Earlier this year, on a sunny January day in a parking lot near the Berkeley, Calif., waterfront, BAD RAP’s Pit Bull training classes were in full swing. People and dogs cheerfully circled, practicing “heel,” “sit” and, most important, “look at me.” The media were there too. They wanted to be ready with photos, film and interviews the minute sentencing was over in the Michael Vick dog fighting trial and a gag order was lifted.
The reporters needed to have the “Vick dogs” pointed out to them. A big white pit bull with tan spots and three legs would make a great photo, but Dango wasn’t a Vick dog—he was from an Oakland shelter. What about chocolate Stella, with the fight scars? No, she was from a drug bust in Detroit.
When it was time for a group photo of the Vick dogs, there was trouble, just the sort of trouble you’d expect. The dogs heard “photo op” and they thought “wigglefest.” They didn’t want to look at the camera, they wanted to lick faces, play or roll over for a belly rub.
The Vick dogs are a sample of what gets called “Pit Bull” in America today. Small black Frodo looks like the Old World Pit Bulls traditionally bred by dog fighters. Hector’s a big red dog with scars on his chest. Jonny Justice is black and white, glossy as a penguin. Big white Teddles looks like the many American Pits crossed with bigger breeds. As BAD RAP’s co-founder Tim Racer describes this trend, Teddles slumps against my leg—after all, he’s known me for 30 seconds—and lets me rub his speckled ears.
Donna Reynolds and Tim Racer founded BAD RAP—Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls–in 1999, and in 2007, Reynolds and Racer were among the nine experts asked by the ASPCA to help evaluate 49 of the dogs seized from Vick’s Bad Newz kennels and held in Virginia-area shelters. When the dogs were initially seized, Reynolds and Racer had submitted a proposal to evaluate them, hoping to fend off their immediate destruction, and were gratified when the government agreed. In addition to Racer, Reynolds and Justin Phillips of the SPCA of Monterey County, Calif., the evaluation team assembled by the ASPCA consisted of Dr. Randall Lockwood, Dr. Pamela J. Reid, Dr. Daniel Q. Estep, Dr. Crista R. Coppola and Nancy Williams, and was led by Dr. Stephen Zawistowski. Though the case hit the news in April 2007, evaluators weren’t able to see the dogs until September.
It was a dog fighting case, and a hoarding case, and a neglect case. Vick had amassed more dogs than he could fight or sell. The dogs spent deprived lives caged or chained to car axles in the woods. After they were confiscated and parceled out to six different Virginia animal control shelters, their isolation continued. It was hardest on the youngest dogs. Those who came to BAD RAP arrived in October after seven months in custody.
Dogs don’t tell stories, but people tell stories about dogs. We tell stories about famous dogs who carried serum to Nome, or waited at a train station for a person who never returned. We tell stories about our own dogs: “He was abused,” “they were bred to hunt badgers” or “her grandsire was Best in Show.” For a long time, the story told about dogs who have been used in dog fighting is that they’re ruined. Unstoppably violent, untrustworthy and, in a phrase that makes Reynolds especially angry, “kennel trash.”
Although dogs don’t tell stories, they have stories, and stories help us understand. The saga of Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels, and the dogs who were hung, drowned or electrocuted when they displeased their handlers, grabbed the public’s attention. The dogs who died helped people see the surviving dogs as victims, not monsters. The story changed.
Animal welfare groups are using that story as a powerful tool to show that “fight-bust dogs” should be evaluated as individuals, and that it’s wrong to assume they’ve been turned into monsters. The personal stories of dogs—dogs redeemed from dreadful captivity, with no interest in fighting, joyously learning to be with people—have touched many hearts.
Transitioning to a Better Life
Most of the 10 Vick dogs taken in by BAD RAP are fostered by Pit-loving volunteers. To understand how the group was working with the dogs, I asked Reynolds to suggest one easy dog and one more challenging dog. She suggested Hector (easy) and Frodo (challenging).