Guardian ad litem for Michael Vick dogfighting case dogs

The former Michael Vick dog fighting pit bulls get a guardian ad litem: Vick court case prosecutor Rebecca Huss.
By Sandy Miller

Rebecca Huss had just finished teaching her business associations class at Valparaiso University's School of Law when she saw the phone message taped to her office door.

Guardian ad litem for former Michael Vick dogs

It read, "Vick case prosecutor. Help take care of dogs -- guardian ad litem."

Huss's plans for the fall of 2007 were about to change.

Like most people, Huss had heard about the 50-plus pit bull terrier dogs rescued that spring from a dogfighting ring on NFL quarterback Michael Vick's 15-acre property in Surrey County, Virginia. (Vick was later sentenced to 23 months in prison on a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge.) The question was what was to become of the dogs, who were being housed in shelters as the case made its way through court. That's where Huss, an expert in animal law, came in after the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia appointed her as the guardian and special master for the Vick dogs.

"It was a total surprise to me," Huss says. "I hadn't talked to anyone about the case. I didn't know much about the case."

It was Ledy VanKavage, now Best Friends Animal Society's senior legislative attorney, who at the time was with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who first suggested that Huss would be a perfect candidate for the post.

"Rebecca is a well-respected attorney," VanKavage says. "She is conscientious, thorough and compassionate, plus extraordinarily organized. I read her previous law journal article on mandating cooperation between animal control and rescue groups and knew she'd do right by the dogs and the public."

Standing up for the former dogfighting dogs who were victims

It was a tremendous responsibility. The dogs' future literally rested in Huss's hands and there would be many sleepless nights the next few months.

"The goal was not to warehouse these dogs, but to look at each of these dogs as an individual and determine what was best for each dog," Huss says.

Huss knew the first thing she had to do was to spend time with the dogs as well as the shelter workers caring for them and the people evaluating the dogs.

Getting to know the former Vick dog Oliver

Oliver didn't look good on paper.

On paper, he was withdrawn and stressed. According to his September evaluation, he was "unresponsive to various stimuli." And he was extremely fearful of people.

All of this was understandable, given all he'd been through at Vick's Bad Newz Kennels, a place where dogs were kept on the ends of chains and brutally killed when they didn't perform well in the ring.

Oliver was clearly miserable and Huss says she began to wonder whether it was fair to keep Oliver alive, especially when it was unclear how many more months Oliver would be required to stay at the shelter.

When Huss and Tim Racer, co-founder of BAD Rap -- Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls -- a San Francisco-based rescue organization, first approached Oliver, he crouched down against the wall of his kennel and watched them closely. Huss and Racer told the animal control officer assisting them that they didn't want to further stress Oliver by trying to remove him from his kennel. But the animal control officer told them that when she cleaned Oliver's kennel, he would place himself against her body. The animal control officer took Oliver out of his kennel and put him in a large, enclosed area where Huss and Racer could observe him more closely. He began circling back toward Huss and Racer and trotted over their legs even though he was free to stay away from them. And when Huss held Oliver closely, his body relaxed against hers. Perhaps Oliver would be able to bond with people after all.

New beginnings for the Vicktory dogs

When it was time for Huss to decide what rescue organizations the dogs would go to, Best Friends was at the top of her list. Huss was very familiar with Best Friends. In the summer of 2005, she traveled to the Sanctuary in southern Utah to interview Best Friends co-founders Gregory Castle and Michael Mountain to help her in researching her journal article, "Rescue Me: Legislating Cooperation Between Animal Control Authorities and Rescue Organizations." She even spent a day volunteering at Old Friends, a very special place at the Sanctuary for older dogs.

Huss is no stranger to animal rescue. She's been fostering dachshunds for Midwest Dachshund Rescue for years and has two rescued dachshunds of her own, Rose and Lily.

Huss knew that Best Friends could not only provide the special care these dogs needed, but it also "had the capacity and commitment to provide each dog the ability to thrive in that environment if a dog had to stay there for life."

Huss ended up placing 22 of the most challenging dogs, including Oliver, with Best Friends. The dogs arrived at the Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, in January of 2008.

"When the last of the dogs were out of the shelter and on their way to Best Friends, I started sleeping again," Huss says. "Not that their journey was ending -- it was just beginning."

Huss says the best thing that came out of the Vick case is that it marked the first time the federal government allowed dogs rescued from a dogfighting operation to be evaluated individually, which opened the door for future canine victims of animal cruelty to be evaluated individually, too. It has also showed that former fighting dogs can go on to thrive, given the right environment.

"When I hear about their progress, it reaffirms the basic premise in this case which is each dog should be treated as an individual," Huss says.

Vicktory dog Oliver adopted

And Oliver? While at Best Friends Dogtown, Oliver came even more out of his shell and for the first time in his life, learned how to enjoy just being a dog. In November 2009, Oliver went live in a foster home, and in February 2010, his foster family officially adopted him. (Vicktory dogs are court-ordered to go into foster care before the family can consider adoption.) Oliver completed his Canine Good Citizen training in just three months. Today, Oliver is one very happy dog who enjoys snuggling with his forever family, which includes his people, Erika and David, shepherd-husky mix, Boss, and Squeaky the cat.

'Every single morning when I wake up with Oliver in my arms, I think to myself just how very blessed I am to have this little boogerhead in our lives," Erika says. "The fact that Oliver is even alive is a miracle in itself, but the fact that he wakes up in my arms every morning showering me with kisses is even more amazing. Words truly cannot explain just how much I love this kid. He truly is a blessing. He is my heart."

Watch the Vicktory dogs 2011 video and catch up with these rescued dogs at the Sanctuary and in their forever homes.

Download Huss's journal article, "Lessons Learned: Acting as Guardian/Special Master in the Bad News Kennels Case".

Photo of Huss and Oliver taken by Tim Racer, co-founder and CFO of BAD RAP