Graphic scenes of vicious, bloody dog fighting. A dead dog, motionless in a pit. A rescued dog being euthanized, put in a body bag and tossed away.
Producers on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel made the decision to include violent imagery in what is otherwise an uplifting story about the success one animal shelter had rehabilitating the pit bulls seized from former Eagles quarterback Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels compound in 2007. The episode airs on Tuesday on HBO.
“This [story] is 12 years old. On some level, you need people to feel something. I think the producers really wanted to underscore the brutality that these dogs were exposed to,” reporter Jon Frankel told the Inquirer. “Most people probably haven’t seen dogfighting, other than two dogs that get into a scrap at the park. So I think we wanted to show people what these dogs had been exposed to.”
HBO’s story begins at the Virginia compound where Vick ran his brutal dogfighting operation, recounting the horrendous way the animals were treated. Dogs that lost their fights were hung two to three at a time, drowned, slammed to death, shot, and electrocuted, according to Jim Knorr, the retired Department of Agriculture senior special agent who helped break up the dog fighting ring.
“It was something like a horror story. You just couldn’t believe people would do that,” Knorr told HBO.
But the Real Sports segment quickly moves on to tell the story of the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, which took in 22 of the 47 rescued pit bulls (referred to as “Vicktory dogs,” a not-so-subtle dig at Vick). Before, it was a common practice to euthanize all former fighting dogs.
“I think our endgame was to demonstrate that dogs that are victims that come from these traumatic situations should be given a shot,” Michele Weaver, the director of animal care at the sanctuary, tells Frankel. Weaver spent the bulk of her time with Cherry, who went on to be adopted by Paul and Melissa Fiaccone in 2010, and is among the handful of dogs that are still alive.
During the 12-minute piece, there is one notable omissions — Vick. The former Pro Bowler spent 19 months in prison after pleading guilty to dogfighting, and while he’s drawn praise for his work as an animal-welfare advocate (and Vick and his family adopted a dog in 2012), he’s also received criticism for failing to show empathy for his tormented dogs. Vick, who now works as an NFL analyst for Fox Sports, declined to speak to the Inquirer for this story.
“He didn’t want to talk,” Frankel said of Vick, noting that the families HBO spoke to didn’t want his name mentioned. But at the point, it appears Vick is simply the footnote in the story about the lasting impact of the “Victory Dogs.”
“The Vick dogs are living in relevance beyond his relevance,” Frankel said. “In terms of a legacy, I think the dogs will have a greater impact on the way that animals and dogs specifically are treated than Michael Vick will as a football player.”