We really didn’t know what to expect when the 22 most challenging canine survivors of the dogfighting ring on NFL star Michael Vick’s property arrived at Best Friends on January 2 in 2008. The dogs were being called a lot of things during the media frenzy that followed the raid at the notorious Bad Newz Kennels.
Many people (who had never even laid eyes on them) called them the most dangerous dogs in the country. Others said they were highly trained “killing machines” who were beyond help — and the kindest course of action would be to euthanize every single dog. Nine years ago, that was the standard policy for all dogs confiscated in dogfighting busts. Few animal organizations were in a position to help dogs from fighting rings, and those that had the resources were some of the most vocal proponents of euthanasia.
Best Friends knew that regardless of the assumptions being thrown about, these dogs were fundamentally victims. They were victims who didn’t deserve to be victimized twice — first as pawns in a horrifically cruel “sport” and second as animals to be killed by their rescuers without even an evaluation.
Best Friends was a vocal advocate for giving all of the Vick dogs a second chance. We had hope, but we were guarded. The dogs, after all, had spent years in a fighting ring living in horrific conditions, followed by months of living in a shelter environment as “evidence” in the case, with limited human interaction. Since Best Friends was founded, though, we have held to the conviction that every animal is an individual and that their lives have intrinsic value regardless of their background.
Of course, the rest, as they say, is history. Twenty-two of the dogs came to our sanctuary in southern Utah, and the Vicktory dogs, as they were now known, showed very clearly that any dog can be a loving dog, if shown love. They showed that there wasn’t a “killing machine” among them. They each had personality quirks, a heart and soul, and proved that every dog is an individual.
Many went on to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, a very stringent behavioral standard that your average “couch potato” family pet probably wouldn’t pass. Some went into forever homes, others stayed with us in Utah, receiving plenty of love from staff and the thousands of volunteers who met them. Sadly, some have passed on, but the rest are still with us. They have been living examples of canine forgiveness, resilience and affection for people — the very traits that their abusers exploited.
The story of the Vicktory dogs has unquestionably changed the future for dogs everywhere, especially dogs rescued from fighting rings and, in particular, pit-bull-terrier-like dogs, who are often stigmatized as fighters, regardless of whether they have ever been forced to fight and regardless of their individual personalities and behavior.
In fact, the policy of euthanasia without evaluation wasn’t just the policy for animal welfare organizations; it was the law in many states. Best Friends has actively worked to change those laws through our legislative advocacy team and has done so successfully in five states: Florida (2011), Delaware (2014), Rhode Island (2015), Wisconsin and California (2016). There are 10 states left with laws that need changing, and we’re hoping to push for changes to that legislation in 2017 in three states: Michigan, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Another set of laws that the Vicktory dogs have helped to change is breed-discriminatory legislation. We all know the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but that’s exactly what these laws do. If your dog has certain arbitrary physical characteristics, and the city where you live has breed-discriminatory laws, you are at risk of losing your best friend. And any dog in those communities who comes into the shelter and looks like he belongs to a banned breed may be killed, regardless of the dog’s behavior. These laws, aimed at increasing public safety, are nothing more than panic responses that don’t serve the public. They’re bad policy, don’t make communities safer and are responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent dogs every year.
Twenty states have passed some kind of legislation that prohibits discrimination based on breed. Many of those were passed in the last nine years. In fact, the momentum for passing breed-neutral laws — laws that regulate responsible pet ownership and the behavior of individual dogs rather than breed — has grown dramatically in that time.
Of course, every dog who comes from a fighting ring and transitions to a better future becomes an ambassador for canine victims, as well as for their breed, for the rest of their lives. There are now countless examples.
We may not have known back in 2008 what we were getting into with the Vick case. At the time, we believed that saving the dogs was simply the right thing to do. We thought perhaps their stories would help people understand that all dogs are individuals. But as we reminisce about the last nine years, we can see the impact that these dogs have had — on our hearts, on our compassion for all dogs, and on policy and politics around the world.
Love reading the Best Friends Blog? Make sure you never miss a post by clicking here to subscribe and receive every post right in your inbox.
CEO Best Friends Animal Society