In a game of association, I’m betting the name Michael Vick prompts an immediate and visceral reaction. Over four years after his arrest, Vick continues to be synonymous with dog fighting, his very mention provoking outrage in many circles, a testament to the impact of his arraignment and conviction. Not just sports fans or a nation but people the world over were horrified as news of the atrocities committed at his Bad Newz Kennels surfaced. The mutilated corpses of dogs that refused to fight, the bait dogs, the rape tables, the tortured and terrified dogs flattened at the back of their cages—the unspeakable cruelty these animals were subjected to by the formerly celebrated National Football League (NFL) quarterback dominated headlines.
So when Jim Gorant, author of The Lost Dogs, a book that follows the fate of the dogs seized from Vick’s kennels, says that Michael Vick was the best thing that ever happened to Pit Bulls, it is, at first, hard to see his logic.
Vick’s dog-fighting operation ran from 2002 until 2007 and it’s difficult to tally—let alone, read about—the atrocities committed by Vick and his associates. Luckily, the story we’re concerned with here is a more cheerful one, the remarkable, unprecedented tale of the survivors.
Fifty-one dogs were seized in April of 2007, and for a long time—especially when quantified in dog years—as the case made its way through the court, the Vick dogs were largely forgotten, left in kennels without much human contact, assumed to be too vicious for “normal” lives, and, anyway, they were evidence in the case. They would, obviously, be put down; even PETA and the Humane Society did not think they could or should be saved.
Miraculously, this did not happen.
In a backwards way, it was Vick’s celebrity status that saved the dogs whose lives he had made a misery. The story so captured the public’s attention there was an outcry against these animals suffering one more final injustice at the hands of humans. It is this story, that of the unlikely rehabilitation and adoption of these former fighting dogs, that caught the interest of Gorant.
About a year after Vick pleaded guilty, Gorant, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated magazine, was having a slow news week. Looking for inspiration, he turned to Google, hoping to find a story about the NFL, the magazine’s most popular sport. Instead, he found a small article about Michael Vick’s dogs being rehabilitated and put up for adoption.
“I just thought, how does that work?” explains Gorant. “How the hell do you rehabilitate a fighting dog? What do they mean by up for adoption? Are they going to be in homes with kids and with other pets? Where have they been all this time?”
“I pushed it out of my mind,” he remembers, “But it just kept coming back to me.”
Gorant decided to pitch it internally at the magazine, fully anticipating the tenuous link to the sports world was too weak. But everyone at the magazine loved the idea.
In researching the article that would eventually become the cover story for the December 29, 2008, issue of the magazine, Gorant would learn a thing or two about Pit Bulls, destroying his misconceptions about the breed and proving just how loyal, inspirational, and resilient they can be.
“All I knew was what I read in the headlines…the stereotypes,” Gorant says. “Now I realize that they’re just dogs, and like any dog, there is potential for good or bad, and a lot of it depends on how they are socialized and raised.”
The article received more feedback than any other story the magazine ran in 2008 or 2009, and the majority of it was positive. Gorant had feared a backlash of anti-Pit Bull stories, or even questions about whether or not the topic was one that fit Sports Illustrated’s readership. Instead, his story touched a chord with the readers. As a result, at the urging of his agent, Gorant began to expand on the story, to tell more details of the investigation, the rescue, and the rehabilitation of the 51 dogs who were seized from Vick’s property.
The resulting book, The Lost Dogs, which was just released in paperback, reads at times like a mystery novel, detailing the intricacies of the legal team that worked tirelessly to see Vick pay for what he had done. It also stands as a passionate portrait of those involved in the dogs’ rehabilitation. Most importantly, however, it tells the story of the individual dogs, taking them from the shadows of the stereotype and proving that, at heart, they’re just dogs: sometimes silly, sometimes scared, but always desperate to be man’s best friend.
It was their eventual triumph and these dogs’ remarkable capacity for forgiveness that significantly changed public perception of Pit Bulls, and this is the silver lining. Vick’s crime not only made the horrors of dog fighting front-page news, he catapulted these abused animals into the forefront of the national psyche, and showed them to be just that—damaged dogs, not born killers. He also set a precedent for punishment.
In the landmark sentence, Vick received 23 months in jail and was ordered to pay $928,000 for the care and treatment of the dogs found on his property. The surviving 47 Pit Bulls that had experienced the worst mankind had to offer now had the chance to prove that a Pit Bull was more than a fighting dog. This was “ground-breaking,” notes Gorant.
This was “ground-breaking,” notes Gorant.
“Perception-wise, it was the first time that Pit Bulls were looked at as victims of the crime rather than the gun in a holdup.”
The case also brought about a change within the legal system, increasing the number of investigations into dog-fighting rings and the willingness of police to go after these sorts of crimes.
Many people still find Vick’s punishment insufficient. Vick’s prominent return to the NFL spurs ongoing debate over whether Vick did enough time to pay for the atrocities he committed. Detractors say he got off too lightly; others defend and praise him for straightening himself out, for taking his second chance and running with it. Gorant is more philosophic about it.
“A lot of people fought very hard to ensure that he spent time in jail, and the original plea agreement recommended 12 to 18 months. He got 23 months. In a way, it’s an insult to those people and the effort they made and what they put into it to suggest that he got off too easy, strictly in a legal sense.”
At any rate, that’s not the side of the story that fascinates Gorant. If there’s a lesson here, it’s from the dogs themselves. While following their stories as they went from the horrors of their past life to rescues, fosters, and adoptive homes, learning how to be ordinary dogs, Gorant learned a few things himself.
He visited shelters and schools, sometimes with one of the rescued dogs, meeting those inspired by his book, like the teenaged boys in the Kids in Transition program in New Jersey, a live-in program for boys with histories of behavioural and emotional issues resulting from childhood neglect and abuse. The story of the resilience of the Vick dogs and the way they overcame adversity resonated strongly with these young men.
“It’s been incredibly unexpected and powerful to see,” Gorant says. “When you sit down to do this thing, you don’t think it’ll ever have that sort of impact. You don’t think of it as something that exists within the world and makes its own way. In a sense, it becomes beyond you and it does things and goes places that you never imagined it could. It’s just eye-opening and shocking and I guess very gratifying.”Which is really it in a nutshell. It has this particular, lasting resonance because it’s an affecting story about second chances—both for 47 of Michael Vick’s dogs, which not even some of the most fervent institutes lobbying for the protection of animals believed could be saved, and, yes, for Vick himself. Maybe Donna Reynolds, co-founder of the rescue group Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BAD RAP), said it best: “Vick showed the worst of us, our blood lust, but this rescue showed the best.”
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