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The Michael Vick dogs

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to puppy class at your neighborhood pet store, photos surfaced of Michael Vick with his recently acquired Malinois, Angel, at dog training class at a New Jersey PetSmart. You just never know who you're gonna meet!

I aired my thoughts on Mr. Vick’s acquisition of another dog in a previous blog, so I won’t rehash all that here. The unfortunate thing is that while the tabloids toss out images of Vick and Angel in hopes of generating gawp-and-gasp page views and streams of outraged comments from animal lovers, there is some really good news about some other Michael Vick dogs, those known as the Vicktory dogs. They were 22 of the most traumatized and difficult dogs rescued from Vick's Bad Newz Kennels when his dog-fighting operation was busted in April of 2007.

This coming Monday, March 11, six of the 10 Vicktory dogs who have been placed in adoptive homes will be arriving at Best Friends for a reunion.

Of the 12 remaining dogs, one succumbed to a silent killer, babesia, a blood parasite that is spread through bite wounds among dogs forced to endure the fighting ring; two must remain at the Sanctuary for life per court order; five spend their days with staff as office dogs; and four are in our general population. Layla, who lives at our parrot building, just passed her Canine Good Citizen test and is ready for adoption. She is a real charmer and recently made a tail-wagging, hand-licking appearance at a post-lunch gathering at the Angel Village cafeteria.

In 2007, when the Vick case hit the news, the standard procedure was for authorities to simply kill all dogs seized in such raids, regardless of age. That policy had been endorsed and implemented by the traditional humane organizations as well, but Best Friends and other grassroots organizations leveraged the notoriety and high-profile status of the case to save the Vick dogs, and in so doing, forced policy changes at the nation’s most prominent humane organizations.

Of the nearly 50 fighting dogs seized from Vick and his associates in crime, one was euthanized for dangerous aggression, 22 of the most problematic came to Best Friends for long-term rehabilitation or court-ordered permanent Sanctuary placement, and the rest went to regional and national pit bull rescue organizations and went up for adoption immediately. So much for the myth that dogs born into the world of dog fighting are “born killers” or “time bombs waiting to go off” — the most common justifications for their summary execution in the past.

All that changed thanks to the common sense understanding of what makes dogs tick and the amazing resilience of a much-maligned and misunderstood breed. Just one example: After the Vick case in 2009, the Humane Society of Missouri participated in the largest dog-fighting raid in U.S. history, confiscating 500 dogs and puppies in eight states. Before the Vicktory dogs, all of these dogs would have been killed without a second thought under the policy that had existed. In light of the Vick case, they decided to change their policy and evaluate the dogs as individuals. More than 60 percent were placed. However, despite the example of the Vick dogs and the policy changes made by some national organizations, there are many cities and even 13 states that deem all dogs seized in fight busts as “dangerous” or “vicious.” Some mandate their killing. Best Friends is actively working to change these laws. In 2011, we spearheaded Florida Senate Bill 722 that deleted the stigma of “dangerous” from seized dogs, so they now can be adopted out in the Sunshine State.

The Vicktory dogs went from trauma to triumph and amazed even the most wide-eyed optimists among us. Part of their journey was documented on the National Geographic show “DogTown” that followed the exploits of Best Friends vets and dog training staff for four seasons.

The coming reunion, which includes Cherry, Handsome Dan, Halle, Oscar, Mel and Little Red, just kind of happened as described by Little Red’s person, Susan: “I volunteer at (Best Friends) every March, and Rachel (who has Oscar) asked if she could come and we could meet up to have the dogs play. From there, it just snowballed. We have often talked about getting together, but geography is a challenge. Some of us have met each other but never all together.” Coincidentally, it is also close to the five-year anniversary of the dogs' rescue from Vick and his Bad Newz crew, so there will be more reason to celebrate.



Each of the Vicktory dog adopters is a pit bull advocate, even those who had not been prior to bringing one of these survivors home. Here are just a few of the comments they have shared with us.

Richard Hunter on Mel:

“Mel has changed my life. Because I was covering the Michael Vick case from the beginning on my radio show, by the time I found out that Mel would be available for adoption, I was already very emotionally invested in his story. Much to my dismay, in both covering the Vick case and the subsequent reaction of the public who largely welcomed him back into the NFL, I found myself frequently asking myself, ‘What is wrong with people?’ By coming to Best Friends to adopt Mel and seeing the amazing job that his caregivers had done with him, I was able to see what is right about people as well. Every day, Mel serves as an example of what happens when the best of human behavior overcomes the worst. … (The Vicktory dogs’) abusers are without empathy, and the dog’s abuser of today is the human’s abuser of tomorrow. This sociopathic behavior must be taken seriously, and it must be treated. It is not a temporary condition, but rather, a permanent disorder. Mistaking it for a mere ‘momentary lapse in judgment’ is a recipe for disaster and recidivism. Sadly, that is the mistake that has been made by anyone who believes that Vick has somehow been autonomously redeemed. If anyone thinks that everyone has moved on, I can show you a little black dog who still has to gather up his courage every day to overcome mental obstacles that other dogs don’t even consider.”

Susan on Little Red:

“From the day I completed that adoption application, I just knew that she would come to live with me and my other dogs. On September 19, 2011, she came home. I love her for her strength and for her lovely, sweet self. She will always be shy, but she has a huge heart and loves to run and play. She doesn’t dwell on her past, so I don’t either.”

Rachel on Oscar:

“Oscar has changed my life. I didn’t set out to adopt a Vicktory dog. I just wanted a pit bull. With him, I didn’t just adopt a dog; I got a whole new family. The majority of the Vicktory adopters keep in close contact, and they are awesome. We swap stories, share advice, and support each other. ... I think there is an important distinction to make: These are not fighting dogs; they are dogs who were forced to fight. They had to fight or die. Humans do unimaginably cruel things to dogs. Oscar and the other dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels don’t hold that against the rest of us.”

Traci on Halle:

“She has really changed my life. I had a lot of people try to talk me out of adopting a ‘dog like that,’ and I nevne listened for one second. Through positive reinforcement training and an awesome trainer, I watched Halle learn to trust again and overcome a lot of fears. When she first came home, she would pancake to the ground and shake whenever I took her to a new place or introduced her to a new person. Now she will sit on the couch next to a stranger and paw at them so they will pet her. She allows kids to hug her. She has taught me great lessons about resiliency, forgiveness, and unconditional love.”

Oliver

On a sad note, Oliver recently passed away due to cancer. I remember Oliver vividly from when he first arrived. He was traumatized, terrified and confused. A smallish black-and-white dog, Oliver had a profound effect on me. Maybe it was his cuteness or his size, I can’t really say, but his distress and emotional pain said more to me about the true nature of the monsters who had held him captive than the scarred faces of some of the larger Vicktory dogs.

Oliver’s adopter, Erika, sent a bittersweet message of his passing:

“It is with great sadness that I am telling you that my sweet, dear, brave, beautiful Oliver passed away in my arms yesterday morning around 6:15 a.m. … I am attaching a picture of Oliver in his ‘fancy dress.' When I came home from work a few weeks ago, Oliver came running out of the house in this frilly little dress. I was mortified that David had put my baby boy in a dress, but I couldn’t stop laughing. Then, Oliver didn’t want to take his pretty dress off! The next morning, he searched the house high and low for his dress until he found it. Then, he kept bumping his nose against the dress as if to say, ‘Well, Mom, what are you waiting for? Let’s dress up! Put my pretty dress on me!’ I have so many fond memories of Oliver. He will forever be my heart.”

There are so many threads of our movement wrapped up in the Vicktory dog narrative: that our commitment to the life of every creature is never wasted; that our animal companions are stronger and more resilient than we can imagine; that kindness and compassion always trump cruelty and abuse; and that there are more than enough loving and generous people in the world to save all of the animals who find themselves in life-threatening circumstances, be that a dog-fighting ring or an overcrowded animal shelter. We can save them all, but there is still much to do.
Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society