"Dog fighting is a cruelty-for-profit industry."
– Matt Bershadker,
ASPCA President & CEO
The 2007 indictment of then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick led to historic changes in the animal welfare field and the nation’s perception of dog fighting. Prior to the investigation, dog fighting cases involving federal authorities were extremely rare. The Vick case, which involved two arms of the federal government, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice, put the blood sport on the map as a federal offense.
Dog fighting is now banned throughout the United States and is a felony in all 50 states. At the time, those convicted of federal animal fighting charges faced up to three years in prison for each guilty count. The Vick case elevated the issue of dog fighting to a new level of national attention, the waves of which continue to be felt a decade later: In 2016, the federal sentencing guidelines for animal fighting were raised to 21-27 months. Furthermore, the revised guidelines explicitly state that causing harm to a large number of animals and performing acts of extraordinary cruelty to animals are grounds for imposing longer sentences.
The Michael Vick investigation began in April 2007 with a search of Bad Newz Kennels, located on Vick’s Surry County, Virginia, property. The ASPCA assisted in the recovery and analysis of forensic evidence from Vick’s property, including carcasses and skeletal remains of numerous pit bulls. The evidence helped to convict the football star of operating a competitive dog fighting ring, a federal offense that resulted in a prison term for Vick and three co-defendants.
The ASPCA also led a team of certified applied animal behaviorists in behavior evaluations of the rescued dogs, making recommendations to the USDA and U.S. attorney’s office regarding the dispositions of the dogs. The team was led by the ASPCA’s Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, Dr. Randall Lockwood and Dr. Pamela Reid.
Of the 49 pit bulls evaluated by the ASPCA-led team, only one was deemed behaviorally unfit for rehabilitation and recommended for euthanasia. A federal judge determined the final disposition of the 48 remaining dogs, who were then placed with sanctuaries and rescues groups, including California pit bull rescue Bay Area Dog Lovers Responsible About Pit Bulls (BAD RAP) and Best Friends Animal Society who took in many of the Vick dogs. Some of these dogs were subsequently made available for adoption by the public.