Thursday, April 26, 2012

Vick dogs: Five years post-seizure. Has the cruelty ended?

(Edit: This post was published in 2012.)

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.

Guardian Master Rebecca Huss worried too, and together we ironed out a game plan to prevent the dogs' impending melt down. Huss created safe passage for then-BR volunteer Nicole Rattay (left, with Iggy) to fly to Virginia and sit with every sheltered Vick dog and offer comfort and measured enrichments. That basic care started November 6 - over six months into their difficult shelter stay. While Nicole reported back on the dogs' progress and challenges, back at home we paced the walls and offered a thousand prayers to a hundred deities for a positive ruling from federal Judge Henry Hudson. That ruling, which allowed their survival and release, finally came to us in October, 2007. Most of the dogs would then wait several more weeks or months to be matched to court screened rescues and leave the shelters.

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.

In Gadsden County Florida in July 2010, the conditions in a rural shelter were so horrific that while we were at the shelter trying to sort out the needs of the seized survivors of a fighting case, the dogs literally dropped from poor conditions including dehydration and died at our feet. Shelter staff shrugged - they were "just pit bulls" after all - and we had to wonder if this particular group of dogs had better odds with the dog fighter than they did with the shelter. Despite the best efforts of the responders, only three dogs survived the conditions - BR's 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)

Louisiana is one place where state law regarding the disposition of fighting victims is so vaguely worded that the dogs' fates typically fall back on any given judge's personal opinion of dogs and/or pit bulls.

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.

Those words ring too close for comfort when we consider Rose - a "Vick dog" who suffered terribly during her shelter stay post-seizure. Rose was not provided with vet care to treat an internal injury (possibly a tumor - we still don't know for sure) and her health concern grew into an unaddressed crisis situation. Rather than find a new life, she was euthanized shortly after her release to end the suffering she'd been living with for so long. Her face still haunts each of us who met her. Photo: Berenice Clifford of Animal Farm Foundation with Rose.

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!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Holy Toledo - Public Event April 18

Next week! A public event in Lucas County with information, discussion, dogs and an opportunity to ruminate on all things pit bull in post-HB14 Ohio.

(Click on image to biggify)