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A Better Life for Michael Vick’s Pit Bulls
Re-introducing human contact is part of the socialization process.

As we talk, from the corner of my eye, I watch Frodo come over to my chair. Silently, he smells my hand and touches it softly with his closed mouth.

Hector’s Education
Next, we go to Leslie Nuccio’s house. Nuccio is fostering Hector (the easy dog), and right now she’s also hosting an Associated Press videographer, who’s soon zooming in on Hector’s fight scars as the dog sprawls in Tim’s arms.

Hector plays exuberantly with Nuccio’s dog Pandora. Nuccio has taught him “look” and “sit,” and they’re working on “down.” He’s learned to understand tones of voice. He’s also learned about cars, music, toys and dog beds. “I don’t think he’d ever been in a house. He was honestly surprised that playing tug with pool table pockets was not a good game.”

Nuccio wonders about Hector’s life before the bust. “I think he never got to play, so he just wants to play all the time.” And he does, zooming through rooms, snatching a piece of toast off a counter, dragging the bathroom rug through the house. “He’ll try to eat anything once. ‘Can I chew on the chair?’ ‘No.’ ‘How about the pillow on the chair?’ ‘No!’ ‘What about this other chair?’”

As Reynolds observes, “They’ve all had this intense puppy period. In all their houses, they all collect things and hoard them in their crates. Then they all stopped.” It was as though they needed to catch up on the chance to manipulate objects after their long, empty captivity. (Frodo collected eight shoes.)

Coming Together for Change
The Vick case set a precedent. As Reynolds said at the press conference when the gag order was lifted, “It’s the first time that a large-scale rescue operation has come together to help the victims of a fight bust. The involvement of the federal government is a first.” Hector is the star at the conference, lolling in Tim’s arms and licking everyone within reach. Of the Vick dogs, Reynolds says, “Every single dog in here would have been tortured—hung or electrocuted—for not showing enough fight drive.”

Another Vick dog, Leo, also came to the press event. Leo, a large red-gold Pit with soulful eyes and scars on his head, went to Our Pack, a South Bay rescue group, which trained him as a therapy dog. Founder Marthina McClay took Racer’s recommendation that Leo would be a good therapy dog. “He’s so sweet,” she marvels. “I don’t see a damaged dog whatsoever. Pit Bulls are great for therapy. That’s what they’re born for.”

The Vick case was the first with a Guardian/Special Master, appointed by the court, to recommend outcomes for the dogs. Rebecca Huss, a professor at Valparaiso School of Law, a specialist in animal law, was selected for this role. She was appointed in October 2007, after the dogs’ sixth month in custody. Her task was to observe the dogs and talk with the dogs’ caretakers, review the evaluations, and make recommendations to the court for the dogs’ futures. “So many people had written to the court and expressed interest,” she says. “It certainly made a difference.”

The dogs were evaluated on their responses to people and to other dogs, to being handled, and for general reactivity. All but one were found to be safe around people. Huss took applications from several rescue organizations, and only those who met all the standards set in the application were considered. Eventually, the dogs were distributed among eight groups; BAD RAP took in the second largest number. As a condition of placement, each group committed to the lifetime care of the dogs if necessary. “A lot of people were critical, saying ‘Why these dogs?’ I say, why not? They’re equally deserving. And if they’ve got a story that can help a dog down the line, that’s even better,” Huss notes.

When asked about the impact of the Vick case, ASPCA’s Randall Lockwood says he’s seeing shifting views about fight-bust dogs. People are starting to look at the dogs as victims, not as instruments, of the crime. “We need to get away from the knee-jerk assumption that all dogs seized in that context are necessarily a threat,” he says. “They deserve to be looked at as individuals.”

“I’ve changed my own position,” Lockwood says. “I helped draft the HSUS policy [when I worked there] of not placing animals rescued from known dog-fighting operations. I’ve changed my tune.”

Susan McCarthy is the author of Becoming a Tiger and co-author, with Jeffrey Masson, of When Elephants Weep. natureofbeast.typepad.com

Photograph by William Widmer

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