppies that the courts have cleared for placement and are still housed at an emergency shelter in St. Louis. More than half of the 400-plus dogs brought to the Humane Society were deemed by animal behaviorists as suitable for placement.
A dozen Missouri and Illinois dogs have been placed so far. But the group says it still needs help.
"We still have a need ... to see these dogs be pets in somebody's household, to lay on a couch and crawl on somebody's lap," said Debbie Hill, the Missouri Humane Society's vice president of operations.
The founder of Our Pack, Inc., the Los Gatos, Calif., rescue group that's taking in Jakob, said her group plans to train him and perhaps other pit bulls from the raids as therapy dogs.
Marthina McClay said she trained Leo, a pit bull once owned by NFL quarterback and convicted dogfighter Michael Vick, to be a certified therapy dog in five weeks. She said Leo has worked at a stroke rehab center and a nursing home, and now visits cancer patients.
"It's one thing to be on an abuser's property, and another thing to be in a responsible person's home," she said. "So much gets blamed on the dog when it's the humans."