By: Heather Lang

There’s Gizmo. He’s a Good Canine Citizen and a certified therapy dog. And Ellie. She’s also a Good Canine Citizen and a therapy dog in training. Then, there’s Gisele, Crosby and Mikey, too.

All of them happy, loving house pets.

Jonny Justice. In 2014, this dog from San Francisco was named the ASPCA’s Dog of the Year. He’s been a certified therapy dog for several years, and loves children. He and his owners take part in a therapeutic kids reading program, and he also helps terminally ill children and their families.

All in all, these are some normal, and actually pretty extraordinary pets. Don’t you think? But all these dogs have something in common.

You see, Gizmo, Ellie, Gisele, Crosby, Mikey and Jonny Justice, they all started their lives in dog fighting rings. Don’t believe such wonderful dogs could come from such tragic beginnings?

Well, you should also know that Jonny Justice, last year’s Dog of the Year, started his life in one of the most notorious, cruel dog fighting operations ever uncovered.

Bad Newz Kennels was discovered during a raid at a farm in rural Virginia in 2007. Dozens upon dozens of dogs forced to fight in an interstate ring, and if they didn’t, they were put to death – beaten, electrocuted, shot, and one even slammed repeatedly to the ground until the end came.

In Aug. 2007, NFL star quarterback Michael Vick pleaded guilty to federal and state charges for his part in the ring and was suspended from football. Later that year, he was sent to prison for 23 months.

Since the time he’s been out, Vick has done work with at-risk youth to try and stop the cruelty of dog fighting in its tracks.

Google “dog fighting definition” and you get: “A violent fight between or as if between dogs. b. An illegal, organized fight between dogs, arranged for spectator entertainment and betting.”

What that definition can’t describe is the inhumanity of it all. The blood, the gore, the violence, the bared teeth, the chains, the death. If Jonny Justice could talk, what a horrific story he’d have to tell.

But he’s moved on from that terrifying past; and like Gizmo, Ellie, Gisele, Crosby and Mikey, is now a beacon of hope for the future.

“These dogs are amazing, as all dogs are, but to come back from the life of violence, cruelty, suffering and neglect is truly amazing,” says Mary Withrow, the director of Government and Community Relations at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

Withrow says there is “absolutely” hope for animals rescued from dog fighting rings. In fact, the dog Crosby described above is her own daughter’s dog. She says Crosby was rescued in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and he’s “one of the sweetest dogs in the world.”

Sadly, though, for all the dogs that can be saved, so many more cannot.

In the case of Bad Newz Kennels, multiple news reports put the number at more than 50 dogs being removed from the premise and impounded. CBS News reports the bodies of eight other dogs were exhumed from the grounds.

For the dogs that survived, there wasn’t much hope. According to a PBS report, animal rights groups, including PETA, thought the dogs were a lost cause, too violent and killing machines.

However, there were a few people who still had hope, including an ASPCA official who had a team of experts brought in to evaluate the dogs. Author Jim Gorant, who penned, “The Lost Dogs,” wrote, “For possibly the first time in a legal setting, dogs were viewed not as the implements of a harsh and brutal undertaking, but as the victims of it.”

The victims.

“It used to be that every dog from a ring was euthanized,” says Withrow. “Now, dogs from raids are given an evaluation. Every dog is an individual, and are treated as such in an evaluation. As we learn more and more about these dogs and how to rehabilitate them, more are given chances at the wonderful, loving home they all deserve.”

According to that PBS report, 47 of the dogs were taken in for rehabilitation. Twenty-five went to foster care and 22 to a sanctuary where they could be under the watchful eye of experienced handlers.

Most of them made it, a few of them did not. One of the dogs seized was deemed so far gone from repeated fighting and breeding that the most humane thing to do was to put it down, one of the experts in the PBS report said.

Withrow has brought back many dogs from raids all over the United States.

“The ones that I lost, sadly, were not due to aggression toward other animals, but when your life consists of a tow chain and other dogs only, it can be difficult and very scary to try to enter the world as we know it,” she says.

“For some, you just cannot make their world small enough, and it becomes a question of what is fair and humane,” Withrow says. “For every one that I lost, I learned so much. And I was sure they got to not only feel love, but they got to give it, and that’s what dogs want most and do best.”

Of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers signing of Michael Vick as backup quarterback has brought this major issue to the forefront here in our city.

All the local animal shelters and animal rights groups released statements about the situation.

From the Western Pa. Humane Society:
“We cannot comment on the business dealings of the Steelers organization. We are an animal welfare agency and work every day to save and improve the lives of homeless and at-risk animals. Our mission includes educating the public to identify situations where animal welfare is in question and to contact our investigations department when needed. As an organization, the Western PA Humane Society has successfully assisted in passing legislation in an effort to end dog fighting in our backyard, and across Pennsylvania. We will continue to advocate on behalf of animals and work closely with community partners, like the Steelers, to make our region better for all animals and people.”

From Animal Friends:
“Animal Friends is disappointed by the Steeler organization’s recent decision to sign Michael Vick to a one-year contract. As an organization whose mission is to fight against animal abuse and suffering, Animal Friends cannot support the hiring of an individual who has been convicted of dog fighting and whose actions resulted in the terrible abuse and deaths of many dogs.

“Accordingly, Animal Friends has made the difficult decision to not participate in any Steeler-related activities at this time. Steeler-related memorabilia and tickets have been temporarily removed from all fundraising efforts and the donated items will be returned. Alternate prize options will be offered for raffles already in progress.

“With dog fighting still a major concern in the Pittsburgh region, we implore the Steeler organization to take a stand and actively campaign against this horrific and illegal activity. The Steeler voice can help to build a stronger – and more humane – Steeler nation.”

From Hello Bully, a group whose sole purpose in Pittsburgh is dedicated to the rescue and rehab of pit bulls, as well as the rehab of their image:

“Hello Bully is extremely disappointed to learn of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to sign Michael Vick. As a non-profit organization that rescues and rehabilitates survivors of dog fighting, we understand firsthand the atrocities of this violent crime.

“The NFL has a history of ignoring criminal behavior, which is unfortunate, as many children admire these athletes. In truth, it is the survivors of dog fighting who are brave and heroic.

“We love this city and are so proud to call Pittsburgh our home. Signing Michael Vick is a disgrace to our city.

“We hope that dog lovers and Pit Bull advocates will join us as we respond to this situation in a way that makes our dogs proud. Please contact the Steelers TODAY and respectfully express your disappointment in their choice to sign Vick.”

Also, the Animal Rescue League had a particularly strong reaction to the situation, tweeting this out on the day Vick signed with the team:

And later moving their annual gala out of Heinz Field. In a press release about the move, they said:

“As has been reported, the Animal Rescue League is extremely disheartened by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to sign Michael Vick to a one year contract. While we understand that Mr. Vick has made an effort to atone for his past mistakes and has worked to help strengthen animal abuse laws, we do not believe that it is appropriate for him to continue a high-profile and influential public career.”

Animal lovers and activists all across the city voiced strong opinions regarding the situation, including a petition to try and keep Vick off the team.

“The fact that animals are so innocent, dogs are so loving, such loyal companions,” said Withrow. “When people think of the magnitude of the suffering that at times may result in death from acts of animal cruelty, it can instill a passion and emotion in people that you can’t ignore.”

Since getting out of prison though, Vick has done some work to raise awareness about dog fighting, especially with at-risk youth.

“If one kid is saved from getting involved with the horrific violence that is dog fighting, potentially thousands of dogs’ lives could be saved,” says Withrow.

In a “60 Minutes” report from 2009, Vick himself said: “When I was in prison. I was disgusted, you know, because of what I let happen to those animals. I could’ve put a stop to it. I could’ve walked away from it. I could’ve shut the whole operation down.”

But in April of 2011, the Huffington Post quoted Vick as saying he “wouldn’t change anything” in his life if he could. And that still upsets many animal activists.


“The time [Vick] served was for “Conspiracy to Travel in Interstate Commerce in Aid of Unlawful Activities and to Sponsor a Dog in an Animal Fighting Venture,” said Withrow. “If he had been caught dog fighting today, in Pennsylvania especially after Sept. 10 ([with] the paraphernalia law), there would have been the laws on the books to charge him with much more and with charges of cruelty against animals in many forms.”

Dog fighting operations are all over the United States.

In Pennsylvania, Withrow says dog fighting is “very prevalent.” She says there are some “major players” in “very well organized” rings in the state and right here in Western Pennsylvania.

Activists like Withrow and groups like the Western Pa. Humane Society and Hello Bully are trying to strengthen laws and expose the horrors of dog fighting.

Withrow says “dog fighting is a felony in every state,” and in Pennsylvania, “dog fighting and spectating at a fight is a felony of the third degree which carries a possible penalty of not more than seven years in prison and up to $15,000 in fines.”

But a number cannot be put on how many animals die as a result of this horrific crime.

There are a couple reasons for that, Withrow says. First, is the “underground” nature of dog fighting rings, and second is because of something called “rolling.”

“Which is kind of ‘testing’ a dog’s fighting style, and if they are deemed as ‘cold’ for some reason the owners don’t like, their size or style of fighting, they don’t get to live,” Withrow says.

“We can never put a figure on how many of those lose their lives,” adds Withrow. “What we do know is that there is an estimated 40,000 people involved in dog fighting rings in the U.S.”

While dog fighting has become a hot topic here in Pittsburgh over recent weeks, animal activists are fighting every day to put an end to it worldwide.

Withrow says Pennsylvania recently passed a new Animal Fighting Paraphernalia law that just went into effect on Sept. 10, the law referenced above. Also, last year, a local judge delivered one of the harshest sentences to date for dog fighting.

“I absolutely believe it opened the door for other judges across the country to follow suit,” said Withrow.

But to continue making that difference, they need the help of people passionate about animals.

As Withrow says, “You can make a difference.” And that includes calling your legislators.

Withrow says there are three bills in Harrisburg at the moment that would “aid in the fight to eradicate dog fighting.” They include the anti-tethering/severe weather ban, a bill to increase the level of crimes with regard to crimes against animals, and the other bill would add dog fighting to the list of offenses that are enforceable under the state’s racketeering provision.

She says they are all held up in the House Judicial Committee.

“The best way right now to help is if your state representative serves on the House Judiciary Committee, please, please call them and ask them to vote to move it out of committee,” says Withrow.

Finally, she also says, “If you suspect dog fighting, report it.” You can do that to police or to the Western Pa. Humane Society, which has a humane investigations department of their own. Calls are kept confidential at 412-321-4265 ext. 216.

For more information on Pennsylvania’s Animal Cruelty Laws, visit the Pa. SPCA’s website here.

There are so many sad endings in dog fighting, but there is hope for the future. As activists fight for these innocent animals and more is learned about rehabbing them.

So many new beginnings and happy endings await. But the fight continues on to save them. And for Jonny Justice, Gizmo, Ellie, Gisele, Crosby, Mikey, and so very many more, that is the battle worth continuing.


Stay tuned animal lovers for more Furry Tails! You can follow me on Twitter at @HeatherLang24

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