After his 2007 bust for running a dogfighting ring, NFL star Michael Vick's name became synonomous with animal abuse. Of the 51 pit bulls rescued from Vick's Bad Newz Kennels, 47 survived. Some now live in the Bay Area, updating followers on their blogs and Facebook pages.
Leo now lives in Los Gatos and works as a therapy dog for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Jonny Justice serves as a reader dog in San Francisco, helping kids build confidence by sitting patiently as they read to him.
And now their story is on shelves in the bestseller "The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption."
But for the happy endings like Leo's and Jonny's, animal rescuers say dogfighting rings remain. Marthina McClay, president of Our Pack, a pit bull rescue group, says, "Dogfighting is not a sport. It's just animal abuse. Dogs that are used for that sort of activity are victims of cruelty. That's really all they are -- victims." McClay has helped rehabilitate dozens of abused dogs over the years. She says the Michael Vick case was a landmark. "It brought awareness to this issue--that it's a crime."
Last year in Philadelphia -- the home of Vick's new NFL team -- 903 cases of animal fighting were reported, according to the SPCA. That's three times as many as the previous year. But here in the Bay Area, the number of dogfighting rings remains elusive.
Oakland Animal Services Director Megan Webb says that in the past nine years, she's only seen one dogfighting case that ended with a conviction.
"It's hidden and these guys know how to hide it." Webb said. "Very rarely do we come across dogs actually being used in fighting." In order to bring a case to prosecution, "You have to get all the pieces in place. Paraphernalia of dogfighting, a history of it. You have to put together a pattern of abuse, statements from neighbors and people who've witnessed it. And veterinarian reports showing the wounds they've had are because of dogfighting." Webb said.
She says Oakland police officers and the district attorney are working together more now than ever, trying to crack down on these rings because often the criminals who fight dogs are linked to gangs and other crimes. "It's all about violence--violence toward the dogs and these guys are violent toward each other and other people," Webb said.
Webb estimates about 1,000 pit bull mixes come into the shelter each year. Many are victims of abuse and neglect, often found chained up, undersocialized and malnourished. But, she says, it's impossible to put a number on how many dogs are used in dogfighting rings in Oakland. "Dogfighting is a problem here." Webb told us. "I just don't know the extent of it."
Webb says dogfighters find ways to evade police by keeping no more than the three dogs allowed by law for non-breeders, and spreading the rest to relatives' homes. She says battling dogfighting in an urban setting is much harder because the animals are dispersed and the abusers are savvy. Webb says she's trying to find grant money to help her officers devote more resources and manpower to surveillance and investigation.
"I want to charge and prosectute these cases," Webb said. She says her officers have made some progress and they are currently working to bring criminal charges on a case.
But until things change on the prosecution side, rescuers like McClay say outreach and education can make a difference, showing people that dogfighting is animal cruelty, plain and simple.