Monday, February 20, 2012

The Lost Dogs / by Jim Gorant

You probably remember the headlines.

In the summer of 2007, attention on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick abruptly shifted in the media from the sports section, for his star-making football feats, to the front page: A federal grand jury had indicted him on multiple charges relating to competitive dogfighting. Law enforcement officials had raided a property of his in Smithfield, Va., and found 66 kenneled dogs, 51 of them pit bulls, and evidence that Vick and his associates had been running a dogfighting operation in which they bred, trained and fought these dogs and brutally discarded of the ones they didn't live up to scratch.

Ultimately, Vick was sentenced to 23 months in federal prison. In the months that followed, he entered a drug treatment program, filed for bankruptcy and served his time. By summer of 2009, the NFL reinstated Vick and he signed on with the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom he still plays as a quarterback today.

While that may have closed a chapter in Vick's story, for many people, the question remained: What happened to those dogs? Luckily, we have author Jim Gorant's movingly written account The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's dogs and their tale of rescue and redemption (636.0832 GORANT) to tell us.

I don't consider myself a particularly sentimental person but this book had me tearing up with alarming frequency. It is a story that is at once heartbreaking and uplifting. Gorant doesn't pull any punches as he recounts the savage treatment these dogs faced at Vick's Bad Newz Kennels, where the animals that refused to fight or fought badly were "beaten, shot, hanged, electrocuted or drowned," according news accounts.

Even after they were rescued, the dogs faced discouraging odds: Until that point, the general policy in these cases was to always euthanize confiscated fighting dogs. Animal advocates decided to evaluate each of Vick's dogs individually, but estimated they'd only be able to keep 10 percent of them, fearing the rest would be too far gone to be safely kept around people.

These dogs proved them wrong.

Defying public and private expectations, the pit bulls showed that they were far from vicious beasts. In most cases, they were simply scared and traumatized. In the end, officials saved 47 of the 51 pit bulls, sending some to animal sanctuaries and some to animal rescue groups for fostering.

Gorant gives us an insider's look at the political and bureaucratic maneuvering that went on behind the scenes to deal with Vick's case, its fallout and the dogs' fates. He does an excellent job of introducing us to the major players in this saga — from the investigators to the animal advocacy representatives and the foster parents who all played a role in the lives of these victimized dogs.

But most importantly, we meet many of the dogs themselves and learn how they have fared since their rescue. It has not been an easy journey and Gorant relates their progress with sensitivity and restraint, letting the dogs and their fears, foibles and slow successes take center stage. In the first third of the book, in which he covers the the public discovery of Bad Newz Kennels, Gorant even writes from the perspective of one of the dogs, an affection I wasn't crazy about but am willing to overlook because the rest is so well done. He portrays these pit bulls' resilience of spirit so simply and poignantly you might as well grab a box of tissues, too, when you grab this book.

Given how attached we become to these critters, I would also have liked to have seen more photos than the scant few that were included in the book. Luckily, the Washington Post has done several audio slideshow presentations on the Vicks case and many of the photos are of pit bulls featured in The Lost Dogs.

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