Thursday, April 26, 2012
Vick dogs: Five years post-seizure. Has the cruelty ended?
Five years ago this week, the cruelty victims with the uncomfortable label "Vick dogs" were seized and processed as living evidence in the most infamous dog fighting case in animal welfare history. Their rescue from Vick's house of horrors did not signal a happy time, to be honest. Most were relegated to small, dark cages in antiquated animal shelters - still known as 'pounds' in Virginia. Because no one expected them to survive, they were asked to endure a different kind of cruelty for several months until the court order would come down for them to be destroyed. With the exception of the very lucky 'Leo' (who scored with an enthusiastic shelter team) - most never left their kennels for walks or exercise. Vet care was spare or non-existent and enrichments such as chew toys didn't happen. Right: This is where 'Zippy' lived for several months post-seizure.
The time period between their seizure (April 2007) and release to rescue (October 2007) did damage to many of the dogs from the case. The now-timid Ginger scampered back and forth like a scared feral cat in the back of her kennel, Frodo pressed himself to the ground when the shelter clatter finally got to him (he's still noise sensitive), and the energetic Uba paced in neurotic figure eights to relieve his tedium. Our stomachs were in knots during the months that this set of dogs was in lock down. While we waited anxiously for the courts to allow us to evaluate, and then, okay their release, we knew the damage done by their impossible conditions could be irreparable in some or all of the dogs.
While it's well known that some of the Vick dogs have timidity issues, many assume that Vick's tortures did all of the damage - when frankly, conditions in the shelters took the heaviest toll on the younger dogs especially. Most of the ten dogs we received showed symptoms that mimic post traumatic stress disorder. And some - including Uba, Iggy, Frodo and even agility star Audie - still need reassurances from their owners five years later. Despite that challenge, they function well and some have earned accolades including impressive wins, all thanks to the devotion of their loving adopters - a living reminder of the strength of the human/animal bond.
Times have changed though since those nerve wracking days waiting for the dogs' official release. Thanks to the Vick dogs' many post-adoption successes, it's become common place for new victims of dog fighting situations to attract public support, kennel enrichment and rescue help during their wait. District Attorneys now have a pile of precedents and contract templates to help them educate the courts and navigate their release to rescue. In some ways, saving a dog from a fight bust has become an in vogue badge of honor for up and coming rescue groups - deservedly so.
It's still extremely important to move the dogs through the process as "evidence" as quickly as possible, but in some cases we still lose dogs -- or rather, the dogs are still losing the battle during the wait.
Winnie being one. As an addendum: Both local authorities and humane reps were depressingly unresponsive to news of the suffering and conditions and the Gadsden County Shelter remains one of the most decrepit places a dog can find himself. Much, much work needs to be done in this part of the country! Right: This is one of several dogs who died of dehydration and disease due to neglect in the antiquated animal shelter of Gadsden County Florida.
Court ordered euthanasia of dog fighting victims has become much less common in this country, but dogs are still at risk in areas where authorities fall back on state law or local policies that maintain condemning definitions and antiquated disposition language. Unless rescues are watching closely and able to respond quickly when a new case breaks, the dogs tend to go down in these situations. It was a battle to save Star, for example, as recently as Spring 2011 once she was seized in Los Angeles County. On a happier note, the state of Florida repealed its law that had once designated all dogs seized in fight busts as "dangerous" thanks to the hard work of Ledy VanKavage of Best Friends Animal Society. Cruelty victims there can now be evaluated and adopted when before there was little hope due to the condemning language. (Info)
Tallulah, Gris-Gris, Catfish Jones and Benny are four dogs who came to our program from Richland County Louisiana this past winter after some busy exchange with local authorities, who initially rejected offers of rescue help. In that situation, the Vick dog precedent helped immensely to educate the courts, along with our written testimony on behalf of the victims and (especially) the no-nonsense game planning of well respected dog rescuer Casey Lattimer. Link: Louisiana state law regarding 'fighting dogs.'
This particular group of dogs was incredibly lucky. Because Richland County doesn't have an animal shelter, some were boarded temporarily at a vet's office and others lived in horse stalls on a volunteer's property while waiting out the court's ruling. That style of confinement and - especially - the daily interaction it provided with caretakers may be a large part of the reason all four dogs were so happy and well adjusted when they arrived in our program. We haven't noted any signs of PTSD in these victims and they are fast tracking towards new homes as a result. Right: Tallulah and Gris-Gris in BADRAP's 'barn dog program.' Every dog from this case found rescue help.
The first organization to raise a flag over the compelling issue of kennel conditions for canine victims of cruelty was the National Animal Control Association. Then director Mark Kumpf stressed the need for fast action to design the dogs' disposition in this interview: "Agencies should seek custody of any animals seized through a legal forfeiture process established for that purpose and, if custody is gained, them make prompt arrangements to evaluate each animal individually to determine if it can be placed. Other animal organizations need to be ready to immediately support these actions and assist with locating appropriate placements." More on NACA's stance on the treatment of cruelty victims.
We've learned so much from the Vick dogs, and their lessons have changed us forever. One of their biggest lessons though tends to be forgotten in the excitement of their adoption success. We'd love it if every time readers hear of a new batch of victims rounded up from a cruelty case, you would consider the Vick dogs' long and difficult post-seizure experience and ask, "What's being done to keep this latest set of dogs comfortable, vetted and sane while we wait for help to arrive?" The answer to that question could make all the difference in whether the cruelty they suffer ends for good the moment they're seized by authorities -- not several months later, after they're finally released to rescue.
NOTE: With all due respect to the incredible people who came together to seize the "Vick dogs" in April 2007, we will be celebrating the five year anniversary 'happy style' in October -- on the date that the federal courts finally waved them out of the shelters and onto freedom. What a HAPPY day that was!