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Last updateMon, 16 Nov 2015 2pm

Vick Dog Update

 Just Dogs

The Vick Dogs seven years after their liberation

Hector
Hector
Laura Hayes
(last updated November 2016)

Today they are just dogs—dogs with graying muzzles and the aches and pains of incumbent old age—but seven years ago, when they were removed from Michael Vick's Bad Newz kennels they were anything but "just" dogs.

Evidence to be seized & destroyed

Sixty-six dogs, including fifty-one "pit bulls," were seized on April 25, 2007, when a team of local and state police, including a SWAT team, searched Vick's property in Surry County, Virginia. (The other dogs seized included beagles, rottweilers, and presas canario.) Law enforcement had obtained a warrant to search the property after a suspect arrested for drug possession gave his address as 1915 Moonlight Road—the address of Bad Newz kennels.  A subsequent search in June 2007 produced more evidence of dog fighting, including half a dozen bodies of dogs that had been brutally killed. Michael Vick was indicted on dogfighting and racketeering charges on July 17, 2007.

The removal of the "Vick Dogs," as they were quickly dubbed, from Bad Newz kennels heralded no real change in their future prospects. They were taken to six facilities and held as evidence. Few received substantive interaction with people; two dogs even died. When asked about the Vick Dogs in August 2007, Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States ("HSUS") told the New York Times: “Officials from our organization have examined some of these dogs and, generally speaking, they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country.” Pacelle also noted that the HSUS generally advocated that fighting dogs be put down shortly after being seized. The HSUS's attitude toward the Vick Dogs was no different. “Hundreds of thousands of less-violent pit bulls, who are better candidates to be rehabilitated, are being put down. The fate of these dogs will be up to the government, but we have recommended to them, and believe, they will be eventually put down.”

Jim Gorant
Author Jim Gorant
Jim Gorant discusses The Lost Dogs

Ironically, the best thing the Vick Dogs had going for them was Michael Vick (and maybe his lawyers). John Goodwin, head of the dogfighting unit for the HSUS, told the New York Times that the government believed that "they needed to keep [the dogs] alive in this case, but that certainly is rare in dogfighting cases. Veterinary records and videos can document what you need from these dogs. The government wasn’t going to take any chances with Vick’s high-paid lawyers.” The president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("ASPCA"), Ed Sayres, commented that the government had taken extra care to keep the dogs alive because the case was so high profile. 

Little Red
Little Red

Michael Vick's celebrity also ensured that the plight of the dogs made national headlines. Letters from concerned dog lovers poured in to District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson, who would hear Vick's case, and Mike Gill, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, who was prosecuting Vick. Gill, concerned about the fate of the dogs, reached out to Dr. Steve Zawistowski, a behavior expert with the ASPCA, in July of 2007. Meanwhile, Donna Reynolds of Bay Area Dog Owners Responsible About Pit Bulls ("BAD RAP") drafted a proposal to evaluate the dogs in order to determine which dogs might be spared and rehabilitated. She mailed the proposal to Gill, who passed it on to Dr. Zawistowski.

On August 23, 2007, Vick appeared in the U.S. District Court in Richmond, VA, where he submitted a plea agreement to Judge Hudson. Judge Hudson accepted the agreement in which Vick admitted that he had been involved in dogfighting and had personally participated in killing animals. (Specifically, Vick pled guilty to conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities and to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture. In November 2008, Vick submitted a guilty plea to a single Virginia state of felony dogfighting and received a three-year suspended sentence.) The agreement required him to pay $928,000 for the care and treatment of the dogs, including any humane destruction deemed necessary. Judge Hudson ordered that the dogs be evaluated.

A "Grand Experiment" begins

Donna Reynolds Tim Racer
Donna Reynods & Tim Racer
Donna Reynolds and Timer Racer on evaluating, transporting, and working with the Vick Dogs:

The evaluation of nearly fifty presumed fighting dogs was, in retrospect, a watershed moment in how dogs seized in fight busts would be handled. Never before had anyone attempted to evaulate so many dogs with an eye to rehabilitation and adoption. The HSUS opposed this "grand experiment" even though the organization had stepped in to help care for the Vick Dogs. The HSUS's Goodwin told the New York Times in August 2008 that the HSUS opposed the evaluations because results could be inconsistent with how the dogs would react when they interacted with other animals. “The fact that these dogs are put in such an impossible situation is just another tragic consequence of dogfighting,” he said.

Even the organizations working to save what Vick Dogs they could were not sanguine about the dogs' chances—Sayres and the ASPCA estimated that ten to twenty percent of the Vick Dogs could be rehabilitated, while Donna Reynolds of BAD RAP thought they'd be lucky to get five dogs out of the evaluation.

The evaluations

On September 4–6, 2007, under tight security and a court-imposed gag order, Dr. Zawistowski's team—comprising himself, two other ASPCA staffers, and three outside certified animal behaviorists—assembled in Virginia. Three members of BAD RAP, including Donna Reynolds and Tim Racer also participated in the evaluation process. Dr. Zawistowski's approach to evaluating the dogs was similar to BAD RAP's, so they were able to quickly agree on a protocol for testing the dogs for socialization and aggressiveness toward people and other dogs. Over the course of three days, the teams assessed the dogs. The evaluators quickly realized that they were facing a very different problem than they had an anticipated—the vast majority of the dogs were not aggressive at all, but unsocialized and fearful. The ASPCA's Randall Lockwood, a member of Dr. Zawistowski's team, would recall in a 2010 public radio interview that "we were very surprised that the dogs that we found actually were in much better shape both physically and behaviorally than we had anticipated." Instead of needing to find foster homes and sanctuary for a handful of dogs, they needed to find foster homes and sanctuary for 48 dogs.

Rebecca
Rebecca Huss
Rebecca Huss on acting as Special Master/Guardian of the Vick Dogs

After the evaluations, the teams put each dog into one of four categories: euthanize; sanctuary 2 (needs lifetime care given by trained professionals, with little chance for adoption); sanctuary 1 (needs a controlled environment, with a greater possibility of adoption); and foster (must live with experienced dog owners for a minimum of six months, and after further evaluation adoption is likely). Only one dog was put into the "euthanize category"—a little black female that was too aggressive to handle.

Dr. Zawistowski then had to report the findings to agents and officials in the Department of Justice and USDA and convince them to save the dogs. He prevailed—many agents had seen good dogs die as part of evidence destruction policies. Finally, he had to find someone to take charge of the dogs. This responsibility ultimately fell to Rebecca Huss, a professor at the Valparaiso University School of Law and an animal-law expert.

Dispersal

Professor Huss was immediately faced with a daunting task—finding placements for all 48 dogs within six weeks. To do this she had to go through a stack of applications from rescues, get to know each of the dogs, which she did with the assistance of Tim Racer, and match the dogs with approved rescues. She was able to start moving dogs out to rescues in October 2008. Twenty-two dogs would go to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. The next largest group of dogs would be sent to BAD RAP in Oakland, California. The rest were scattered around the country in smaller groups. Transporting the dogs to the rescues also presented a logistical challenge: many airlines don't allow pit bulls, let alone more than a dozen of them, so the dogs going across the country had to be driven on routes carefully plotted around counties and municipalitis with bans on pit bulls.

Best Friends Reunion
Best Friends Vicktory Dog Reunion
Best Friends trainers John Garcia and Michelle Besmehn on transporting, rehabilitating, and reuniting the
Vicktory Dogs

The Dogs

If you're anything like us at PBLN, you've followed the stories of these dogs for years. Here is what happened to all 51 of Vick's pit bulls. In case you're wondering, the other dogs seized at Bad Newz kennels were adopted (except one of the presas, which belonged to a key witness in the case against Vick and was returned to him to help secure testimony).

The Best Friends Dogs

The twenty-two dogs that were sent to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary included some of the most fearful dogs—sometimes called "pancake dogs" for their habit of lying flat on the ground and refusing to move—and dogs that would need lifetime care in a sanctuary. The later group included Vick's two successful fighting dogs, Georgia and Lucas. Many of the dogs sent to Best Friends suffer from babesia, a blood parasite common in fighting dogs. The dogs, referred to as the "Vicktory Dogs," were featured on NatGeo's DogTown television program.

As of July 2014, six of the twenty-two Vicktory Dogs remain at Best Friends; of those six dogs, one is available for adoption. Thirteen of the dogs have been adopted. Five of the dogs have passed away, of those, two died in adoptive homes. Six of the adopted Vicktory Dogs (Cherry, Handsome Dan, Halle, Little Red, Mel, and Oscar) returned to Best Friends for a reunion in March 2013.

Interviews with Vick
Dog Adopters

Pit Bulletin Legal News Radio has interviewed several Vick Dog adopters. You can listen to these interviews below.

Cherry
Cherry

Halle
Halle

Handsome Dan
Handsome Dan

Hector
Roo Yori & Hector

Little Red
Little Rred

Mel

Oscar
Oscar

Shadow
Shadow
  • Bonita. Like many fighting dogs, Bonita suffered from babesia, a blood-borne parasite. This small black dog enjoyed sitting in people's laps and offered up a crooked smile when happy (she may have had nerve damage). She passed in 2008 during dental surgery.
  • Cherry Garcia. Cherry was adopted after his future owner saw him on DogTown. His adopter's pit bull Madison proved invaluable in helping Cherry to adjust to life in a home and acts as a protective big sister. Cherry makes occasional public apperances for causes such as fighting BDL. Cherry has his own Facebook page.
  • Curly, a mischevious black and white dog, still remains at Best Friends. He currently lives with fellow Vicktory Dog Mya. You can read more about him here.
  • Denzel arrived at Best Friends critically ill with babesia. Unlike many of the Vick dogs that came to Best Friends, he did not have fear issues. He did however, show some dog aggression. He's known as an affectionate and vivacious dog that enjoys his toys and learning tricks. You can read more about him here.
  • Ellen. Ellen was a fawn-colored dog that didn't have fear or aggression issues. She loved food puzzles and belly rubs and had a penchant for eating just about anything she could find. She passed away in June 2012 at the age of eleven.
  • Georgia was originally named Jane, and like Lucas, was a champion fiighting dog. Although she came to Best Friends scarred and toothless, she was in no way defeated. Viewers of NatGeo's DogTown may remember her for her love of stuffed animals. She also appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Larry King Live. After several years at Best Friends, Georgia was able to pass the CGC test and was adopted in February 2012. She passed away in December 2013, having lived out the rest of her life happily and quietly. 
  • Halle. In July 2009, Halle became the first of Vicktory Dogs to be adopted. Although she had no scars and wasn't dog aggressive, she was a fearful, "pancake" dog. Her adopter's other dog helped Halle overcome her fear and she even learned to ask for treats by watching him. Halle's adopter, Traci, now works to help other victims of dog fighting. Halle had a facebook page. She passed away in October 2016, a few weeks after a diagnosis of an aggressive lymphoma.
  • Handsome Dan, along with Little Red, become one of first Vicktory Dogs to live with another dog at Best Friends. He was adopted in December 2009 by a family that has been inspired to create their own pit bull rescue (named after Handsome Dan of course). Handsome Dan has a Facebook page.
  • Lance. Lance's story is one of patience. This endearing black dog was incredibly fearful when he came to Best Friends—it took him months to learn to walk on a leash, and much, much longer to pass the CGC exam. But neither Best Friends' nor the Oklahoma couple who waited four years to adopt him, gave up. On May 6, 2014, Lance passed the CGC test. Soon after he was in his forever home. Lance spent a year in his forever home and passed away on May 5, 2015. Lance's Facebook page is here.
  • Layla was not particularly fearful when she came to Best Friends, but had a very hard time relaxing. She found peace living in Best Friends' Parrot Garden. In February 2013, she passed the CGC test. The following month, a woman attending the Vicktory Dog Reunion fell in love with Layla. Layla, of course, has her own Facebook page—Vicktory for Layla.
  • Little Red. This timid little dog—featured in Jim Gorant's The Lost Dogs—may have been a bait dog. Nevertheless, she quickly become friends with Cherry Garcia and Handsome Dan. Little Red has a penchant for wearing clothes. Her adopter, who gave Pit Bulletin Legal News Radio one of our most touching interviews, says she didn't need to be rehabilitated, she just needed to be able to recover. You can learn more about Little Red here: Little Red on Facebook, Best Friends update on Little Red (March 2013)
  • Lucas. Along with Georgia, he was one of Vick's successful fighting dogs. He was a permanent resident of Best Friends as the court that authorized the dogs' placement with rescues suspected that Lucas may have had street value based on his "notoriety and underworld status." Despite his background, Lucas was incredibly affectionate to people and a favorite around Dog Town. Unfortunately Lucas also suffered from babesia. He passed away on June 19, 2013, at an estimated thirteen years of age.
  • Mel. Mel was very afraid of people but being around other dogs boosted his confidence to the point that he learned to trust people. Mel, who's been adopted by MMA Commentator Richard Hunter, has his own Facebook page.  
  • Meryl. Like Lucas, Meryl has a court mandate to live her life out at Best Friends. She is afraid of new people and used to lash out at strangers in a panic. She's become less fearful over the years and is quite loving to people she knows. She also has excellent leash manners, which she models to other dogs. You can read more about her here: Meryl's sponsorship page.
  • Mya. She was originally sent to BAD RAP but proved too nervous for Oakland's urban environment. Time spent in an staffer's office with Cherry Garcia helped settle her down. Now she helps socialize puppies and is ready for adoption.
  • Oliver. This diminutive black and white dog looked like a robust Boston Terrier. He was the fifth of the "Vicktory Dogs" to be adopted. Although he was initially fearful of people he showed no fear in his forever home. Sadly, Oliver was diagnosed with cancer in August 2011 and passed soon after that. He died in his adopter’s arms.
  • Oscar was the first Vicktory Dog to pass the CGC exam. He was adopted in 2012. According to his adopter he dislikes cameras and loves butt scratches. Oscar was not initially good with other dogs but found a friend in Squeaky Jean. Oscar's Facebook page.
  • Ray. Like Oscar, Ray was not keen on other dogs when he came to Best Friends. He went to his forever home in August 2013. Sadly, Ray passed away on May 15, 2015. His Facebook page is here.
  • Shadow. Shadow is one of the largest Vicktory Dogs and was full of nervous energy when he arrived at Best Friends. He was adopted in January 2011. He has a wagon and a stroller for walks as he sometimes gets scared. His adopter spoke very frankly to Pit Bulletin Lgal News Radio of the challenges, setbacks, and successes in teaching Shadow to be a regular dog. Shadow's Facebook page.
  • Squeaky Jean, or Squeaker, as she was originally known, came to Best Friends as a very stressed out dog who was hard to keep weight on. She was adopted in 2012 and lives in a multi-dog family in the Pacific Northwest. Squeaky Jean's Facebook page.
  • Tug. This strong, athletic dog lives up to his name. He was deathly afraid of cameras and made great progress with his dog reactivity. Tug passed away in June 2016. He was never adopted but had found a loving home at Best Friends. You can read more about him here: Tug's sponsorship page.
  • Willie Boy. Willie is a beautiful, happy, and playful dog (he especially loves balls). Sadly, for some reason—perhaps a medical condition or past trauma—he occasionally lashes out. You can read more about him here: Willie Boy's sponsorship page.

The BAD RAP Dogs

Another ten dogs were sent to BAD RAP in Oakland, California. In October 2012, seven of the ten dogs returned to BAD RAP for a reunion (three dogs didn't make it—one because of distance, another due to a last-minute emergency, and the third, Ernie, was just busy being a dog).

  • Audie (formerly Dutch) was adopted by dog trainer Linda Chwistek and her husband Bill Long and currently lives in CA with two other dogs. Audie has earned his CGC certificate, and, on two rebuilt knees, an Excellent A Preferred Standard Title in Agility (Audie's Facebook page has some great shots of him running agility courses). Audi is also the subject of a children's book, Saving Audie.
  • Ernie has earned his CGC certificate. While Ernie and his family appeared in Sports Illustrated, Ernie has retired from being a "Vick Dog" and enjoyes a quiet, non-public life as a normal dog.
  • Frodo was just a puppy when he was rescued from Bad Newz and was one of the most shut down dogs that came to BAD RAP. Frodo's greatest successes have come in learning to trust people—when he first come to BAD RAP he couldn't look people in the eye and was too frightened to take treats out of someone's hand. Today he is a cheerful little dog who lives with his adopter in CA. Frodo was featured in a PBS program, The Dogs Are Alright (available on youtube).
  • Grace has earned her CGC certificate twice—first with her foster and then again with her adopter. She now serves as a therapy dog through the prestigious Delta Society's Pet Partners program and visits hospitals.
  • Hector was adopted by Roo and Clara Yori, the owners of champion disc dog Wallace. Roo says that despite his past as a fighting dog, Hector was much easier to deal with than Wallace. He was friendly with people and dogs from the beginning and has become a star in his own right—participating in humane education and anti-dogfighting programs and acting as a certified therapy dog. Sadly Hector was diagnosed with cancer in the Fall of 2014 and passed on October 27, 2014. Despite the rapid progress of the disease, Hector enjoyed his life right to the end. You can relive Hector's adventures on his facebook page and learn more about the Yoris' advocacy on his website.
  • Iggy was initially bound for Best Friends but was switched with Mya. Unfortunately, he is still very fearful of strangers and new situations. He now leads a quiet life with caretaker Nicole Rattay, who helped bring the Vick dogs to BAD RAP and worked almost round the clock to socialize and comfort the dogs before their move to rescues.
  • Johnny Justice. Originally named Johnny Rotten, Johnny Justice has made a big splash in the dog world. He's been featured on the cover of Parade magazine, appeared on the CBS Morning Show and the Rachel Ray show, and has a GUND stuffed toy modeled after him. He acted as a reading assistant to children (until breed prejudice intervened). His latest "job" is with the Family House in San Francisco, where he helps bring cheer to families whose children are being treated for serious illness. He resides with his foster-turned-adopter in San Franisco.
  • Teddles. Unlike most of the dogs seized from Bad Newz, Teddles seems to have been a house pet. This large white dog (pictured with Jim Gorant above) seemed to get what living in a house was all about. Moreover, he appeared in a photo with Michael Vick that was published in Time magazine in 2001. He earned his CGC in 2009 and was adopted. He currently lives with his adopters and another dog. Teddles serves as a foster brother and playmate to BAD RAP dogs.
  • Uba has earned his CGC certificate as well as a K9 Nosework title. He also acts as a canine mentor for BAD RAP foster dogs.
  • Zippy is a gregarious girl who lives with a family that includes two other dogs and four children. She once peed on Jim Gorant's shoes.

To Other Rescues


The remaining dogs were sent to smaller rescues around the country.

  • Sweet Jasmine (Recyled Love) was an incredibly shy dog. She was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. No one who has read The Lost Dogs will forget the heartwarming, and heartbreaking, story of her rehabilitation. Jasmine died in 2009 after being hit by a car.

  • Sweet Pea (Recyled love), has been adopted. Sweet Pea is probably Jasmine's daughter and Sweet Pea enjoyed play dates with Jasmine until her death.
  • Harriet (Recycled Love) is believed to have been a pet dog and consequently she received more attention during the time the dogs were held as evidence. She was adopted by a lawyer residing in Maryland.
  • Ginger (SPCA for Monterey County) was adopted and now lives in the L.A. area. Ginger has her own Facebook page.
  • Stella (SPCA for Monterey) was adopted by the family that had adopted Red. You can see pics of Stella here.
  • Red (SPCA for Monterery) was adopted but sadly passed away from cancer in 2010.

  • Leo (Our Pack) was a lovely fawn dog with soulful dark eyes. With adopter Marthina McClay he blossomed into a wonderful therapy dog. Leo passed away in the winter of 2011 from a seizure disorder. You can read more about him here.
  • Piper (Animal Rescue of Tidewater), originally called Sox, was so unresponsive during her initial evaluation that the team considered euthanasia. Thankfully Piper was given a chance and now is a certified therapy dog. Piper, like so many other Vick dogs, has babesia.


  • Alf (Richmond Animal League) was adopted and visited schools as part of on at-risk youth program.
 He passed in 2009 after a medical emergency.
  • Mabel (Richmond Animal League) moved through several fosters and is now in what looks to be her forever home

.
  • Jhumpa Jones (Richmond Animal League/Out of the Pits) lives in NY state and works a therapy dog. She's made an appearance on the Anderson Cooper show (which you can see on her Facebook page).
  • Gracie (Richmond Animal League) was adopted and lived out her life in Virginia. She passed away on Jan. 5th, 2014. The Richmond Animal League's Pit Bull program, Gracie's Guardians, was named in her honor. Gracie was also featured in an update on the Vick dogs by local news.
  • Charlie (Georgia SPCA) is living in a forever home.
  • Seven (Georgia SPCA/All Or Nothing Rescue) was adopted and thriving but sadly slipped out of a fenced yard and was hit and killed by a car in July of 2008.
  • Makevelli (All Or Nothing Rescue) lives with his rescuer and a fellow pit bull (his "girlfriend").
  • Rose (Animal Farm Foundation) was a beautiful little white dog. She made it to AFF but had to be put down upon arrival due to internal trauma she suffered at either Bad Newz or during holding. Despite the pain she must have been enduring, she was a sweet-natured dog until the end.

The Ones Who Didn't Make It

  • "Sussex 2621" was a little black female dog, so aggressive toward anyone she was deemed beyond help and put down after evaluation. She bore scars and the signs of multiple breedings.
  • Two pit bulls seized at Bad Newz did not survive until the evaluations.

Conclusion

What have the Vick dogs taught us seven years after their liberation from Bad Newz? When it comes to fighting dogs, the successful rehabilitation of so many of Vick's dogs called into question the policy of destroying seized fighting dogs. In a 2008 interview with Bark magazine, the ASPCA’s Lockwood said that he’d seen shifting views about fight-bust dogs—that they had become victims, not instruments of crime. “We need to get away from the knee-jerk assumption that all dogs seized in that context are necessarily a threat,” he said. “They deserve to be looked at as individuals.” The shift in the attitude toward former fighting dogs was writ large when more than 300 dogs were seized in a multi-state bust. Instead of being euthanized, the dogs were evaluated and many were adopted.

Lawmakers are also making it easier to adopt former fighting dogs. In 2011, Florida repealed a law prohibiting the adoption of dogs seized in dogfightings busts. Bills have been introduced in Michigan (one of thirteen states that prohibits the adoption of fight-bust puppies and dogs) and Delaware to allow the adoption of dogs seized in fighting busts.

There are, of course, caveats to keep in mind when looking at the success of the Vick Dogs—their rescue and rehabilitation was made possible by the resources of a starting quarterback in the NFL; moreover, we don't know how typical Bad Newz was with respect to the number of successful fighting dogs produced.

When it comes to invidual dogs, the Vick Dogs surprised us. They showed us that dogs bred and trained for fighting can not just form peaceful relationships with other dogs but can learn and take comfort from them. They've also demonstrated the resilience of dogs. Some dogs, like Audie, have excelled in their new roles. Other have lived up to the "Vicktory" dog label by just learning to enjoy the birthrights of dogs: receiving loving touches, rolling in the grass, chewing on a favorite toy, talking a walk with their owner. Some may question whether it's worthwhile to allocate so much time, energy, and money to dogs so damaged that success is measured by such humble details. I believe the "grand experiment" answers this question. We may never be able to save every fighting dog, or every "pancake" dog, but we can hold in our minds the knowledge that even very damaged dogs can find joy in their lives and form loving relationships with people; that they are individuals; that their lives have value.


Sources

The following sources, in addition to the articles, Facebook pages, and interviews linked to above, were used in compiling this story.

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wolfcalledromeoA Wolf Called Romeo—a wolf who loves dogs, Oogy—the bio of a badly injured pup, and One Good Dog, a novel from the perspective of a fighting dog.

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