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September 13, 2010

Elisabeth Gambill-Niksich: Humane Hero

Volunteer leads HSUS anti-dogfighting program in Atlanta

All Animals magazine, September/October 2010

  • Elisabeth Gambill-Niksich works with Rufus Brown and his dog Mikie during a June training class. Mark Young

by Margie Fishman

Tank the pit bull swaggered into training one day with fresh fighting wounds and an intimidating sneer, lunging at every dog in his path. Trailing behind was Tank’s owner, Mark, guarded and suspicious.

With no time to judge, chide, or even flinch, Elisabeth Gambill-Niksich threw a leash around Tank’s large head and informed Mark about the ground rules of the 10-week obedience class: No cell phones, no yelling, and absolutely no hitting the dogs.

After two weeks of training, Tank was sitting on command, oblivious to the other animals. He allowed Gambill-Niksich to kiss his head and inspect his ears. Mark beamed at his companion’s new attitude and regularly volunteered to help clean up after class.

For Gambill-Niksich, a type-A Southern belle with an optimistic streak, the transformation confirmed her approach as city coordinator of The HSUS’s End Dogfighting in Atlanta campaign. “Everybody can relate to somebody on a human level,” she says. “If you treat people with respect, you get respect back.”

A full-time volunteer with a manicured hand in every element of the campaign, Gambill-Niksich oversees a team of more than 35 volunteers and anti-dogfighting advocates, including reformed dogfighters and drug dealers. She shows participants how to replace their dogs’ chains with collars and leashes, arranges for experts to speak about pet care and spay/neuter, and organizes fundraisers and law enforcement trainings. “Elisabeth is the backbone of the program,” says Laurie Maxwell, deputy manager of the End Dogfighting campaign. “She never misses a detail.”

During a recent trip to Chicago, site of the original End Dogfighting program, Gambill-Niksich rode around with anti-dogfighting advocates—street-savvy men with deep roots in their communities—and learned more about the cultural life of inner-city neighborhoods.

Accompanying her on the trip was Ralph Hawthorne, the Atlanta program’s lead anti-dogfighting advocate. Charged with recruiting students and enlisting community support, Hawthorne is a former gang member and drug dealer who has worked for violence prevention programs. In Chicago, he says, Gambill-Niksich bonded with the other campaigners over a shared dedication to saving animals. “She won over our anti-dogfighting advocates in a big way and helped them to see that we have more in common than we know,” he says.

Growing up on fried chicken, barbecue, and the country club circuit, Gambill-Niksich began her transition to animal advocate after watching a video about factory farming. She joined animal protection organizations, became a citizen lobbyist lambasting whale hunts, and committed to a cruelty-free lifestyle. She also began cleaning cages at a local cat shelter and taught herself to trap feisty feral cats, paying to have them spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and microchipped before releasing them.

She met Tail and her sister, No Tail, after four years of trying to trap their mother from the woods behind her house. She eventually caught the siblings, took them to a vet, and released them into the night. Tail continued to lounge on woodpiles in her yard, but it took another five years before Gambill-Niksich could get close enough to touch the tip of her tail. Even then, the cat would whip around, cross-eyed. But Gambill-Niksich kept inching closer until the day that Tail, at age 8, came running up to the patio and tumbled onto her back. “I felt like I had arrived,” she remembers.

Her feline family now numbers five, including a black kitten she stumbled upon dodging cars in a busy intersection. When she attempted to catch him, he tore into her hands—but she forced herself to hang on, ending up in urgent care.

After 15 years of working with feral cats, Gambill-Niksich figured she could handle a pit bull and began volunteering for the End Dogfighting campaign when it launched in Atlanta in 2008. More than 70 people have entered the program since, seeking to transform their dogs into model pets under the tutelage of lead trainer Amber Burckhalter, who holds the weekly classes at her facility.

At a recent training, Beatrice Pleasant beamed as her 2-year-old pit, Rock, raced up an A-frame to rousing applause and barking. Pleasant resides in The Bluff neighborhood of northwest Atlanta, where police had found a dismembered body in a vacant lot two weeks before.  She had rescued Rock as a puppy, his paws burnt from running around a supermarket lot. Although he slept in bed with her at night, Rock needed to be tethered to a fence when he first arrived at training to prevent skirmishes with other dogs. A few weeks in, he ignored waving baby dolls and banging trash can lids—deliberate distractions—and calmly sunned himself.

 “These are wonderful people here,” Pleasant says. “They are very patient and haven’t shown us anything but love.”

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