Comeback for most of Vick's abused pit bulls
By Amy Worden
Inquirer Staff Writer
From his controversial signing with the Eagles a year ago to his stunning and victorious ascension this week as the team's new starting quarterback, Michael Vick's postprison comeback has the sports world abuzz all over again.
But meanwhile, another comeback has been going on much more quietly as the canine victims of Vick's dogfighting ring - Sweet Jasmine, Handsome Dan, Jonnie Justice, and the dozens of other pit bulls seized from Vick's Virginia compound in 2007 - travel their own path of redemption.
Sports Illustrated senior editor Jim Gorant tells their story in a new book, The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption (Gotham, $26).
Surprisingly, 47 of the 51 dogs rescued from Vick's property survived, even though they were initially written off as unsalvageable even by some ardent animal-rights activists. The majority have become family pets, agility champions, and even therapy dogs.
Twenty-two of the dogs, the tougher cases, ended up at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. Some have been adopted, and the sanctuary continues to work with the others on their "people and dog skills" with the goal of finding them good homes.
Gorant, who tells the story not only of Vick's dogs but of countless other neglected and abused pit bulls euthanized in crowded shelters across the nation, hopes to transform the public's perception of a maligned breed.
The book, an outgrowth of Gorant's popular 2008 Sports Illustrated cover story, rocketed to ninth place on the Amazon top-sellers list in its first week of publication two weeks ago (by Monday it had fallen to 66th). It was the top-selling title on Amazon among books on animal care and pets.
Gorant says he decided to pitch the article after seeing a newspaper item about efforts to save the Vick dogs.
"I followed the trial, but I never thought about the dogs," Gorant says in a phone interview. "What happened to them? Could you put fighting dogs with other people's dogs and children? I thought there was a really interesting backstory."
His cover story on Dec. 29, 2008, generated 488 letters and e-mails, more response than any other Sports Illustrated story that year.
A book deal was imminent.
Gorant, who was raised in northern New Jersey and attended Villanova, dove into research on dog behavior and genetics. He pored over court transcripts and interviewed an array of individuals involved in rescuing and rehabilitating the dogs, as well as the relative handful of law-enforcement officers who, by force of will, brought what would become the nation's most notorious dogfighting case to trial.
"A few less people with less dedication, and the sequence of events would have been different," Gorant said. "I learned how close it came to falling apart on numerous occasions."
Gorant said he had no access to Vick, but didn't mind since his story was really about the dogs and the people who helped them.
The book shifts focus chapter to chapter between the investigation, which revealed the torture, hanging, drowning, and electrocution of dogs that lost in the fighting ring, and the saga of the surviving dogs' rescue.
In August 2007, Vick, now 30, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in connection with running an interstate dogfighting ring and was sentenced to 26 months in prison. He served 18 months before being released in May 2009 and spending two more months under house arrest. He also admitted being involved in the torturing and killing of the dogs himself.
"What made the case interesting is that it was precedent-setting, the first time the court recognized dogs as victims," said Gorant. A federal judge ordered Vick to pay $1 million for the care of the dogs.
Gorant said he did not want to suggest that rehabilitating abused dogs was easy, but he did want to use the success stories to make the point that every dog in neglect and abuse cases should be evaluated separately.
"All dogs are individuals regardless of breed," said Gorant, who hopes his book helps redeem the image of the "bully breeds," known a century ago as the "nanny" dogs for their fierce loyalty and protective nature toward children.
Today, pit bulls are the dogs most likely to end up in shelters. In Philadelphia, more than 80 percent of dogs locked in cages at the Pennsylvania SPCA are pit bulls or pit-bull mixes.
"A lot of that has to do with who's breeding them and keeping them," said Gorant. "They are the dog of choice for irresponsible dog owners," people who are often just interested in having "a bad-ass dog."
Vick's arrival in Philadelphia in August 2009 stirred controversy and widespread anger from animal lovers stunned that the Eagles would sign an infamous abuser.
Fans sold off-season tickets, protesters picketed the stadium, and sporting-goods stores refused to sell Vick's No. 7 jersey.
Through it all, Vick's supporters, including Eagles president Joe Banner, defended him, saying he had expressed remorse for his misdeeds and deserved a second chance.
Vick's conviction hurt his standing with the public. He came in last among 198 athletes rated in the most recent national "Q scores," a ranking of celebrities and athletes published by Marketing Evaluations Inc., released at the beginning of September. Sixty-one percent of 1,800 people surveyed rated Vick as a fair or poor personality.
His teammates have been more forgiving. Last season they voted to present him the Ed Black Courage Award, given to one player from each NFL team and meant to honor notable sportsmanship and courage.
Wayne Pacelle, head of the Humane Society of the United States, said last week that Vick had been carrying out his commitment to speak to kids about the evils of dog fighting. Vick spoke to students twice a month last year and will do the same this school year, Pacelle said. He is scheduled to speak Tuesday at Imhotep Institute Charter High School, West Oak Lane.
Some of those who have spent the most time with Vick in recent months contend that no one has more ability to curb dog fighting and spread the message of animal kindness - particularly in the African American community - than Vick himself.
Vick told students in North Carolina in February that he was speaking out against dog fighting, "not only because it's the right thing to do but because I owe it to the animals I hurt."
Vick also has brought attention to the plight of pit bulls and other unwanted dogs who sit on death rows in area shelters.
Last year the PSPCA euthanized 4,360 dogs at its North Philadelphia shelter. Of those, a staggering 4,091 were pit bulls or pit bull mixes.
"In an odd way, Vick may be the best thing to happen to pit bulls," said Gorant.
Responding to the outcry from animal advocates last fall, the Eagles entered the animal-welfare business, creating a $500,000 grant program primarily directed toward reducing pet overpopulation and teaching humane treatment of animals to young people.
So far, $250,000 has been disbursed to 15 area groups for projects that include a low-cost spay/neuter clinic run by Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society in Grays Ferry, a mobile veterinary clinic operated by the Humane Society of Berks County, and an anti-dog fighting campaign run by the Humane Society of the United States.
"Mike does not want young men to make the same mistakes; he wants them to look at his mistakes and make different decisions," said Eagles spokeswoman Pamela Browner White.
"Young men have said to Mike, 'You represent all of us, that there's good in all of us.' Mike has gotten that message loud and clear."
Read more: Comeback for most of Vick's abused pit bulls | Philadelphia Inquirer | 09/28/2010
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