I first met Red the pit bull in the spring of 1995. He was a fighting dog who was under protective custody at the shelter where I was working. He was rescued when a major dog fight in San Francisco, one of the largest fights in the country, was raided by local law enforcement and animal control agencies. People arrested at the dog fight had come from Nevada, Texas, Oregon, Montana, and different parts of California. Red had been injured that night in a match but not fatally, unlike two other dogs that were found there. He was recovering from his wounds when he came to our shelter, and he stayed there while the criminal case made its way through the courts.
From day one, we who were in charge of his care had an unspoken understanding that he was to have every toy imaginable in his kennel run. When we would approach him, he would stuff as many toys as he could in his mouth and wag his tail so hard that his whole rear end would move. We also gave him soft, comfy blankets, despite the fact that he would sometimes gleefully shred them to bits.
And his food bowl… He adored throwing his metal food bowl up in the air, and seemed to delight in the fact that it made a loud crashing sound when it would land on the floor. He would also hold his bowl in his mouth when he would greet you, with that signature Red tail wag. The bowl-in-his-mouth-thing became known as his trademark. I can still see him trying to stuff two bowls in his mouth, proud as can be to have something as wonderful as two bowls at once.
We weren’t allowed to take him out of his kennel, which was always securely locked. So, I would sit in front of his cage and talk to him as he blissfully snuggled in his mounds of soft blankets, with all his toys gathered around him, tail gently wagging. I’m sure this was the first time in his whole sad life that he had experienced a bed and toys, or someone gently telling him what a good boy he was.
Most pit bulls used at the more organized levels of dog fighting have been bred and trained not to bite humans. This is so the handlers (despite the dogs’ injuries, level of pain or dog aggression) won’t receive a redirected bite while breaking the dogs apart or pulling them out of the pit. As a result, most of these dogs have an extremely developed bite inhibition with people. And because they are starved for attention – a very cruel thing indeed, as those who are familiar with this sociable breed well know – they are especially loving to any person who will give them the slightest bit of affection. Their incredible love of people, even after all the terrible things people have done to them, is without a doubt one of the most heartbreaking things about dog fighting.
Red was so affectionate that some small part of me dared to hope that maybe, just maybe, he could go to a special, pit bull-experienced home with no other animals. Then one day, something happened that catapulted me out of my denial. I saw him react to another dog being walked by his kennel. This didn’t happen very often, since his kennel was out of the way and in a quiet area with very little foot traffic. To most people, his reaction might not have been very noticeable, since there was no obvious growling or lunging. But I noticed – I saw him go from a loving, tail wagging ball of love to a dog that became completely stiff, staring at the other dog with an eerily intense focus. Once the dog passed, his sweet self was back again, leaning against the cage door to get as close to me as possible. But I knew then that there was no hope for him. Red had shown me his dark side, a dark side that was not his fault, but was bred and trained into him by unbelievably cruel humans. If given the opportunity, he would have killed cats, dogs and other animals. There was no magical, pit bull-experienced adopter who could give us a 100% guarantee that he wouldn’t be given that opportunity.
One day I came to work and, as usual, went to greet Red. His kennel was empty. With an increasing sense of dread, I went to find out what happened. The order had come from the court that morning, and the shelter supervisors had spared us, his caretakers, the agony of euthanizing him. I was overwhelmed with grief, as were my coworkers who had also grown to love him. The kennel area was now too still and quiet without the sound of his metal bowl crashing to the ground.
The Michael Vick case has brought up these memories as if they happened yesterday. It is painful to think about the dogs that Vick and his associates allegedly abused and killed so brutally. It’s painful to think about Red again.
But one thing gives me hope – this country’s collective outrage regarding Vick’s alleged actions. This outrage is spreading like wildfire across the nation. Now that so many people know about the dog fighting world, perhaps we can make some significant headway in stopping this terrible, cruel activity.
I am grateful to have been one of Red’s caretakers, and for the chance to give him some kindness and affection. And although we couldn’t give him the forever home he deserved, I’m glad Red knew, if only for a few months, what it was like to feel loved and safe at last.
Dana Campbell, ALDF's chief contract attorney and a former deputy district attorney, blogs this week on the indictment of NFL quarterback Michael Vick. Read on for ALDF’s take on the issue, and what you can do to help.
With my blog assignment falling this week on the heels of the announcement that NFL player Michael Vick was indicted in Virginia on federal dog fighting conspiracy charges, it would be negligent of me not to comment on it here. The easy thing to do would be to pile on with all the other media commentators, animal advocacy groups, and most of the public decrying the gruesome details of dogfights and the outrageousness of the facts alleged, and wag my finger in disapproval. But I’m not gonna do that. Frankly, I’ve seen it all before in the many other less high-profile animal fighting cases that we’ve worked on at ALDF, and I’m glad the public and the media are finally catching on to the fact that this horrendous “sport” exists and is pervasive in our midst, apparently even among millionaire athletes.
Instead I’d like to share with you ALDF’s unique perspective, being that we are a law organization for animals, peopled by lawyers experienced in the practice of criminal and other types of law. What surprised us most about the announcement this week was the fact that the charges were filed not by the local Surry County district attorney based on Virginia’s fairly typical dog-fighting statute, but by the U.S. Attorney’s office using federal conspiracy laws and a little-used (if ever?) federal dog fighting law. Here are the actual charges that were filed in Richmond Virginia on July 17th.
While the federal dog fighting law was updated a bit in May of this year, it has been around for years, yet I found only 1 reported appellate case involving this law being used by federal prosecutors; 3 others discussed whether this federal fighting law preempted state anti-cruelty or fighting laws, and in all 3 cases the courts ruled it did not (an interesting idea for the local DA to consider…). Nearly all animal anti-cruelty laws are state laws tried in state courts. Thus it has been particularly difficult for ALDF to get federal prosecutors, who are generally inexperienced in animal cases, interested in any animal cruelty matter that occasionally does come under federal jurisdiction by virtue of either happening on federal lands or being prohibited by a federal law. Years ago we tried to get several U.S. attorney offices interested in shutting down and prosecuting those responsible for “crush videos” (made underground for fetishists who enjoyed watching small animals or birds being crushed to death by a woman’s high heel) after the federal law was passed making them illegal. We got few takers.
Not so with the high-profile, career-making prosecution of the Vick dogfight case. With it being brought in federal rather than state court, it will have the advantages of a wider jury pool, greater sentences that can actually be enforced (I hear there’s more room in federal prisons than in state ones!), and all of the financial resources of the U.S. government.
Now it looks like we’ve got a good public spectacle going: the probably limitless resources of Michael Vick and his football millions against the limitless resources and ambition of a federal government prosecutor.
That’s a fight I won’t mind watching.
What you can do:
1) Contact the commissioner of the NFL and urge the league to suspend Vick.
National Football League, Inc.
Commissioner: Roger Goodell
280 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10017
2) Contact the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and urge him to direct his coaching staff to exclude Vick from all team activities (including workouts and practices) regardless of what the NFL does.
Atlanta Falcons Football Club
Owner and CEO: Arthur M. Blank
President and General Manager: Richard McKay
4400 Falcon Pkwy.
Flowery Branch, GA 30542
3) Contact the NFL Players Association, which works to promote the image of the players, to denounce Vick's alleged involvement with dogfighting.
National Football League Players Association
Executive Director: Gene Upshaw
President: Troy Vincent
2021 L St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
Toll Free: 800-372-2000
4) Contact Nike and thank them for dropping their endorsement contract with Vick. In response to public outcry, Nike has dropped their contract with Vick! Please send them a letter of thanks.
Chairperson: Philip H. Knight
President, CEO, and Director: Mark G. Parker
1 Bowerman Dr.,
Beaverton, OR 97005-6453
Toll Free: 800-344-6543
My daughter has named him Max. “Him” being a three pound ball of mixed breed fluff who was rescued from a puppy mill/hoarder when he was only two weeks old. I haven’t had a puppy since I was a child (my husband and I have always adopted adult dogs), but when my daughter pleaded with us to be allowed to foster a puppy from one of the cruelty cases I work on, we caved, and oh, how glad I am that we did! At twelve weeks old, Max is a hopping, tumbling, running and jumping bundle of joy. I bring him to the office every day where he is greeted with shouts of “Maaaaaaaax!!!” by my colleagues. The other dogs that come to our office weigh 70 lbs on average, but Max, the three-pound wonder-dog, is already ruling the roost. It’s amazing to see the effect he has on those around him, both canine and human. (In how many law offices will you see otherwise professional and serious attorneys, law clerks and support staff rolling around on the ground talking baby talk to a puppy?) My other rescue dog (Abby, the golden retriever), is still not quite sure whether having a puppy in her life is a good thing. But Abby is such a gentle soul, that I am confident she and Max will soon become the best of friends (if Max would just learn to stop jumping on her face.)
When we work on cruelty cases, whether they be criminal or civil, we focus on the legal issues, the procedural posture of the case, and the strategic possibilities. At times, we can get so wrapped up in the technical details that we almost forget the case involves living, breathing sentient beings who need and deserve our protection. Max and the other rescued dogs and cats that form our larger ALDF family are daily reminders that the work we do is not simply abstract legal work. I know that the work we do on Max’s case will have a profound impact on his life. The thought of Max going back to his abuser is horrifying to me, my family and my colleagues. The thought of his abuser being allowed to harm other animals is equally horrifying, and can not happen.
So, although Max is quite the distraction these days, he is also quite the motivator. Max and the other thousands of animals we work for each year deserve the best. OK. Enough puppy talk. I need to get back to work…..
A few years ago I saw a painting by Damien Hirst—not a darling of the animal rights set, thanks to his fondness for displaying dissected sheep and cow carcasses preserved in formaldehyde—entitled “Do you know what I like about you?” It’s a giant canvas covered with thick yellow paint and the tiny, trapped bodies of butterflies who were intentionally captured, and died, on the artwork while the gloss was still drying.
I think of this painting when considering our strange, confused, often misguided infatuation with animals. In many ways, it is their exoticness, their wildness, their non-humanness that draws us to love them—yet that is also the source of our predictable failure to protect them from our own frailties and misconceptions. Yeah, we dress up our schnauzers in Halloween costumes, we teach gorillas American Sign Language, we put rhinestone collars on panthers and pose them next to sports cars for magazine ads. But, really, isn’t so much of this fascination with animals because they are, in their essence, not like us?
When we make dogs, cats, and other companion animals part of our families, we find that they often become subject to the same perversities we inflict upon our human relatives. In our society, we’ve more or less formalized ways to deal with child abusers, wife batterers, war criminals, and garden-variety sadists. But we’re still figuring out what to do when our dysfunctions end up crushing the wild out of the animals we attempt to love or, more tragically, to control. At the Animal Legal Defense Fund, we hear such stories every day: cats doused in gasoline and lit on fire by “boys being boys,” chimpanzees having the “smiles” beaten on to their faces for Hollywood appearances, tigers kept as house pets mauling their keepers (to whose surprise?).
*This entry was excerpted from the afterword for Pet Noir: An Illustrated Anthology of Strange but True Pet Crime Stories. A portion of the proceeds from Pet Noir are donated to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The biggest difficulty animal advocates face in helping animals get their day in court is "standing." Simply put, legal standing is a person's right or ability to sue. For a "person" under the law to have standing it must prove three things which are, again, in very simple terms: (1) that you have been "injured," (2) that the injury was caused by the action of the defendant for which you are suing, (3) and that the court has the ability to redress the injury to you with a favorable decision. But, back to that first little detail, you must be a "person."
I used the word "it" to describe a person on purpose because while most of us think of a person as an individual human, U.S. courts have granted personhood to nonhuman entities that are the subject of legal rights and duties. A few examples of such recognized "legal persons" are corporations, ships, estates, and political parties.
Animals, however, are considered "things" by the law and they are classified in every state as property, much like a desk or a chair. And, like a desk or chair, an animal cannot bring a lawsuit or have one brought for them by a person as is the case, for example, with children. That means to sue for an injury to an animal, such as one that has been injured or killed, animal advocates generally have to prove injury to a person. An example would be to sue for harm done to a human person by witnessing abuse. Sadly, without such proof of injury to "persons" the courts can, and do, simply dismiss a case without ever hearing the facts of the abuse or injury.
There are exceptions to these limitations where the law has granted animals specific legal protections, like our criminal anti-cruelty laws. But where there are not such specific protections it can be very difficult for an animal, no matter how abused, to get their day in court.
One day, hopefully, animals will have more opportunities to be represented in courts so that we can more effectively fight the many injustices they face – perhaps as another kind of recognized "legal person." In the meantime we must be resourceful and creative in bringing lawsuits to win justice for animals.