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Saving Michael Vick's Dogs

Pit Bulls Rescued From the Football Player's Fighting Ring Show Progress in an Unprecedented Rehabilitation Effort

By Brigid Schulte

Washington Post Staff Writer

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."

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, Ginger, Ernie, Alf.

"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.

Witness Sweet Pea, a compact cinnamon-colored dog with a pleat of wrinkles above her eyes who was hiding under the desk of the Frederick animal acupuncturist trying to treat her for anxiety. Fred Wolfson dimmed the office lights. Soft Native American flute music wafted through wall speakers. Wolfson held out his hand for Sweet Pea to sniff. When she would not budge, he sat on the floor and took his bowl of needles to her.

Sweet Pea began to pant.

"She pants when she's nervous," said Stacy Leipold, who volunteers with the Baltimore-based animal rescue organization Recycled Love and is fostering Sweet Pea in her home. "I thought for a very long time she was just a hot dog."

As Wolfson rubbed the dog's head and felt along her spine for the proper relaxation points, Leipold explained that Sweet Pea was little more than a lump when she came to her home in December. She rarely left her crate. If she did, it was to hide under a desk. She had to be carried outside to do her business. Over time, with Leipold meticulously tracking her behavior, Sweet Pea began to pace in a circle and wag her tail when she realized it was time for a walk. And she seemed to take comfort in Leipold's other dogs, a Jack Russell terrier and a Great Dane. Still, one of her favorite places is the landing on the basement stairs. That way, up or down, she has two routes of escape.

Five needles and 12 minutes later, Sweet Pea stopped trembling.

* * *

Jane, Homicide, Jade, Bandit, Miami, Mike-Mike, Big Boy, Magic, Tiny, Too Short, Seal, Chico.

Sweet Pea is not what Vick, who is serving a 23-month prison sentence in Leavenworth, Kan., called this dog. We don't know what he called her, or whether he had a name for her at all. 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. The Humane Society of the United States found results for some of Bad Newz's dogfights in underground magazines. They show that Vick's Homicide lost to Maniac. Vick's Bandit lost to Red Rover. And Vick's Mike-Mike lost, after fighting for three hours and five minutes, to Dragon. Out of 10 fights recorded, Vick's dogs lost seven.

But no one knows who most of these dogs are, or whether they are even alive. Jane is. She 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 a "personalized emotional rehabilitation plan" for each dog and measures how they exhibit such traits as aggression, fearfulness, calmness or friendliness. True to their "people soft" nature, all but two of the Vick dogs are on "green collar," meaning they are open and friendly to human visitors. About nine have begun to have supervised play dates with other Vick dogs.

The remaining 25 Vick dogs were given to seven animal rescue organizations across the country, 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 in the process of being adopted.

Sharon Cornett, a member of the Richmond Animal League's board, agreed to foster Gracie and is now 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. Retrievers retrieve. Shepherds herd. And fighting pit bulls fight. "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 (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 fought, attacked and mauled 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."

Indeed, long before a glowering pit bull came to symbolize tough guy vogue, pit bulls, or American Staffordshire terriers, were the all-American dog. In the Civil War era, they were known as nurse dogs because they were so good with children. Pit bulls sold war bonds, earned medals in World War I and starred in such TV shows as "The Little Rascals."

All the more reason, Racer and other rescuers say, to look at each dog individually. "Every thoroughbred is not a great racehorse. Every pit bull, even if it's of fighting stock, is not an aggressive dogfighter," said Steve Zawistowski, an animal behaviorist with the ASPCA who helped assess the Vick dogs. "There are no simple answers."

* * *

As with any celebrity case, the legacy of the Vick bust has been far-reaching. Dogfighting raids across the country have tripled in the past year. Hundreds of law enforcement officers have been trained to detect the signs of underground rings. And, in some cases, officials have asked pit bull behavior experts to evaluate seized fighting dogs rather than automatically euthanizing them. But most dogfighters don't have the kind of money that Vick did. So even those deemed worthy of a second chance don't always get one.

Charlie, Denzel, Halle, Oscar, Sox, Ray, Frodo, Aretha.

They, it turns out, are the lucky ones.

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