The battle to save Vick’s fighting dogs

By James Sullivan
September 30, 2010

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In 19th-century England, one dog breed was known as the “nanny dog’’ for its exceptional relationship with children. One probable member of the same breed, writes author Jim Gorant, was a beloved World War I mascot; another was the Little Rascals’ constant companion.

The breed, of course, is the pit bull — the latest in a long line of dog breeds, from bloodhounds and German shepherds to Dobermans and Rottweilers, to endure periods of demonization. Gorant is the journalist who covered NFL star Michael Vick’s high-profile dogfighting case in a Sports Illustrated cover story.

The fates of dozens of dogs rescued from Vick’s underground operation may change the perception that pit bulls are nothing but “mindless attack machines,’’ writes the author. “The Lost Dogs’’ tracks the undercover agents, prosecutors, animal advocates, and foster families who together mounted a rehabilitation effort that has quietly changed some attitudes about so-called “vicious’’ dogs.

Vick’s conviction, Gorant writes, marked “the first time that dogs in a fight bust were looked at not as weapons, as the equivalent of a gun in a shooting, but as victims.’’ Rescued from the quarterback’s rural Virginia compound (coincidentally, not far from the world headquarters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), some of the dogs were initially aggressive. Many others were scarred psychologically as well as physically, terrified of all sound and motion or resigned to a near-catatonic state.

They’d been through hell. Dogs that would not fight (or proved to be inept in doing so) for Vick and his friends at Bad Newz Kennels were often put to death without mercy. The author reports one incident in which a dog was doused with water, then electrocuted. In another, Vick and an accomplice swung a dog by its front and back limbs “like a jump rope,’’ slamming it against the ground until it expired.

Such gruesome scenes soon give way to glimmers of optimism. Although the team of experts assigned to the case set a modest goal, hoping to integrate five of the 49 dogs rescued into the general public, the number continued to rise as the effort progressed among trainers and caregivers across the country.

Gorant cites some statistics — there are an estimated 40,000 underground dogfighters in the United States, for instance — but “The Lost Dogs’’ turns out to be more a canine Horatio Alger story than a true-crime investigation. Once the dogs are given names — big, goofy Leo (nicknamed the Cowardly Lion); quivering Sweet Jasmine; Tug, who kept a half-dozen plush toys in his bed — they become someone’s best friend.

Even the people involved are described in part by the dogs they keep at home. Assistant US Attorney Mike Gill, “the kind of guy who wore cowboy boots with a suit and guzzled Diet Cokes,’’ keeps pictures of his dogs — Toby, a German shepherd, and Ginger, a beagle — in his office. We first meet retiring special agent Jim Knorr as he tosses a ball to BJ, his border collie-golden retriever mix.

“The truth, in the end, is that each dog, like each person, is an individual,’’ writes Gorant. “If the Vick dogs proved nothing else to the world, this would be a significant advance.’’

As with all dogs (and people), the book has a few imperfections. The author refers to San Francisco’s Sunset district as “Sunset Hill,’’ and he describes a dog’s “grease-paint mustache’’ not once but twice.

But when he recounts the saga of a dog named Jonny Rotten who earns the name Jonny Justice after training to become a child-literacy assistant (he sits in libraries while kids read to him), readers of Gorant’s book will want to jump up and whoop, “Good dog!’’

James Sullivan can be reached at

THE LOST DOGS: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption By Jim Gorant

Gotham, 287 pp., $26