Talking Pets: The legacy of the Vicktory Dogs

May 4, 2012 

Last week was the fifth anniversary of the raid on NFL quarterback Michael Vick's property in Smithfield, Va., and the rescue of dozens of dogs that had been part of a brutal fighting ring.

The anniversary passed almost unnoticed by most of the nation, but for the people who have followed these dogs for the past five years, it was a day to pause and reflect.

Facebook pages were humming with congratulations for Halle, Handsome Dan, Cherry Garcia, Jhumpa Jones, Squeaker and Oscar, Hector, Audie, Ginger Girl and Little Red, some of the Vicktory Dogs, who have thousands of friends.

One page in particular, The Vicktory Dogs: The Little Engines that Will, posted "then and now" photos of some of the dogs. If a picture says a thousand words, then two pictures say two thousand words. The transformations are simply amazing.

I wrote a "celebration" note to the folks at BAD RAP, Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls, which is based in Oakland, Calif., one of the groups responsible for rehabilitating some of the dogs. Their response was enlightening:

"Not yet -- Five years ago July, we started the long, difficult battle to save the dogs from 'the system.' They were all set to be destroyed after they were no longer evidence, as was the custom. The Vick dogs' true Anniversary is in October, when the federal courts finally said -- 'Yes -- We will allow you to rescue these dogs.' What a happy day that was. :-)"

So the celebration -- and the reflection -- continues.

What can we learn from the Vicktory Dogs?

We can learn that not all dogs taken from a fighting ring are vicious. In Jim Gorant's excellent book, "The Lost Dogs," he describes how when the investigators served the warrant on April 25, 2007, they found dogs who came running up to them, "barking and wagging as if they wanted to be petted, but when the people got close, the dogs tucked their tails and retreated."

And what's more, "Some of the cops who were more comfortable with animals went up and put their hands on the dogs. None snapped or growled or showed signs of aggression, but a few, when they saw hands coming at them, ducked their heads and crouched low, as if they were expecting to be struck."

A lot of these dogs today still show signs of post-traumatic stress disease. Some, such as Hector, do well making public appearances, but as Handsome Dan says, "I'm still shy."

We can learn that dogs taken from a fighting ring don't have to be killed. As BAD RAP advised, the custom had been to destroy the dogs when they were no longer "evidence." The Vicktory Dogs proved (and are still proving) that this is an antiquated procedure that has no place in 21st century America.

We can learn that the old saying about pit bulls and other dogs labeled "aggressive" -- "It's all in how they're raised" -- isn't true. The Vicktory Dogs were raised in horrific circumstances, but they never gave up on humans.

Indeed, we can learn that dogs taken from a fighting ring can be healthy, happy family pets. The Vicktory Dogs had to jump through some pretty big hoops: They were initially isolated from people, then they were put in "rehab" with various rescue groups. To be judged "adoptable," they had to pass their Canine Good Citizen tests and spend six months in foster care before going to their new homes.

Many of the dogs now live with families that have children and other pets, and they are thriving. Some are even certified therapy dogs.

We can learn that "shelter stress" is a preventable condition. The Vicktory Dogs' case proved that months spent in shelters can do lasting harm. BAD RAP told me, "Life didn't get much better for most of the dogs after they were seized, but the lessons they shared from their (shelter) experience has helped many other dogs."

Some of the Vicktory Dogs are still sheltered with Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, where they can frolic in dog runs and be loved by the staff. It was first believed they would live out their lives there, and not because they are vicious, but because they still suffer from PTSD. Yet despite their years at BFAS, even now some are becoming adoptable. Oscar just passed his CGC and is posted on Best Friends' adoptable page.

Hopefully, society will take these lessons to heart. Even in our community, we can learn the lesson about shelter stress. If you love pets but can't have a dog or cat, you can still make a difference in an animal's life by volunteering to enrich their shelter lives.

You can go play with some cats and break up their monotony of waiting for homes. You can go walk a dog and get him out where he can get some exercise. Better yet, you can foster an animal through Animal Services or a local rescue group.

You can help groom them for success, much like the Vicktory Dogs were groomed.

This can be the legacy of the Vicktory Dogs: a better life for animals everywhere.

M.K. Means, Herald copy editor, can be reached at 941-745-7054.

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