With the addition of California, 40 states now give rescued fighting dogs a second chance at life and adoption.
While dog fighting is a felony offense in all 50 states, there are still thousands of illegal dog fighting rings operating across the country. These cesspools of animal cruelty are popping up faster than law enforcement can close them down, but thanks to increased awareness, progress is being made in helping the canine victims.
Until this past week, 11 states held a "blame the victim" viewpoint on all dogs rescued from illegal fighting rings. Officials pulled dogs, most often pit bulls, out of the deplorable conditions of the rings where they lived in squalor and were forced to fight for their lives, but for most, being rescued didn't solve their problems.
In those 11 states, any dog rescued from a fighting ring was automatically labeled as "viscous." The viscous dog label is defined as a dog "that without provocation has killed or caused serious injury to any person," and includes "dogs from fighting rings whose owners are convicted of felony dog fighting."
This label is placed upon rescued dog fighting animals regardless of their temperament or chance of rehabilitation. Many safe, non-threatening animals have been sentenced to death because of circumstances beyond their control.
Once a shelter animal is labeled as "vicious" his chances of adoption are dishearteningly low. State laws require owners of viscous dogs to obtain special licenses and must keep their dogs confined. Even in loving households, these rules seriously affect a dog's quality of life. In most cases, however, the label is simply a death sentence.
After months of deliberation, California has made a stand against this unfair treatment of rescued fighting dogs. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation this past Monday to stop the practice of automatic labeling and to give dogs a fair chance at rehabilitation.
Dogs that come out of the fighting ring are often malnourished and terrified. They were taught from birth that to survive, they must fight. They view humans as tormentors and abusers.
But animal resiliency is an astounding force. When given the chance to recover from their horrific ordeals, many of those prized fighting dogs go on to be valuable family pets.
The dogs pulled out of NFL player Michael Vick's notorious dog fighting ring are prime examples. The dogs, now deemed "Vicktory Dogs," left the ring scared, timid, and many were aggressive. Animal advocates fought for their rights, however, and instead of being put down, those dogs became victims with a second chance.
Today, the Vicktory Dogs belong to loving families, and one of them, Johnny Justice, works as a therapy dog and received the ASPCA Dog of the Year Award in 2014.
California's refusal to label former fighting dogs as "vicious" is a monumental achievement for dogs and animal advocates everywhere.