Saving Michael Vick's Dogs
Monday, July 7, 2008
When football superstar Michael Vick pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to run a dogfighting operation, we knew he had kept about 50 pit bulls on his 15-acre property in rural Surry County, Va., on a road named Moonlight. We knew the dogs were chained to car axles near wooden hovels for shelter. And we knew the dogs that didn't fight were beaten, shot, hanged, electrocuted or drowned.
But we didn't know their names. Headlines described the nameless dogs as "menacing." Some animal rights groups called for the "ticking time bombs" to be euthanized as soon as Vick's case was closed and they were no longer valuable as evidence. That's what typically happens after a dogfighting bust.
Instead, the court gave Vick's dogs a second chance. U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson ordered each dog to be evaluated individually, not judged by the stereotype of the breed. And he ordered Vick to pony up close to $1 million to pay for the lifelong care of those that could be saved.
Of the 49 pit bulls animal behavior experts evaluated in the fall, only one was deemed too vicious to warrant saving and was euthanized. (Another was euthanized because it was sick and in pain.)
More than a year after being confiscated from Vick's property, Leo, a tan, muscular pit bull, dons a colorful clown collar and visits cancer patients as a certified therapy dog in California. Hector, who bears deep scars on his chest and legs, recently was adopted and is about to start training for national flying disc competitions in Minnesota. Teddles takes orders from a 2-year-old. Gracie is a couch potato in Richmond who lives with cats and sleeps with four other dogs.
Of the 47 surviving dogs, 25 were placed directly in foster homes, and a handful have been or are being adopted. Twenty-two were deemed potentially aggressive toward other dogs and were sent to an animal sanctuary in Utah. Some, after intensive retraining, are expected to move on to foster care and eventual adoption.
How can this be? Reports of gruesome pit bull maulings make international news. Pit bulls are one of the few canine breeds thought to be so dangerous that they are banned in some places.
The answer, says Frank McMillan, a veterinarian who is studying the recovery of some of the Vick dogs, is that we don't know. "We've assumed all pits are the same, and we've never let this many fighting dogs live long enough to find out. There are hardly ever studies, because these animals don't survive," he said.
Classic fighting pit bulls, part bulldog and part terrier, were bred to be friendly to people and aggressive with other dogs. Their ability to withstand great pain and keep fighting is a quality prized as "gameness."
But with an explosion in urban street fighting, some pit bulls are being trained to go after animals and people. Evaluators said that when they walked into the kennels where the Vick dogs were being held in the fall, they weren't sure what to expect.
"I thought, if we see four or five dogs that we can save, I'll be happy," said Randy Lockwood, an animal behaviorist with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "If we had to euthanize the majority, then we could at least say we'd tried."
Instead, they found dogs with behaviors that ran the gamut. Some would lick human hands but lunge at other dogs. Some almost immediately went into play mode with other dogs, wagging their tails and crouching down on their front legs in a play bow. "Some actually perked up and developed more confidence only around other dogs," said Rebecca Huss, a law professor and animal law expert who was appointed by the court to oversee the evaluations and determine the dogs' fates. "They actually seemed happier around other dogs."