ST. LOUIS — Many of the 400-plus pit bulls seized in multistate dogfighting raids appear happy in their new digs at a temporary shelter in St. Louis, where one volunteer described them wagging their tails in seeming gratitude for newfound human contact.
But animal welfare officials said it might be hard to find the dogs permanent sanctuary.
Fair or not, the stigma attached to the American Pit Bull Terrier, coupled with the sheer number of those seized this week in federal raids in at least seven states, will hurt their chances of adoption, animal welfare groups said.
Unlike the dogs taken from NFL star Michael Vick's BadNewz Kennels, the roughly 450 pit bulls being kept at shelters in several states have no celebrity owners to pay for their upkeep. Vick, who pleaded guilty to operating a dogfighting ring in August 2007, was ordered by a court to pay nearly $1 million for his dogs' care.
The raids this week resulted in the arrests of 26 men, who face federal criminal charges related to dogfighting in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas.
The pit bulls' seizure comes as U.S. shelters are inundated with abandoned dogs and cats, 3.7 million of which are euthanized each year because they can't find homes.
Animal welfare groups said they will evaluate the dogs and litters from pregnant females for aggressiveness, trauma and personality, and make recommendations on the potential for adoption to the Humane Society of Missouri, which will report to the federal courts. Some of the men charged still own the dogs, but the courts could severe those ties. The bigger challenge likely will be finding open hearts and homes.
"If you have 15 or 20 dogs, it's potentially manageable to evaluate and place those who pass the test," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.
"But when you're talking about 450 dogs, it strains the capacity of the adoption network," he said. "Evaluation is just one part of it. The other question is, do the new environments exist?"
Animal behaviorist Randall Lockwood, who helped evaluate Vick's dogs, believes the operations busted this week produced more fighters than Vick. If true, that could mean fewer dogs can be saved, said Lockwood, an executive with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The American Pit Bull Terrier, known as a loyal family protector even in pioneer days, was personified by Pete in the "Our Gang" comedies of the 1920s and '30s, Lockwood said. But by the 1980s, the breed had become the "mean dog of choice" for inner city dogfights.
Not all dogs involved in dogfighting are aggressive, said Ledy VanKavage, a lawyer for Best Friends Animal Society, which has 22 of Vick's most traumatized dogs in its Utah sanctuary. Some are breeders, others, bait.
Of 51 dogs taken from Vick, 47 were saved — more than half went to private homes, others to the sanctuary. Many of the adoptees have been trained as therapy dogs.
"It just shows you that dogs are individuals," VanKavage said.
Donna Reynolds' Oakland, Calif.-based pit bull rescue and education group helped evaluate Vick's dogs for potential adoption on behalf of a special master appointed by the court to make recommendations about their fate. Since then, Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls, or BAD RAP, has adopted out 10 of Vick's dogs, and Reynolds said their successful transition has been "beyond our expectations."
"The public learned much from the Michael Vick case, and the resources may come from the public, who are already asking, 'How can we help?'" she said. "There's really strong interest in this case. They know there are Hectors in this group."
Hector, a big dog with imploring eyes, was seized from Vick's kennel. He had deep scars on his chest from fighting. In his new life with a Minnesota family and other pets, he works as a therapy dog.
Reynolds said she hopes and expects pit bull rescue groups to help the dogs seized this week find futures just as hopeful.
Vick, for all his infamy, might have done pit bulls a favor, she said, explaining that his case marked "the unmistakable shift in consciousness" from destroying fighting dogs as accessories to a crime to evaluating them as victims.