Animal lovers and sports fans were shocked when the story broke about NFL player Michael Vick’s brutal dog fighting operation. But what became of the dozens of dogs who survived? As acclaimed writer Jim Gorant discovered, their story is the truly newsworthy aspect of this case. Expanding on Gorant’s Sports Illustrated cover story, The Lost Dogs traces the effort to bring Vick to justice and turns the spotlight on these infamous pit bulls, which were saved from euthanasia by an outpouring of public appeals coupled with a court order that Vick pay nearly a million dollars in “restitution” to the dogs.
As an ASPCA-led team evaluated each one, they found a few hardened fighters, but many more lovable, friendly creatures desperate for compassion. In The Lost Dogs, we meet these amazing animals, a number of which are now living in loving homes, while some even work in therapy programs: Johnny Justice participates in Paws for Tales, which lets kids get comfortable with reading aloud by reading to dogs; Leo spends three hours a week with cancer patients and troubled teens. At the heart of the stories are the rescue workers who transformed the pups from victims of animal cruelty into healing caregivers themselves, unleashing priceless hope.
Includes an 8-page photo insert.
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"The Lost Dogs is a page-turning investigation of dog fighting and an implicit indictment of the sport." — The Daily Beast
"The Lost Dogs has the quality of a page-turner as it chronicles the entire story, in all its upsetting detail, of the dogs’ rescue and re-entry into the world." — Los Angeles Times
"A well-researched, moving account" — The New Yorker Book Blog
"The Lost Dogs shows us that goodness can be found in the places where we may least expect it." — The Christian Science Monitor
"Packed with vivid characters and dramatic incidents, The Lost Dogs is a sobering reminder that man’s best friend isn’t always viewed that way. But this deeply affecting portrayal also reflects that fairy-tale endings are within reach when those involved are infused with spirit, confidence and commitment." — The Seattle Kennel Club
"Gorant has crafted an insightful and uplifting tale about the way that nurture can sometimes triumph over nature, and how the remnants of cruelty can be transformed through the power of hope and love." -Allen St. John, author of The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes at the Super Bowl
"Jim Gorant provides a powerful narrative that is, at times, heartbreaking, but also illuminating and inspirational. You will come away from The Lost Dogs warmed by the knowledge that it wasn’t only Vick who got a second chance." — George Dohrmann
"The Lost Dogs should be read by dog lovers." — Temple Grandin, author Animals in Translation
"The Lost Dogs is a gripping story of redemption that uncovers the other side of the Michael Vick story." — Ken Foster, author of The Dogs Who Found Me
"Jim Gorant goes beyond the headlines of Michael Vick and the Bad News Kennels to richly tell the rest of the story: how these amazing dogs, in the wake of such brutality, help bring out the best in the human spirit." — Tom Verducci, author of The Yankee Years
There’s a lot of reasons for that, but essentially, I think, pit bulls are caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of incrimination and bad ownership.
When there’s a problem with a dog, any dog, it’s almost always the owner’s fault. Either the dog has been poorly socialized or mistreated or put into a situation where its instincts are in opposition to what people consider good behavior.
On top of that, there’s the pit bull’s reputation as a fierce and highly capable warrior, which means that the breed often attracts the kind of owner who’s looking for a dog to personify and bolster his or her own tough-guy credentials. It’s exactly the kind of owner who will fail to raise the dog responsibly and might even encourage aggressiveness and put the dog in situations where it’s bound to fail.
Once a dog fails, a flood of media coverage follows, which only further damages the pit bull’s reputation in the public’s eye and draws even more bad owners to the breed. This entire phenomenon was detailed in an excellent book called The Pit Bull Placebo, which tracked its evolution over the last 150 years.
Can it be reversed? I’m not an advocate or an activist but I hope so, because I think these are essentially good dogs that have received a bad deal. The Bad Newz case was a step. The Lost Dogs could be another step. That’s all that can be done right now: keep taking steps maybe one day the breed will arrive at a better place.
Q. How did the practice of dog fighting being and what motivates people to become involved with it?
The pit bull and its close relatives—the Staffordshire bull terrier and the American Staffordshire terrier—trace back to the 17th and 18th century English practice of bull- and bearbaiting, in which canines took on giant predators for public amusement. When that activity was banned in the early 1800s, the dogs were then turned on each other and the practice evolved from there.
That’s simply one isolated strain, though. Unfortunately, dog fighting occurs all over the world and each culture seems to have its own favorite breed for the task. Although I’m no sociologist, it seems the impulse is connected to some violent and tribal drive that lies deep within our own nature. Most people are able to exercise those demons by yelling at flight attendants or clueless customer service reps or, ironically, watching the NFL, but for some people that instinct runs to a deeper bloodlust. I imagine it’s the same instinct that has led to the stunning popularity of ultimate fighting sports and mixed martial arts over the last decade.
Q. What does the future hold for the Vick dogs and pit bulls in general?
In a way, there’s no such thing as the Vick dogs anymore. They’re now forty-something individual dogs, and each is out there fighting its own battle against its own particular history. That’s their future. For some it’ll be a life that looks and feels a lot like any other family pet. For others there will be times of joy mixed with times when they are cowed by their fears and memories.
For pit bulls in general I fear there’s a lot more of the same. I was talking to a friend recently who has a Doberman pinscher and he told me that when he brings his dog to certain parts of town, he’s almost always approached by someone who asks if he wants to fight her. And that’s in suburban New Jersey. Whatever progress has been made, it pales in comparison to the entrenched and widespread practice of dog fighting.
Q. Has the treatment of the former Vick dogs changed the way that fighting dogs are dealt with?
Before this case the common practice was to treat all the dogs taken from a fight bust as one entity. The conventional wisdom was “save them all or destroy them all.” When it came time to decide the group’s fate, many parties would argue that for the most part these dogs were violent and aggressive and beyond rehab so why use time and resources on them when there were plenty of other perfectly good dogs already languishing in shelters? Most of the time, the entire collection of dogs was put down.
The Bad Newz case helped seed the idea that such dogs should not be looked at as a group, but that each should be individually evaluated and judged. The approach was successful, and in December of 2008, the Humane Society of the U.S. changed its official policy so that instead of recommending euthanasia for fight-bust dogs, it supported a program of individual evaluation.
Q. Was Michael Vick treated unfairly or prosecuted just because he was famous?
He was definitely not treated unfairly. He broke the law. He got caught. He pled guilty and was sentenced. Some have received lesser sentences than he did, but others have received harsher sentences for the same violations. There’s some evidence that he could have been charged with additional crimes, but he was not. He served two years in Federal prison and was forced to declare bankruptcy.
He was not prosecuted because he was famous, but his celebrity aroused a great deal of public interest, and that ensured that the case would remain in the spotlight and that an outcome that didn’t seem to serve justice would have caused considerable backlash.
Q. What do you say to people who shrug off dog fighting by saying that these are “just dogs,” we kill cows and chickens and hunt deer, so what is different about dogs?
Men first domesticated dogs more than 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors were hunting for their meals and sleeping next to open fires at night. Dogs were instant helpers in our struggle for survival. They guarded us in the dark and helped us find food by day. We offered them something too, scraps of food, some measure of protection, the heat of the flames.
Certainly, as man rose in the world, dogs came with us, perhaps even aiding the advance. They continued to guard us and help with hunting, but they did more. They marched with armies into war, they worked by our sides, hauling, pulling, herding, retrieving. We manipulated their genetic makeup to suit our purposes, cross breeding types to create animals that could kill the rats infecting our cities or search for those lost in the snow or the woods. From the start it was a compact: You do this for us and we’ll do that for you. And dogs have that innate ability to sense what we’re feeling and commiserate. There’s a reason they’re called man’s best friend.
As for why our bond with them matters, there are reasons for that, too. If you hang around animal activists for a while you’ll inevitably hear repeated a famous Gandhi quote: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” The idea being that in order to lift the whole of society, you must first prop up the lowest among its many parts. If you show good will and kindness toward those who cannot stand up for themselves, you set a tone of compassion and good will that permeates all.