Animal lovers and sports fans were shocked when NFL quarterback Michael Vick was arrested in 2007 for operating a brutal dog fighting operation on his Virginia property, “The Bad Newz Kennels”. Most people know the story that played out in the media of Vick’s conviction and his later return to football. An informant who took care of the property assisted federal agents to exhume the bodies of dead dogs, and an animal forensic specialist confirmed the extent of the horrific abuse they had suffered. The deceased animals were hung, drowned, and electrocuted when they displeased their handlers. The dogs that died helped the public view the survivors as victims, not monsters. Fifty-one live pit bulls were seized from his property at the time of Vick’s arrest. What happened to these animals?
The story of the “Vick Dogs” is amazing. The book The Lost Dogs, Michael Vick’s Dogs and their Tale of Rescue and Redemption by Jim Gorant chronicles the disturbing details of Vick’s operation and the legal case against him. The second half of the book is about the dogs, and their journey to redemption and a better life.
Usually, dogs rescued from dog fighting rings are quickly euthanized. In this case, there was a public outcry to save these infamous animals, coupled by the fact that the court ordered Vick to pay almost a million dollars in restitution to help them. An ASPCA-led team evaluated each of the dogs. The team determined that only a couple of them were hardened fighters, and most were friendly, lovable creatures who sought out human companionship. Some of them were afraid of people, and a few showed signs of aggression, but it was thought they might overcome this with love and proper training.
The dogs were kept kenneled for a long seven months while the legal case dragged on. Finally under a court order of high secrecy, the dogs went to selected private animal welfare organizations that had the skills and resources to provide training and rehabilitation. It was the largest experiment of its kind to see if dogs trained for fighting could indeed become socialized with both humans and other dogs. The odds were against them.
Ultimately, forty-seven of the dogs were saved and are now cherished pets and adored members of their communities. A couple of them are working as therapy dogs. One handsome canine, Johnny Justice, helps out at “Paws for Tales”, a literacy program at the San Mateo public library where children improve their reading by reading aloud to a nonjudgmental, patient dog. Another dog named Leo is now a therapy dog, spending time comforting both cancer patients and troubled teenagers. Their story of redemption is almost magical, given their own transformation and how they now provide comfort and healing for the humans in their lives.
One dog named Georgia was put through extensive training at Best Friends in Utah. She appeared on the Larry King and Ellen DeGeneres shows, representing the plight of her breed to millions of Americans. Ultimately, Georgia earned her Canine Good Citizen award which meant she was ready for adoption. Because she still showed some discomfort around other animals, she went to a home where she is an only dog. The animals made incredible progress, but not every trait caused by abuse can be totally erased in every animal.
The Lost Dogs helps us take a second look at this much maligned and much abused breed of dogs. Pit bulls are associated with many negative connotations and are often maligned in the media. In some communities they are banned under specific breed legislation. The stereotypes overlook the fact that people are almost always the cause when dogs have problems with people or other animals. The Staffordshire bull terriers, from which the American pit bull terrier descends, were known to be so gentle in the 1800’s they were called nanny dogs and cared lovingly for children. The breed is known for being people pleasers, eager to bond with humans.
This gem of a book belongs on every dog lover’s book shelf. Not only does it shed light on the true nature of the American Pit Bull Terrier, but it showcases the best of human nature when we come together to help animals. Best Friends Animal Society rehabilitated many of the dogs and renamed them the “Victory dogs” to acknowledge their triumph over adversity. The Victory dogs helped us shape a new understanding for their breed, so plagued by abuse and misunderstanding. Even after experiencing heartbreaking abuse, a dog still wants to be man’s best friend.