Vick Dog Update

 Just Dogs

The Vick Dogs a decade after their liberation

Hector
Hector
Laura Hayes
(last updated January 2018)

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 2013As of January 3, 2018, nine of the Best Friends dogs were still alive (six in homes, three at best friends (Mya, Curly, and Meryl)).

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

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).

To Other Rescues


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

The Ones Who Didn't Make It

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.