The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 12, 2010

Lisa Brown, Book Review: Stories of quarterback's dogs heartwarming

By Lisa Brown
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — The nation was shocked when on April 25, 2007, law enforcement executed a search warrant on property owned by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. They were looking for evidence linking him to illegal drugs, but they found so much more.

That day, authorities uncovered evidence of an extensive dog-fighting operation: paperwork, training equipment, food and supplements, medical supplies and blood-stained floors. And the dogs themselves.

Of the 66 dogs seized from the property, 51 were pit bulls. Some were in kennels, but most were tied out in open fields.

They greeted the officials with wagging tails and excited barking, but ducked in fear when attempts were made to touch them, as if they were accustomed to being struck. None showed any aggression toward the people who had descended on the Bad Newz Kennels.

In "The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption," Jim Gorant details the process by which these dogs were discovered and then given a new lease on life. It seemed an up-hill battle at first, as authorities identified potential witnesses, struggled to get search warrants and encountered people who wanted the dogs euthanized.

Wayne Pacelle, of the Humane Society of the United States, said that "generally speaking, they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country." PETA referred to them as "a ticking time bomb" and stated that rehabilitation of fighting dogs doesn't work.

Pit bulls -- a term that includes American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, and Staffordshire bull terriers -- have been saddled with a fearsome reputation in recent years. Yet the truth is they were bred to be friendly to humans. In fact, their strong desire to please is a trait exploited by dogfighters and other criminals.

These dogs once worked closely with farmers and butchers and even became pop-culture icons. Famous pit bulls include Petey of "The Little Rascals," Buster Brown's Tige, and Stubby, who helped rescue wounded American soldiers in World War I.

At one time pit bulls were considered the ideal family dog because they're good with children. Ttwo of the first dogs to take part in Joplin Public Library's Dog Day Afternoon, where children read to certified therapy dogs, were Sneakers and Bess, American pit bull terriers.

A sense of justice and the once positive perception of pit bulls led law enforcement, ASPCA experts, and rescue groups to propose a new approach to handling dogs confiscated from fighting operations: individually evaluating them instead of automatically euthanizing them. Dogs deemed too people-aggressive or ill would be put down, the rest would be rehabilitated in foster homes and animal sanctuaries.

The nine-person evaluation team was realistic. They hoped that maybe five dogs out of the remaining 49 (two had died in custody) could be saved, despite having been raised in a dog-fighting environment and then kept in shelters for months. And the team was cognizant of the importance of the task before them.

"There could be no accidents, no oops moments," Gorant wrote. "These dogs would be cheered, feared, written about, spied on, and watched for years. They would set precedents and establish boundaries for what was and was not possible, not only for pit bulls rescued from fight operations but for pit bulls as a breed."

The experts tested the temperaments of 49 dogs. All had some degree of trauma -- physical scars, extreme fearfulness -- and a handful exhibited dog aggression.

But only one, a female who'd been overbred, was human aggressive. It was agreed that she would be euthanized. The remainder of the dogs were microchipped, spayed or neutered, and shipped off to foster homes and sanctuaries around the country. Most importantly, every dog was given a name.

If the first third of "The Lost Dogs" is about how Michael Vick and his co-horts were brought down, the remainder of the book is solely about the dogs, such as Leo, Little Red, Jasmine and Johnny Justice, and their rescuers.  

Many of the dogs made great strides once they had structure, training and individual attention. After earning their Canine Good Citizen certifications and leaving foster care for their permanent homes, they became family pets, good-will ambassadors for their breed and therapy dogs in schools, libraries, and hospitals.

Others, however, experienced a crippling fear of people that caused them to shut down. These special cases needed to be taught to trust again, a lengthy process requiring a lot of patience. It's heartbreaking, yet their small successes are inspiring.

Gandhi once said that "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." If that is the case, then we took a few steps forward after the Michael Vick case. To find out more, pick up Jim Gorant's "The Lost Dogs" at the Joplin Public Library.

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.