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Bella - Her story
from South Africa

Bella of South Africa.

Submitted by Juanita Hobbs

Johannesburg, South Africa, has become known, in recent times, as the crime capital of the world.

Monday, 20 October, 1997, drove this fact home amongst Staffordshire Bull Terriers across the globe. This was the day that Bella was killed defending her mistress from an attempted armed hijacking.

Nicole Russell was standing near her garage at 8:00 am, about to leave for work, when she heard the squeal of tyres. Her first thought when she saw the silver-grey car was that it was someone looking for directions.

"As I looked up, all four of the car's doors opened and four armed men jumped out of the car and started running towards me," she said.

"The leader told me to hand over my car keys and not to make any noise. I did exactly what I was told. I didn't make a sound. I had read somewhere that it was important to stay calm when confronted by hijackers, so I just held out both my arms so they could take my keys and remove my jewellery."

In the confusion Nicole didn't realise she had handed them her house keys instead of her ar keys, and while one of the men battled to remove her steering lock, another started ripping off her jewellery.

"I could see they were nervous," she said. "The man in my car kept yelling that the lock wouldn't open. Then one of the hijackers grabbed me by the arm and began pulling me towards their car."

"It was then that I started screaming. They became very aggressive and one of them hit me in the face with the butt of his gun, but at the time I barely felt the blow."

Alerted by her daughter's screams, Dawn Russell pressed a panic button in the house and rushed into the garden, but when she tried to go to Nicole's aid, she was attacked with a knife. It was then that Bella, the family's four year old Staffordshire Bull Terrier, came to the rescue.

Bella, who had followed Dawn into the garden, lunged at the man with the knife, managing to bite him several times on the legs before being shot in the head. Despite her injury, Bella continued the attack, until the men panicked and fled. At one point, after having fired the shot at Bella, the same hijacker pointed his gun at Nicole and pulled the trigger. There was an empty click. Whether the chamber was empty or whether the gun had simply misfired, we will never know. In any event, Bella had taken the bullet for Nicole.

A shocked and emotional Nicole recalled the incident.

"I remember everything as if it was in slow motion. One of the men looked at me and then slowly pointed the gun at Bella and pulled the trigger."

"After the men fled, Bella just sat down and rolled over. I went and held her. At first there was no blood. She just lay there quietly, looking at me."

A few minutes later Bella died.

During the autopsy performed to extract the bullet from Bella's body, it was found that her heart was completely devoid of blood. She had fought so hard and so courageously that there wasn't a drop of blood left in her heart.

The story of Bella's valiant effort to save her owner captured the hearts of the Johannesburg public, and of Stafford fans all over the world. The Russells were swamped with messages of condolence and breeders from as far afield as Cape Town offered to give them a new puppy.

"You can't imagine how much we miss her," said Nicole. "She was one of the family. I would always give Bella the milk from my cereal or the uneaten crust from my toast when my mother wasn't looking, because she didn't want us feeding her at the table. At breakfast the morning after Bella's death I almost called her for her milk, and then it suddenly struck me that she wasn't there to give it to."

Like most proud animal owners, Nicole remembers all Bella's quirky traits, like her habit of yapping or biting the air if she felt the family were not giving her enough attention, or her never-ending fascination with chasing the neighbour's cat.

"We named her Bella, which means beautiful, because an Italian gentleman used to say that to me and it seemed appropriate for her," said Nicole.

"My father is devastated by her loss. Bella used to sit in the crook of his arm and watch television every night. When she was spayed at six months, my dad cried for days."

This was not the first time Bella had risked her life to save the family. She had been stabbed three months before by an intruder. Nicole's father, Des, noticed the stab wound in Bella's back when he tried to pick her up that evening.

Bella is buried at the Booysens Animal Cemetery. Nicole provided the wording for Bella's headstone. "Bella, May 1993 - October 1997. Greater love hath no dog than this, that she should lay down her life for her master."

Bella was honoured posthumously by the SPCA. Tributes and stories about Bella were carried in every major newspaper in South Africa. Helen Park, owner of the Stafford E-mail List and the on-line magazine, The International Stafford, published a new page dedicated to Bella.

Helen said, "This is what the magazine is all about: to bring Stafford fanciers from all over the world together, to keep them aware of what is going on with the breed in all the world's corners."

"And, perhaps most importantly, to present to all the world the truth about our beloved and giving Staffords: present them as we know them to be - and not as the media would portray them - for then those like Bella shall not have died in vain."

"As Juanita said, "She was a good 'un." This says it all. Hug your Staffords close tonight, everyone. And remember Bella, who gave all."

On Saturday 8 November 1997, the Pretoria Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club and Graeme Stewart, representing the Stafford e-mail List, presented Nicole, the victim, and Lee, Bella's owner, with awards in Bella's honour.

Graeme's award was a framed collection of all the messages of condolence that were received from the Stafford List.

When Graeme made the presentation to Nicole and Lee, he said, "As a member of an international e-mail list dedicated to Staffy Lovers around the world, I was saddened when I heard and read about the terrible events that had happened to Nicole, Bella and their family, the Russells."

"The list that I have mentioned is one that allows the exchange of ideas or views with others around the world instantly. I immediately submitted a transcript of the newspaper story to the list. This would then have been relayed to all the Staffy-loving members. I had requested that if anyone would like to send a message to the Russell family, they could via a reply to myself."

"The responses I received have come from as far a field as Karen Dawes of San Diego, California, to Susan, Wendy and 4 year old Lottie (a Staffy in Sydney, Australia)."

"A message was also received from George Teker and Bruno. Bruno is the 1997 SPCA Dog of the Year. An award he received for helping George's mother after she had suffered a paralyzing stroke."

"Of the many messages received, I think the following, is a perfect tribute to a dog with the courage of Bella. Steve Stone, from Mayhill, New Mexico, wrote: I quote "Bella epitomized all that is good and true in the Stafford. She was game, she was the genuine article, and no greater praise can be given to any dog. I would rather have one Bella in my lifetime than a baker's dozen of CC and BIS winners who would not do what she did. In my personal Stafford opinion, she ranks alongside another great South African Staffordshire Bull Terrier - Jock of the Bushveld. Not long ago, someone posted this question to the list: Where are today's great Staffordshire Bull Terriers? Bella has just answered that question." End of quote."

Bella of South Africa.

"On behalf of the International Stafford List, who, I know, are all here this evening in spirit, I would like to present these messages to Nicole and her sister Lee who owned and loved - Bella."

Graeme later said, "The award was the grand finale and I think on behalf of Juanita Hobbs and myself, we were faced with one of the most emotional moments of our lives! Juanita, for the Pretoria Stafford Club, presented a seven ring rosette and a shield and I presented all the messages of condolence to the family. A standing ovation was given to Bella, when Nicole and Lee Russell received the award on her behalf. The entire audience of more than 100 Stafford fans, had tears running down their faces."

Nicole and Lee Russel award presentation.

The Russell family wrote to both Graeme Stewart and the Pretoria Stafford Club after the ceremony as follows:

Dear Graeme:

We just wanted to thank you once again for the very touching tribute paid to Bella on Saturday evening.

The framed e-mail messages were so heart-warming. It would be great to say thank you to everyone who sent these messages, but unfortunately we do not have an e-mail facility, but should there be a possibility we'd love to send our thanks to one and all.

These messages along with so many other well wishes have helped to soften the hurt we feel after losing Bella so brutally.

Dear Juanita:

We would just like to say thanks once again to you and the Pretoria Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club for the most touching tribute paid to Bella at your annual prize giving.

It is almost impossible to express our appreciation, we were so overwhelmed by the warm and compassionate responses from people far and wide, but the e-mail messages we received from Graeme Stewart were unbelievable.

We didn't realise that our little Bella would stir up such a storm world wide, and knowing that people feel so strongly about an animal of this calibre makes the hurt we feel at her loss a lot easier to work through.

Even months after Bella's death, conversations about her are still being conducted across the World Wide Web. One such example is that written by Magnus Palsson, a Stafford breeder from Sweden, who wrote:

The story of Bella is very touching and it's hard to keep one's eyes from getting wet.

I've read what you wrote about her and her breeding. Bella is obviously a showbred dog and, still, she proved very useful in a rough situation. Now, that speaks highly for her breeding but it really says nothing about "showbred" dogs in general. Please notice that both "Betchgreen" and "Belnite" have a good reputation also among "working" dog fanciers.

I've had both "show stock" and the other sort. Basically, I've found the other sort to be more useful, BUT, it's still a question of the quality of the individual dog.

So - if someone tells me that all "show bred" dogs are useless, I'll laugh in their face, but, on the other hand, if someone tells me that all "show bred" dogs will act like Bella, I'll laugh in their face as well.

We are pleased to report that the Russell's have accepted a new Staffy pup and have named their new baby, Chloe. Bella will NEVER be forgotten and the attention she received across the planet has helped immeasurably to spread the word about man's greatest best friend - the Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

Juanita Hobbs' words, on presenting the citation to Bella from the Pretoria Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club, sum it all up:

Your Bella lost her life displaying the true and special Stafford temperament that makes our Breed so unique. Bella's heroism has earned her a memorable place in history.

The Pretoria Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club is honoured to decorate Bella with this special award for extreme bravery and courage. Bella was truly - BOLD, FEARLESS and TOTALLY RELIABLE .

Nicole Russell.

Aknowledgements to:
George Teker
Graeme Stewart
Helen Park
Juanita Hobbs
Magnus Palsson
Pretoria News
Pretoria Staffordshire Bull Terrier Club
Steve Stone
The Russell Family
The Stafford List
The Star

Bella's Pedigree