On this day nine years ago, one of the great loves of my life was saved from the pain and fear of dogfighting. Nine years ago today, 51 dogs were seized from the Virginia estate of football player Michael Vick.
Their rescue, which captured the attention of dog lovers all across the country, changed the shape of the world for Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs. It also began my personal journey to meet and love one of the most incredible dogs in the world: Ray the Vicktory Dog.
Among the many dogs I have met in my life, there are some who helped me move beyond my prejudices and take up the mantle of advocate. These dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels began that process for me.
My husband and I had the amazing opportunity to train with several of the dogs, working hand in hand with professional trainers to help the dogs learn the skills they needed in order to go home. Ultimately, one of the dogs, RayRay, captured our hearts and came home to spend the rest of his life as part of our family. I chronicled many of his adventures on my blog: RaytheVicktoryDog.com
Although almost a decade has passed since the bust, the story is one that must never be forgotten.
The Vick dogs owe their salvation to a police drug dog named Troy who alerted to the presence of narcotics in the car of a young man named Davon Broddie. When questioned by police, Broddie gave his address as a home in Surry County, Virginia, which belonged to his cousin, Atlanta Falcons' Quarterback Michael Vick -the NFL’s highest paid player.
After a search warrant was served to look for additional drugs, the police were surprised to find a large number of dogs. An additional search warrant was quickly obtained to investigate why there were so many Pit Bull-type dogs on site.
What they found left little doubt that this was a large-scale dogfighting operation: a blood stained “pit," a “rape rack," training equipment, performance enhancing drugs and dogs chained with heavy log chains in a clearing in the woods, some with injuries consistent with dogfighting.
51 fighting dogs were seized and moved into several different municipal shelters in the area. Traditionally, suspected fighting dogs were held as evidence until the trial was completed, and then euthanized. They were referred to as “kennel trash” and shelter employees tried hard not to become attached to them, given their dismal outlook for a future. Even un-weaned puppies were routinely killed as being irredeemably tainted by dog fighting.
This time, things were different. A few vocal animal welfare groups petitioned the court to have the dogs evaluated individually for possible rehabilitation. But just as vocal were the groups who maintained the dogs couldn’t be saved. That they were “ticking time bombs” or “the most aggressively trained killing machines in America."
Thankfully, the judge decided to give the dogs at least a chance to prove themselves. He appointed Rebecca Huss as Guardian and Special Master to the court. It was her job to arrange individual evaluations for the dogs and determine each one’s fate.
Teams of behavior experts from across the country arrived to complete the evaluation process. Each dog was to be tested for dog aggression as well as human aggression. It was hoped that two or three of the 49 surviving dogs (two died while in care) would be deemed salvageable. Imagine everyone’s surprise when all but one of the dogs showed at least some degree of ability to be rehabilitated.
One dog, who had been bred and fought repeatedly, was just too emotionally and physically damaged to try and save. She was humanely euthanized. The remaining 48 dogs were dispersed to 8 different rescue groups for adoption, rehabilitation or sanctuary. 22 of the most damaged dogs were sent to a sanctuary to begin working towards recovery and eventual adoption.
When the dogs first arrived in rescue, caregivers and trainers were with them 24 hours a day, as everyone tried to get an idea of what this task was going to require. The dogs instantly bonded with these humans who were kind and patient. It didn’t take long for people to figure out the biggest issue with them wasn’t aggression….it was fear.
These dogs had lived a life that was painful and frightening. They were totally unsocialized. They had never know kindness, good food, fresh water, and a warm, safe place to sleep. They didn’t know how to walk on a leash. They had never spent a night under a roof. And some of them were ill with Babesia, a blood-born parasite that fighting dogs pass through deep puncture wounds. (Babesia can also be contracted by tick bites.)
Some of the Vicktory Dogs (as they came to be known) were able to be adopted as soon as the trainers felt they would be able to be successful in a home. Some of the dogs who were more damaged were court-ordered to complete their Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test before they could leave. The CGC is an incredibly difficult test for any dog. For dogs who were dealing with crippling fear, it takes a Herculean effort on the part of both the dog and his trainer.
One by one the dogs started passing their tests and finding wonderful homes. The dogs have been integrated into homes with small children, cats, and other dogs. There has never been a single issue with any who were placed in loving homes.
The dogs act like they are on a mission to prove to the world that they are dogs….just dogs. Not “killing machines," not aggressive, dangerous animals. But dogs like any other dog. Dogs with individual quirks that just endear them to their families. Dogs who have become therapy dogs, agility champions and emotional support animals.
Dogs like Cherry, who makes public appearances and happily meets his many fans. Dogs like Handsome Dan, who is so amazing that he inspired his parents to start a dog rescue of their own, in his name. Dogs like Layla, who is working hard to become a certified therapy dog. Dogs like Ray, who traveled across the country, changing hearts and minds of everyone he met.
The Vicktory Dogs are aging. In the past few years, we have started to lose some of them. We know our time with these amazing dogs is limited. Many of them are dealing with health issues directly related to the abuse they suffered. But even when they cross over the Rainbow Bridge, they will continue to influence policy. These 48 dogs who have proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that fighting was something that was forced on them, not something they were born to do. Once they had the opportunity to become companions, they took it and ran with it.
These dogs were victims, not criminals. And because of their bravery and loving nature they have taught us all so much. If dogs like these - dogs who were trained, fought and abused - can become loving family members, how can anyone say that Pit Bull-type dogs are inherently dangerous? It just doesn’t make sense.
Dogs that are seized are now routinely assessed for rehabilitation. There is no longer a belief that these dogs are somehow responsible for the life that was forced on them. That they are damaged goods, better off dead.
Our boy RayRay has been gone for almost a year. I still grieve his loss. But his legacy, and what he taught us, lives on. Because of his influence, we now share our home with three other Pit Bull Terrier-type dogs, including Turtle, a fighting dog who was saved because of the example of the Vick dogs.
In the coming days, many of the adoptive families of the dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels will be traveling to Virginia to what is now known as Good Newz Rehab Center
. In the field where once our dogs were chained, trees will be planted to memorialize each of the dogs. Each tree will have a plaque listing the dog's name and their family's name.
This is not a media event, but a private ceremony and pilgrimage for the people who have loved these incredible dogs. Vicktory Dog Oscar
's mom Rachel and artist/writer Levity Tomkinson of the Re51lient Project
have designed a t-shirt
to commemorate the event, and to help raise money for the families traveling to honor their dogs.
Featured image via Best Friends