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Monday, November 12, 2012

The Dogs Are Alright

Sometimes finding the wonderful in something terrible awful is a feat to be accompolished only by those with a tough skin. But as many of us are celebrating the 5 year anniversary of the Vick Dog Rescues, I can say without a doubt that this is one giant big happy WONDERFUL!!! 

I wrote the essay below in March of 2011.  At the end I have provided a fabulous update!  Many links are provided should you want to read more.  Please keep in mind, I am not a professional but I have done extensive research.  Everyone has a different take on this event and this take is mine, whether you like it or not.  Now lets sit back and enjoy the story.

What started it all

Who would have thought that a horrific event, insanely covered by the media, would be the catalyst that was to change history for dogs, specifically Pit Bulls raised as fight dogs. I viewed the PBS Need to Know video aired January 21, 2011 titled ‘Where are the Michael Vick Dogs Now?’. (Link to video: 'The Dogs Are Alright' ) The video explored the fates of the dogs seized from Michael Vick's property and it was suggested that most of the dogs rescued in this case proved they deserved a second chance.   As I viewed who the key players were in the evaluation and ultimate salvation of these dogs, I was introduced to two key antagonists who suggested the dogs be put down, in addition to a formerly unknown San Francisco Bay Area dog rescue who's actions in this case were key to the dogs survival. 

What’s the story anyway

In April of 2007, authorities busted a Virginia dog fighting ring where 52 dogs were seized off of a property owned by NFL star football player Michael Vick.  Because the case involved a celebrity, there was a media storm and incredible publicity surrounding the story. The question that was being voiced the most by the media and the public was what would happen to the dogs after the case was over? Surely they would be saved, right?

I want to know more

What events unfolded that allowed these dogs lives to be saved?  Who were the main players and organizations involved in the evaluation and rescue of these dogs?  Who were the antagonists? What happened to the dogs?  Is the public rehabilitation of the Vick Dogs enough to change the protocol for how all fighting dogs are handled in a rescue operation involving a dog fighting bust?

Unfolding of Events 

According to Jim Gorant, in his December 24, 2008, now famous Sports Illustrated article, Virginia Judge Henry E Hudson, presiding over the Vick Dog case, and the office of Assistant Attorney Mike Gill, both received an incredible amount of letters and emails pouring in from the public demanding to know what was going to happen to the Vick dogs and insisting that the dogs be saved.  Right at that same time, Donna Reynolds, co-owner of the San Francisco area Bad Rap dog rescue, sent Mr. Gill a proposal suggesting individual evaluations of each dog to see if any could be spared.  

Main players and evaluation processed exposed

Protocol in these cases historically has always been to send the dogs to a shelter where they would sit as ‘evidence’ while the offender awaited trial. Once the trial was over, no matter the outcome, the dogs were then euthanized because until this Vick bust happened, all fighting dogs were deemed killing machines, blood thirsty, and kennel trash; and therefore unable to be rehabilitated into society as family pets.  

Judge Hudson acquiesced to the public outcry, appointing Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, head of the ASPCA, to be put in charge of putting together an evaluation team for the dogs.  The team would be Donna Reynolds and Tim Racer, co-owners of Bad Rap Dog Rescue + one more Bad Rap member; 2 ASPCA staffers; and three outside certified animal behaviorists who were not named. The evaluations would put the dogs in these 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)." Rebecca Huss, an animal law expert at Valparaiso University, was designated as the person who would decide where each dog would go after being evaluated.

 Vick Dog being temperment tested by a doll representing a child.
 Dogs personalities are as varied as humans. During the evaluations, Bad Rap owners said time and again, it was essential that the dogs were evaluated as individuals. My favorite quote in all of my research was from Donna Reynolds who said in this AP story, after the dogs had been evaluated: “This is the big secret. Most of them were dog-tolerant to dog-social. It was completely opposite of what we were led to believe."

The antagonists

It is mentioned many times in many articles and videos that PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) , who had not seen or evaluated the dogs, had deemed the Vick dogs to be “ticking time bombs and should be put down”.  Even more specifically, PETA spokesman Dan Shannon said, "The cruelty they've suffered is such that they can't lead what anyone who loves dogs would consider a normal life. We feel it's better that they have their suffering ended once and for all." 

Even the HSUS (Human Society of the United States), who also had not seen the dogs, called the Vick dogs “some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country” and recommended euthanizing the dogs. 

So what happened to the dogs 

47 of the 52 Vick dogs seized were saved.  Two had to be euthanized at the shelter because one was deemed too aggressive to be rehabilitated and one dog was too sick having been overly bred and was suffering physically and mentally. 25 dogs were deemed to be ready for rescues and ultimately fosters.  13 of those 25 dogs were given to Bad Rap to take to California. The other 12 were sent to various small rescues. The remaining 22 dogs were said to be not adoptable but with time and work a few could possibly be. Those dogs were sent to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah where they would continue to be trained in hopes of someday being adoptable.

Vick Dog Grace gets her Good Canine Citizen's Certificate. Courtesy of Vick Dog Blog:

Luckily for my research, BAD RAP, the organization that took 13 of the Vick Dogs, was very vocal in their rehabilitation process of these dogs. As soon as the gag order was lifted at the end of January 2008, they started a blog –, that chronicled (and still does) the journeys of these survivors. After viewing many interviews with Tim and Donna from Bad Rap, I discovered that all of their Vick dogs have been placed in foster homes or have been adopted. The dogs are in homes with other pets and some with children. According to Tim and Donna, their Vick dogs did not necessarily need to be ‘rehabbed’ but just needed a stable situation that involved structure, a routine, a warm bed, a lap to lay their heads on to ‘decompress from their past and to heal from the mental and physical abuse they endured’. All of the dogs were required to pass their Canine Good Citizens test and to attend with their fosters or adopters weekly training sessions with Bad Rap. 

Vick Dog Uba and her foster sister. Photo courtesy of Vick Dog blog:

Of course the news picked up on some of these sweet stories of the dogs: Inside Bay Area reported at a Press Conference where the world was introduced to the dogs; One of the dogs Jonny Justice made a fabulous appearance on the Rachael Ray Show - LINK The CBS Morning Show reported on 'The Lost Dogs' - a book that tells the stories of each of the Vick Dogs -  with the author Jim Gorant; and Tim Racer, co-owner of Bad Rap Dog Rescue appeared on CNN just after the gag order was lifted when he could talk freely about the Vick dogs.

Left:: Vick Dog Teddles and his human foster brother. Courtesy of Vick Dog blog:
Right: Vick Dog Jonny Justice on the cover of Parade Magazine

What about the future of seized fighting dogs?

The story of these dogs is not a pretty one but given a second chance the journey of these dogs establishes their worth and their ability to be reintegrated into society as loving family pets. As the dogs journeys and the court case was documented, public perception appears to have changed over the course of time.  The public generally now sees the dogs as victims instead of viscous beasts to be destroyed.  Many hauntingly beautiful visual essays and books have been written about the Vick Dogs. Here are a few examples:

  • The Lost Dogs - The book that brought the Vick dogs to America's living rooms. 
  • Washington Post photo essay by Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Carol Guzy
  • The world's very first peek of the Vick dogs that came home with BADRAP - AP PHOTO GALLERY
  •  The Photo Book Project  by Melissa McDaniels. I can tell I am going to have to start saving my money. Another book I want. This book is all pit bull photographs, convincing their audience through visual rhetoric, to change their minds about the pit bull breed. The photographs portray famous pit bull personalities - the Vick Dogs of course, Oogy - the best story I've read about a puppy pitbull used as a bait dog that is deformed but found a loving family, and also some dogs next door. Yep, gonna have to buy this one.
  • This special PDF on the four dogs adopted from BADRAP is a keeper. The Vick DogsWow. A visual and written rhetoric on the four of the dogs adopted out from Bad Rap.   

According to Jim Gorant, as of today, PETA's position remains unchanged even though to this day they have never met any of the Vick dogs. PETA believes that there are too many dogs in overcrowded shelters that are lacking resources.  The organization says that money should be spent on the spays and neuters of the shelter animals and on the shelters themselves instead of focusing on fighting dogs that in their opinion are too risky and not worth the cause.

Author, Dorothy Patent, who wrote a children's book on one of the Vick Dogs, Saving Audie, says that this case and how the dogs were handled set the precedent for how future fighting dogs were dealt with. Bad Rap co-owner Donna Reynolds said all fighting dogs should be able to be evaluated and rehabbed, and this case proves they deserve better and deserve to be evaluated as individuals and to be treated as individuals.

Dr. Frank McMillan, Director of Well Being at Best Friends Animal Society says  “We know so little about dogs like these because so few of them have been allowed to live. We’re learning a lot, but the work still doesn’t permit concrete conclusions. These dogs really represent the start of these kinds of studies.” 

My turn

Back in 2007 while I watched this case unfold in the media, I was maddened by the initial focus on Michael Vick and the endless media questions asking how a beloved football star could do something this awful. As a dog rescuer, I immediately was saddened by what I knew would be the fate of these seized dogs. Yet what I didn’t realize was the publicity surrounding Michael Vick would ultimately save the dogs.  I am so overjoyed that this case was made so public because it made the rest of the world ask – What about the dogs? In addition, the overwhelming public support of the dogs, enabled the evaluation efforts to happen even under the public warnings of two of the biggest animal welfare organizations that were against the rehabilitation of these dogs.  Not only that, the public journey of these dogs recoveries and reintegration into society, has helped these dogs to be seen as just dogs – dogs in need of a second chance.  Dogs that needed to be looked at and evaluated as individuals instead of just the grouped stereotype that was ultimately denying them a second chance at life.

I am disappointed with PETA and HSUS. As large, successful and well known animal welfare organizations, they could have put their clout to good use by really speaking in defense of these dogs, thereby really giving some push to help future dog fighting victims.  But they chose not to for reasons that I can’t seem to figure out. Neither of these organizations met the Vick Dogs and their opinions were so generalized and stereotypical.  Only HSUS changed their opinion later, though only after Michael Vick began volunteering for them as part of his sentence.


As a teenager and young adult, I always fancied myself an activist, quoting from famous activist organizations like PETA. I mean, they're the most animal friendly organization around, right? Even staunch republicans or backwoodsmen would be able to recall a PETA billboard portraying some animal's rights or a PETA anti-fur campaign highlighting a celebrity caught wearing fur. As an adult, however, I've learned to research an organization now before I back it which more often than not, leads me into the webs of deceipt, lies and corruption of what I once thought was an organization I should back and support.

The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) investigates organizations like PETA and HSUS.  They have found that both of these organizations created the myth of Pet Overpopulation in order so they can justify their high kill shelters and not look for alternatives to euthanasia. HSUS is basically front and center in creating a shelter system designed to euthanize. However, to avoid a tangent here, let me just say that while PETA supported Michael Vick's prosecution, at the same time, PETA was also in trouble with the law for inhumanely and needlessly euthanizing homeless animals in a North Carolina court case. Possibly, these misguided views and deep pockets are what caused these two organizations to mistakenly and publicly voice their opinions against the Vick Dogs.  This only led folks to become suspicious about their activities, which in turn led the CCF to investigate both parties and ultimately discover their cover ups and corruption.   


PETA is being compared to Michael Vick as seen well known in this photo here

I even feel the HSUS has done me (the public) wrong by publicly commenting on the Vick Dogs being vicious creatures but then turning around and running a fundraising campaign in order to raise money to care for the Vick Dogs - of which they played no role in whatsoever. Later, HSUS even took Vick on as a public speaker, publicly defending him.

I feel somewhat satisfied however that PETA and HSUS opinions were overruled by public outcry.  I am also amazed by the willingness of small rescue organizations like Bad Rap and big rescue organizations like ASPCA who came forward and took a very public chance on these dogs.  

Epilogue: The Dogs Are Alright

Even today, as breed profiling still exists, and many cities across the country and the world pass breed specific legislation that outlaws the owning of pit bull dogs (and many other breeds), there remains a bigger hope for these dogs than there was 6 years ago.   Dogs rescued from fighting busts are now largely evaluated and sent to rescues or sanctuaries though sometimes not without a fight.  Just three months ago, a dog fighting operation was busted in the Richland Parish of Louisiana. Nine pit bulls and a litter of puppies were seized and ordered to be euthanized. The Delta Humane Society (DHS) with help from Bad Rap, got the judges orders overturned and the dogs were then turned over to the DHS who took it upon themselves to evaluate and get these dogs right into rescues. In fact, Bad Rap just received three of these dogs (and one today). ( and ) 

Not only that, BadRap, took one of the rescued Louisiana dogs, Tallulah (picture below), this week to UC Berkeley, to share her story with a group of students studying animal rights. Interestingly enough, many of the students knew only a tiny bit about the Vick case and generally agreed they figured that most dogs rescued from fighting rings would have aggressive personalities.  Donna and Tim were able to tell the Vick Dog stories along with introducing Tallulah, who proved the rescued fight dog stereotype wrong once again. She amazed the students with her gentle persona and her willingness to accept love and pets from them. There is no doubt that her impact on these students will be a positive influence furthering their studies.

TOP: The final survivor from a dog fighting case in rural Louisiana - Benny! - arrived safe and sound into Oakland and is tail wagging happy. Heartfelt APPLAUSE to the small but mighty The Delta Humane Society. Every single dog from this case went to rescue and their abuser is being brought to justice. This is no small feat for a community that has no animal control facility orumane investigators. We salute DHS workhorse Casey Lattimer for insisting on nothing but the very best outcome from day on

MIDDLE: Catfish Jones  and Miss Tallulah (BOTTOM), both survivors of the recent Louisiana dog fighting bust. Photo courtesy of Bad Rap:

Final Thoughts

I've spared you, the reader, the horrific details surrounding the Michael Vick case because I know you are capable of finding that information if need be. Sometimes to be sure you see things in a well rounded way, educating yourself on the not so pretty details is necessary. I urge my readers to be sure they understand what these dogs go through if only to broaden your views in understanding how hard it is for folks to truly believe and insist these dogs get a second chance.  It would be possible and perhaps easy to believe that no dog would be able to overcome those horrific circumstances to which it had been subjected to.  But dogs are amazing creatures in their ability to rebound, to let go of the past and to trust again, all of which are part of the reason most of them can be reintegrated into society.  

Ghandi once said that a society can be judged by the way it treats its animals.  We as a society then have a long ways to go. But because of the Michael Vick case and many of the subsequent similar dog fighting cases after that, we have proved that these dogs do deserve a second chance.  The Vick(tory) dogs - as they are now called, shows how a small group of humans along with public outcry can instrumentally overpower the 'powers that be' and can begin to open hearts and change the history for all fighting dogs.

Happy Uba - formally a Vick Dog courtesty of

*Update November 2012

Near the 5th anniversary of the Vick Dogs Rescue, many of the Vick Dogs joined their rescuers and forever families at the Bad Rap Barn for an emotional, happy reunion.

Vick Dog rescue 5 year reunion. Photo courtesy of Read the details of what each Vic(tory) dog is doing now.