Every year over two million animals are euthanized in shelters around the world. Thankfully that number has dropped significantly as awareness rises and efforts for affordable spay and neuter programs are paying off. In honor of these millions of animals in need of homes, shelters across the States celebrate Adopt-A-Shelter-Dog Month every October. During this month shelters are focused on spreading awareness and many times run campaigns with little or no fees to adopt a shelter dog and welcome them into a new loving home.
In honor of Adopt A Shelter Dog Month we spoke with Best Friends Animal Society, the team behind the heroic rescue mission of Michael Vick’s former fighting dogs. They rehabilitated them back to happy and also played a key role in the Vick court case. Read on for our chat with co-founder Francis Battista about the infamous rescue mission and the plight of shelter animals.
Interviewer: When did you find out about the high-profile case and rescue mission of Michael Vick’s dogs?
Francis: There were some rumors of a significant cruelty case about to come down shortly before the case broke but we had no idea of what, where or how significant until it broke in the news. We were fully aware of the case as soon as it hit the news.
Interviewer: What was your first role in this particular rescue mission?
Francis: As soon as Bad Newz Kennels was raided, the dogs were taken into protective custody as evidence. It was then a case of watch and wait because the dogs were officially “evidence” until the case was tried which didn’t happen until the fall of 2007. What took place in the interim was a lot of messaging and advocacy through the media about how the dogs should be related to.
The longstanding policy had been a de facto declaration that any dogs freed from a dog-fighting ring were, by definition, dangerous and should be put down. Most of the national animal welfare and animal rights organizations either actively supported that position or remained silent on the fate of the dogs.
Best Friends Animal Society along with most of the dog rescue world and pit bull advocacy groups were vocally opposed to simply categorizing all dogs collectively as being dangerous. We wanted all the dogs to be evaluated as individuals and given the chance to be rehabilitated and rehomed.
So the first few months of the “rescue” if you want to call it that was a public opinion campaign. Normally dog fight ring busts were prosecuted in local jurisdictions under prevailing state laws, most of which declared the dogs as dangerous or vicious and they were all simply killed – which was a sad irony; save the dogs from a group of criminal abusers only to kill them. However Vick and his crew were being prosecuted under RICO laws as a federal racketeering case involving an interstate gambling operation. In fact, neither Michael Vick nor any of his Bad Newz Kennels cohorts were ever tried let alone convicted for animal cruelty – although horrendous depictions and reports of animal cruelty were part of the prosecution’s narrative and played into the judge’s sentencing. The federal case was all about racketeering.
Because this was such a high profile case that played out in public, the federal judge, prosecutors and investigators received an unprecedented number of emails from the public demanding that the dogs seized in the Vick case be given a chance to live. Best Friends along with other advocacy organizations filed an amicus brief with the court for the dogs to be saved. Consequently, after Vick was convicted and prior to sentencing, the judge appointed a Guardian/Special Master to oversee the evaluation of the dogs. Her name is Rebecca Huss and she is a professor of animal law at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
I negotiated with the Feds and coordinated with the Guardian/Special Master to get the dogs to Best Friends.
Interviewer: How many dogs did you rescue and rehabilitate out of this case?
Francis: The 22 most challenging dogs including 2 dogs that were court ordered to spend their lives at the sanctuary, Lucas and Meryl, came to Best Friends. Lucas was Michael Vick’s Grand Champion and had “trophy value” for the wrong reasons and Meryl had demonstrated a willingness to go after people.
Interviewer: What was the most memorable of Vick’s dogs that you took in and why?
Francis: This is a very subjective and personal question, depending on which dogs you had most contact with. It’s hard to choose one as THE standout. I think my favorite was Oliver, who was terribly frightened. He was a small dog who blossomed Into a real personality. He was adopted by a wonderful person who sent the following upon his passing – “It is with great sadness that I am telling you that my sweet, dear, brave, beautiful Oliver passed away in my arms yesterday morning around 6:15 a.m. … I am attaching a picture of Oliver in his ‘fancy dress.’ When I came home from work a few weeks ago, Oliver came running out of the house in this frilly little dress. I was mortified that David had put my baby boy in a dress, but I couldn’t stop laughing. Then, Oliver didn’t want to take his pretty dress off! The next morning, he searched the house high and low for his dress until he found it. Then, he kept bumping his nose against the dress as if to say, ‘Well, Mom, what are you waiting for? Let’s dress up! Put my pretty dress on me!’ I have so many fond memories of Oliver. He will forever be my heart.”
Interviewer: If you could talk to Michael Vick now what would you say or ask him?
Francis: I have no interest in speaking to Michael Vick. He has expressed no interest in the dogs and has said nothing but the obligatory, seemingly scripted comments regarding any concern for the dogs.
Interviewer: On a human level, how can we prevent others from committing acts of animal cruelty and what do you think the main reason is for its existence today?
Francis: Michael Vick and his animal abuser buddies are outliers. Most people regard his behavior as reprehensible, which is why the public turned on him so dramatically. However, where animal abuse is present, it is often the first step on the spectrum of criminally violent behavior that includes domestic violence and extends to murder. Most serial killers and mass murderers began their journeys as animal abusers. If I had the answer to your question as to why this occurs, I’d be in high demand.
Interviewer: What do you find is the biggest obstacle in rescue and rehabilitation?
Francis: Most shelter animals require no rehabilitation. They have not been abused, they just need to get out of the shelter and get a good grooming in order to be ready for adoption. In fact, the greatest abuse that most shelter animals experience is ending up homeless. It is stressful to be confined in a kennel when they were used to having a family.
Interviewer: Since the 80s when you founded Best Friends have you noticed a change in rescue missions?
Francis: In the early 1980s, 17 million homeless pets were being killed in our nation’s shelters. Today, about 3.5 million animals are being killed. That’s still an unacceptably high number of animals dying in shelters, but tremendous progress has been made thanks to the energy, initiative and ideas of the no-kill movement. Best Friends believes we can make shelter killing a thing of the past in the foreseeable future. We believe that together, we can Save Them All.
Interviewer: What can we do as a society to help out local shelters and rescues better?
Francis: We can insist through of local city leaders declare no-kill mandates for our shelters and we can support the necessary funding and to make it happen through that progressive shelter policies and programs.
Interviewer: What is the one thing and main message you want to relay on the plight of shelter animals?
Francis: 9,000 healthy and treatable dogs and cats are dying everyday in our shelters. This is a tragedy that does not need to happen. It is, quite simply, a waste of life. The solutions are simple: 1. Adopt your next pet from a shelter or pet rescue organization, never buy from a breeder or pet store and encourage you friends and family to do the same. 2. Be sure to have your pets spayed or neutered and encourage friends and family to do the same. 3. Become a pet foster parent for your local shelter or rescue organization. 4. Donate to your favorite animal organization. 5. Spread the word about this important issue.
Together, we can Save Them All.
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