For Vicks’s Canine Victims: An Unlikely Victory

Abused Pit Bulls Prove That, With A Little Love, Any Dog Can Be Man’s Best Friend


Published: February 12, 2009

The scandal of millionaire football quarterback Michael Vick’s illegal dog fighting ring has gotten some fresh attention recently as the surviving dogs appeared on the cover of December’s Sports Illustrated. With dozens of canines found dead on the property, others showing severe signs of abuse or neglect and the remainder exhibiting symptoms not unlike Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, this tragedy is not one that can be captured in glossy magazine pages. Still, the saddest part of this story is that there are thousands of cases like it that go unnoticed every year. Scores of nameless, faceless dogs that never draw attention are, in an overwhelming majority of cases, eventually euthanized.

Pit Bulls are often portrayed in media as dangerous and violent, but most Pits are loving and playful. (Lisa Spiteri/The Observer)

However, the Vick scandal, for all of its horrors, has had an unusually happy ending for these fighting dogs. Despite the efforts of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who sought euthanasia for all seized dogs, the canines escaped death for a second time. In the court trial, the judge ruled that Vick must pay for the rehabilitation and lifelong care of his dogs in addition to the 23 months he will be spending in jail. Although this is a miniscule victory (for the money demanded will not truly cover the actual expenses incurred by participating dog rescue groups), it is a legal landmark for the dogs involved to be seen as both individuals and victims.

The 47 surviving dogs were put into knowledgeable, kind hands in a coordinated rescue effort by Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Bay Area Dog Lovers Responsible About Pit Bulls (BAD RAP), and several other rescues with foster and rehabilitative care programs across the U.S. Because those transporting the 13 dogs in BAD RAP’s care were under a gag order during the high profile case, two dedicated volunteers took turns at the wheel of a rented RV, trying to weave a path across the country inconspicuously. This is an extremely difficult process due to Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), which in dozens of areas bans Pit Bulls (and sometimes dogs merely resembling them). A dog found in these cities and towns can immediately be seized and euthanized, simply for being born an arbitrary breed.

Pit Bulls have, as BAD RAP’s acronym suggests, been unfairly ostracized by society. Less than a century ago, the breed was considered a highly patriotic symbol. Sergeant Stubby, a Pit Bull, was the first and most decorated war dog. Stubby was found as a stray and then smuggled aboard the transport ship “Minnesota” by a private whose division was deployed to Europe in WWI. The pup’s ability to give his own version of a salute and execute orders kept him with the unit. Stubby warned of an early morning gas attack with barks and bites to wake the soldiers. By the end of his tour, Stubby had captured a German soldier and saved dozens of men who had fallen in no-man’s-land.

Stubby is only one of hundreds of examples of pit bulls exhibiting the breed’s trademark qualities: courage, loyalty and bravery. Yet today, the president of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, has advocated in favor of BSL, and even HSUS has called Pit Bulls dogs “for drug dealers, gang members and anyone else who is looking for a dog to be a status symbol.” Considering the thousands of kind and responsible pit bull owners in the country, including myself, this is plainly false. About 10,000 Pit Bulls are euthanized every year in New York City alone. Only one in 600 Pit Bulls find a proper, permanent home. The others live on the streets or in kill shelters where their fate is sadly obvious. They are called “kennel trash” due to the unlikelihood of adoption.

Even within the dog community, discrimination against Pit Bulls, or “breedism,” is still terribly apparent. My own dog, Atlas, is primarily Pit Bull. Other dog owners cross the street. People shy away from him. Even moms and nannies tell young children that he is a “dangerous dog.” Having a Pit Bull or Pit Bull mix immediately ostracizes a person from the canine community.

Despite the media frenzy around dog attacks, actual facts reveal the true nature of the breed. In December 2007, the American Temperament Test Society found that the Pit Bull had an overall rating of 84.3 percent, with 494 out of 586 dogs passing. The Golden Retriever, Dalmatian, Collie and dozens of other breeds all scored lower. BSL won’t stop dog bites, only responsible ownership will. And that is something that must apply to all dog owners, not just those caring for Pit Bulls. Any dog can bite, and any dog can love. It’s up to the human being to bring out these qualities.

Michael Vick’s dogs were never given a choice except to kill or be killed. But these dogs have a purpose now.

As Donna Reynolds, the Executive Director of BAD RAP put it, “We need to let America see that they’ve been lied to when they’ve been told that Pit Bulls are viscous and dangerous animals. They need to see that they’re sentient beings, that they’re just dogs, that they deserve comfort and care and compassion just like everybody else, just like every other dog, every other person.”