Monday, July 14, 2008

Vick's dogs win hearts, homes

Here is a WONDERFUL article that appeared in the Sunday, July 13, 2008 edition of The Columbus Dispatch. To view the article with photos, please click here.

Vick's dogs win hearts, homes
Half of football star's fighting pit bulls were fit for fostering

By Brigid Schulte
The Washington Post

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 Virginia. 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 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 Hudson ordered that each dog 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, only one was deemed too vicious to warrant saving and was euthanized. (Another was killed because it was sick and in pain.) More than a year after being confiscated from Vick's property, Leo, a tan, muscular pit bull, visits cancer patients as a certified therapy dog in California. Teddles takes orders from a 2-year-old. Gracie is a couch potato in Richmond, Va., 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 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," 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, 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.

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 of the dogs were scarred. All were sick and malnourished. Once it became clear that the dogs might be allowed to live, evaluators gave them names: Iggy, Zippy, Cherry Garcia, Hazel, Little Red, Uba, Squeaker, Big Fella, Handsome Dan.

"One of the things that struck us immediately was that these dogs were more like the dogs we see rescued from animal-hoarding situations," Lockwood said. "Their main
problem was not aggressiveness but isolation." Loud noises startled them. A light coming on made them jump. All that the dogs seemed to know about people was that they were to be feared.

We don't know what names Vick, who is serving a 23-month prison sentence in Leavenworth, Kan., called most of his dogs. One of the few names that appeared in court papers was Jane, one of the first pit bulls Vick bought in 2001 to start Bad Newz Kennels.

Jane is now called Georgia. Her jaw is crooked, having been broken at least once, and her tongue sticks out. She is covered in scars, and her teeth have all been pulled. By court order, she will live out her days in Dogtown, at the Best Friends Animal Society's 3,700-acre sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. So will Lucas, a tail-wagging, 60-pound dog who evaluators suspect was Vick's grand champion fighter.

They are two of 22 dogs who were deemed worth saving but who showed enough animal aggression that they could be held only in a tightly controlled sanctuary. At Best Friends, McMillan, the veterinarian, has developed an "emotional rehabilitation plan" for each dog and measures how they exhibit such traits as aggression, fear, calmness or friendliness. All but two of the Vick dogs are on "green collar," meaning they are open and friendly to human visitors. The remaining 25 Vick dogs were given to seven animal-rescue organizations, which placed them in experienced foster homes. A number have since passed the American Kennel Club's 10-part Canine Good Citizenship test. Many are being adopted.

Sharon Cornett, a member of the Richmond, Va., Animal League's board, agreed to foster Gracie and is adopting her. "I adore this dog. She is just a love bucket. She loves people and animals unconditionally," Cornett said. She has four other dogs. All of them sleep together at night. "Gracie is not what the public perception has been of a fighting pit bull."

Still, Cornett and other pit-bull rescuers say that they never leave the dogs unsupervised with other animals. And rehabilitating a fighting pit is not for everyone: You have to know what you're doing, they say.

John Goodwin, a dogfighting expert with the Humane Society and a proponent of euthanizing fight dogs, is skeptical of the emerging reports of the Vick dog recoveries. Fighting is in their blood, he said. "The behavior is bred into them," he said. "These groups are not rehabilitating these dogs. They're training them to behave in a more socialized manner. But these pit bulls should never be left alone with other dogs, because you never know when that instinct to fight another dog is going to surface."

Tim Racer, one of the founders of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit bulls, or BAD RAP, who before taking in 10 Vick dogs had evaluated and retrained 400 pit bulls over the past 10 years, disagrees. Yes, there are pit bulls who have attacked other animals and people. But so have other breeds. And incidents almost always have been traced to negligent or abusive owners, he said.

Racer said it is not surprising that many of the dogs get along so well with other dogs. Just as the urge to fight is in their blood, so, too, is the need to get along. "You have 150 years of man trying to produce an aggressive dog. But you have tens of thousands of years of Mother Nature preceding that," he said. "Dogs are pack animals. They survived because of their pack. … It's hard-wired into their genes that they do no harm to each other."

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