By Laura Drucker
Amanda Bickell always knew that she wanted a Pit Bull. She speaks fondly of her days growing up in Canada, playing with her best friend’s Pit and falling in love with the breed. Today, Amanda and her husband, Chicago Blackhawks star Bryan Bickell, run the Bryan & Amanda Bickell Foundation—a non-profit organization dedicated to spreading awareness about the plight of Pit Bulls and proving to skeptics just how loving and special these dogs are.
Amanda and Bryan rescued their first Pit Bull, Bailey, when they were living in Ontario in 2005. “She was only five weeks old and she was living with a drug dealer,” Amanda says. “He had cut off all the puppies’ tails with scissors. All of the other siblings were sold. Bryan and I looked at each other and said we have to get her out of this situation, so that’s what we did.”
A month later, Ontario enacted Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), effectively banning Pit Bulls like Bailey from city limits.
“People would cross the street when they saw her,” Amanda recalls. “We were no longer allowed to bring her to dog parks or puppy classes; she wasn’t allowed to be socialized whatsoever.”
Following sensationalized media reports of Pit Bull attacks in the early 1980s, some cities started enacting stringent laws against the breed and other so-called “bully breeds.” The resulting legislations ranged from complete bans to restrictions and conditions for people living with specific breeds (such as mandatory spay/neuter, mandatory microchipping, and mandatory liability insurance). In cities where such laws were passed, all Pit Bulls and Pit Bull-type dogs were considered, by law, inherently dangerous.
For the Bickells and their dog Bailey, life in Ontario became a nightmare, with neighbors calling Animal Care and Control on them roughly every two weeks. The scariest incident, however, came when Bryan started playing in the American Hockey League in Virginia and Amanda went to visit, leaving Bailey with her stepfather.
“I got a phone call saying that Bailey had gotten loose,” Amanda recalls. “unfortunately, Animal Care and Control caught her before my stepdad did, and they had to bring her in even though he was right there telling them she was his dog. We were told they needed to run all these tests on her, and that if she didn’t pass all of them they would euthanize her. I had a lot of faith in her, but I didn’t know how she was going to react––she had never even been in a kennel before.”
The Bickells’ vet was able to vouch for Bailey and get her tested as soon as possible. “They ran all the tests and, thankfully, she passed with flying colors,” Amanda says. “But I’ve heard of many cases where things didn’t go as well, and a lot of people lost their family pet. It’s horrifying.”
Eventually, Bryan was drafted by the Blackhawks and the family moved to Chicago. In 2012, city lawmakers started discussing the possibility of enacting BSL, following a well-publicized New Year’s Day attack of a jogger by two Pit Bulls at Chicago’s Rainbow Beach. For the Bickells, it was a call to action.
“We jumped on it and said, ‘No, you guys are mistaken, you have the wrong impression. Let’s try to do something about it,’” Amanda says. Together with Adopt-a-Pet.com, the couple started an anti-BSL campaign called Chicago Loves Pits. They put up billboards around the city featuring themselves with a smiling Bailey and a tag line that read, “Bryan Bickell Is the Only Fighter in This Family.” A website was also developed to provide information about the campaign and the ineffectiveness of BSL.
Thanks to the efforts of Pit Bull supporters like the Bickells, BSL never passed in Chicago. But, even though the major battle was won, Amanda and Bryan didn’t want
to give up on a cause they are so passionate about. “We weren’t ready to let it go. We weren’t ready to stop fighting this campaign and spreading awareness,” Amanda explains. “So we asked [Adopt-a-Pet] if we could take Chicago Loves Pits and turn it into an organization where it’s not just a campaign––where we could run with it and we could spread awareness.” The Bickells took over the campaign, and in December 2013 the name was officially changed to the Bryan & Amanda Bickell Foundation.
One of the first things that the foundation did was put out Bick’s Pits, a 2014 calendar featuring Bryan and his fellow Blackhawks posing with adoptable Pit Bulls. “We’re like a big family,” says Bryan of his teammates. “There’s a big supportive atmosphere in the locker room. We’re like brothers––we’ll do whatever it takes to help each other succeed.” And succeed they have: A month after the calendar’s release, six of the adoptable Pits had already found forever homes.
Though the non-profit is still in its early stages of development, Amanda and Bryan already have big plans for the future, starting with their Paws for Strength program, launching soon. The program will connect abused children with formerly abused Pit Bulls. “Because Pits are the number one abused dog, they can help abused children. They [can] show these children that, despite what they’ve been through, they have still learned to love and trust humans again,” Amanda explains. “It gives the children hope that there is life on the other side, that they can live happy lives.”
Another program in the works, Bullies Against Bullying, will bring Pit Bulls into schools to talk to children about bullying and the harm it can do. This topic hits home for the couple––both Amanda and Bryan recall being bullied as kids and are well aware of the trauma it can cause.
By using Pit Bulls––who despite being considered a “bully breed” are sweet and loving dogs and are often bullied themselves––they hope to give children a different perspective on bullying, and perhaps a greater appreciation for the underdog.
The Bickells’ advocacy work on behalf of Pit Bulls shows a keen appreciation for the human-animal bond, as well as a deep passion and love for not only Pits, but for anyone who has been mistreated. And though the Bryan & Amanda Bickell Foundation is just beginning, the couple has nothing but optimism and hope for the future.
“Everything has exceeded my expectations so far,” says Amanda with a smile. “I’m really happy with where we’re going, and I’m excited about where we’re going to be. Whether we help hundreds of people and dogs or just one, it is a success to us.”
To learn more about the Bryan & Amanda Bickell Foundation visit BickellFoundation.org.
Images via Karen Morgan Photography