April 26, 2017

Ten Years Later: How the Michael Vick Case Advanced the Cause to End Dog Fighting

a young chained up pitbull

By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker

Ten years ago this week, a watershed event in animal cruelty captured the nation’s attention: the investigation of NFL quarterback Michael Vick for dog fighting. But looking back, the most important milestone was not so much the story of a superstar convicted of operating a dog fighting ring. Instead, it was the revelation to most Americans that dog fighting is still active, popular across the country, and sadistically enjoyed by the kinds of people we thought we knew.

Whether or not you believe in Vick’s rehabilitation, or that his crimes should be forgiven and forgotten, the Vick case was instrumental in bringing about critical advancements in our tools and our ability to further curb dog fighting.

For example, 10 years ago, it was common for dogs seized in dog fighting cases to be immediately euthanized due to the perception that they’re inherently aggressive and dangerous. The Vick case triggered behavior experts to take a harder look. Now, dogs are evaluated as individual animals, and placement decisions are based on behavior, not on background or circumstances. In fact, of the 49 Vick dogs evaluated by the ASPCA-led team, only one was deemed behaviorally unfit for rehabilitation, sanctuary placement, or adoption.

Other advancements since the Vick case:

Major Dog Fighting Rescues

  • Since 2007, the ASPCA, along with other rescue groups, has worked closely with federal, state and local authorities to infiltrate major organized dog fighting networks, including the largest (July 2009) and second-largest (August 2013) dog fighting raids in U.S. history. You can see some of these dogs from the 2013 rescue.

  • In 2010, the ASPCA formed a dedicated team of highly skilled investigators, veterinary experts, behavior professionals and sheltering professionals to provide specialized training for law enforcement, assist in animal cruelty investigations and respond to victims of animal cruelty and disasters across the country. I was proud to both lead and work among those dedicated professionals. Since then, the ASPCA Field Investigations and Response Team has assisted law enforcement in more than 100 dog fighting investigations and rescued more than 3,600 dogs from fighting yards or kennels. Last year alone, the ASPCA deployed to eight states and rescued nearly 350 dogs from dog fighting cases.

  • The fields of forensic science, legal advocacy, and animal behavior assessment and rehabilitation have also evolved and play active roles in contemporary dog fighting investigations. Our ASPCA Forensics Team investigates animal crime scenes to locate, record, preserve, and analyze physical evidence, while our Legal Advocacy Team provides essential support to prosecutors, including drafting motions, securing search warrants, assisting with evidence review, and identifying appropriate charges. With our help, prosecutors have filed 787 criminal charges related to dog fighting. As the criminal case progresses, our Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team evaluates each animal and works closely with our animal placement team to identify the most appropriate placements for each dog.

  • As a milestone in and of itself, in 2014 the ASPCA established April 8 as National Dog Fighting Awareness Day to help draw attention to and educate the public about the continuance of this depraved “blood sport,” and inspire action to help end it.

ASPCA volunteer with a chained up pitbull

Legislative Successes

  • After the Vick case, a wave of state laws passed to crack down on dog fighting. In 2008, Idaho and Wyoming became the 49th and 50th states to make dog fighting a felony. Over the past 10 years, state legislatures have given law enforcement more tools, including criminalizing the possession of dog fighting implements, increasing penalties for spectators, and adding dog fighting as a RICO offense. 

  • Also inspired by the Vick case, Congress included language in the 2008 Farm Bill that strengthened the federal law against dog fighting and made it illegal to use the U.S. Postal Service to promote animal fighting. This bill also raised the maximum federal penalty for participating in an animal fighting venture.

  • In 2013, the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act was introduced, making it a federal offense to knowingly attend an organized animal fight and imposing penalties for taking children to animal fights. The bill’s language was added to the Farm Bill in the Senate, and similar language was added to the House version of the Farm Bill. The next year, President Obama signed the bill—including these measures—into law.

  • There’s much more dialogue around one of the biggest challenges to dog fighting investigations: covering the enormous expenses associated with caring for victimized animals. These costs include emergency sheltering, veterinary care, behavioral assessment, and rehabilitation from trauma. This “cost of care” issue is as much about saving lives as it is about saving money because a high price tag can make state agencies think twice before intervening in a cruelty situation. The ASPCA and its partners have been pushing for “cost of care” remedies at both the state and federal level, including our support of the Help Extract animals from Red Tape (HEART) Act.

Justice and Law Enforcement

  • In 2011, the ASPCA partnered with the U.S. Department of Justice to create a Dogfighting Toolkit for Law Enforcement that has been utilized by nearly 3,000 officers across the country. Since 2010, the ASPCA has also conducted hundreds of in-person training workshops around the country for more than 7,000 law enforcement professionals, such this one in January. We also regularly offer online courses, webinars, and Graduate Certificates.

  • In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission increased the federal sentencing guidelines for animal fighting and revised the guidelines to explicitly state that causing harm to animals and performing acts of extraordinary cruelty are grounds for imposing longer sentences.

  • In a national study of over 500 law enforcement officers we conducted in 2015, most considered dog fighting a “severe” crime. Ninety-one percent of those said it’s because “dog fighting is inherently cruel.” Recognizing a renewed law enforcement commitment to ending dog fighting, we honor individuals who have worked to stop dog fighting in their communities each year with the “Champion for Animals” award.

These are important advances, but make no mistake: dog fights continue to take place and animals continue to suffer violently as a result. By our estimate, there are still tens of thousands of dog fighters in the U.S., forcing hundreds of thousands of dogs to brutally train, fight, and suffer every year. Losing dogs are often killed through brutal methods including shooting, electrocution, and drowning.

As part of National Dog Fighting Awareness Day this year, the ASPCA partnered with Sir Patrick Stewart to urge animal advocates to #GetTough on dog fighting via social media. We were happy to see this year’s campaign supported by not only Patrick Stewart, but also celebrities including Justin Theroux, Joan Jett, Ricky Gervais and Beth Behrs.

The ASPCA will continue to mark National Dog Fighting Awareness Day every April 8 until dog fighting is so shunned—and its participants so shamed and appropriately sentenced—that the brutal activity is not only deterred, but completely eradicated.

You can play a part in that outcome. Even if you don’t know any dog fights or fighters, there’s still a lot you can do:

  • Speak out against dog fighting using the hashtag #GetTough.

  • Visit aspca.org/gettough-campaign and share the information with friends, family, and colleagues.

  • Help end the life-threatening stereotyping of particular breeds—often pit bulls—by fighting breed-specific regulations and prohibitions and by fostering formerly abused animals where and when you can.

  • Notify local authorities if you hear or see anything that makes you suspect animal fighting or the training of animals to fight. Public tips are often the first step in life-saving investigations that uncover not only animal abuse, but related crimes like illegal drug and firearm sales.

Thank you for being the voice for these victims of cruelty, for helping bring justice to their abusers, and for making clear that animal fighting has no place in our culture. Ultimately, I hope Michael Vick’s legacy is not just a greater understanding that dog fighting persists, but a fierce determination in all corners of our society to end it for good.