Monday, January 26, 2009

VU professor named guardian-special master for dogs rescued from Vick's kennels

The graphic details of the Michael Vick dog fighting operation shocked and disgusted us all, pet owners in particular.

Valparaiso University law professor Rebecca Huss was no less repulsed, but she wasn't surprised.

"The unfortunate reality of it is, dog fighting is much more prevalent than people think," Huss said. "Unfortunately, it happens all the time. The only difference was there was a high-profile defendant (Vick)."

Huss would know. Not only does she love dogs like many of us, she is an expert in animal law and had a deep personal involvement in the case. In October 2007, Huss was appointed guardian-special master for 48 dogs rescued from the Vick kennels. She worked with Tim Racer of BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls) in evaluating the dogs for placement.

"It's the first time since I began teaching that somebody hit the pound sign on my phone and left a message with my assistant," Huss said. "The academic life generally isn't as time sensitive."

She's not sure how her name came up, but Huss thinks the call from the United States attorney's office for the eastern district of Virginia stemmed from an article she'd written not long beforehand about an animal control rescue organization.

"I was certainly honored to be asked to assist in the case," Huss said. "I was told this was the first time the federal government appointed a guardian-special master. I was very impressed with everyone I worked with from (there). People in the animal rescue community were pleased. (They) took the time and effort to look at the dogs as individuals. They acted in a responsive manner, for certain."

Huss' role was to determine whether the dogs could be placed with an appropriate organization. Because she still had her responsibilities back at VU, Huss did much of her evaluation work via phone and e-mail. She traveled twice to Virginia to look over and interact with the dogs, whose personalities varied greatly. Some, she said, were withdrawn and fearful of people. Others were friendly and exuberant.

"I was amazed when I first went out that they were so resilient, wanting to interact," Huss said. "The dogs were really cute. American Pit Bull terriers are bred to be very good with people. Unfortunately, the trait that makes them good fighters is their wanting to please humans."

The good news about the Bad Newz Kennel dogs was 47 were placed either with the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary, for those that had social/aggression issues, or organizations that utilize foster homes. BAD RAP placed 10 into permanent homes. Only one, Rose, had to be euthanized.

"Most of the dogs going through the process are developing skills for how to live in the world." Huss said.

Another positive stemming from the case was the heightened public awareness of dog fighting. As a consequence, Huss noted, numerous states responded to the media attention by strengthening existing dog fighting laws. The Indiana Bar Association is also considering the formation of an animal law section. Anyone in the legal profession with an interest can contact Maryann Williams at

She's long since gotten back to business as usual at VU, where Huss' work is now focused on the changing nature of the bond people have with companion animals and the law that reflects it. But she fondly recollects her experience helping the dogs.

"It's a great privilege to be able to research and write about an area I have such an interest in," she said. "It's much easier when emotion isn't involved, but in my particular situation, it was. The reason why I chose to do it was I believe every dog should be treated as an individual. ... I approached the process as not how to place 47 dogs, but how to place Haley, Aretha ... Even today, I still think of each dog and know each dog's name."

This column reflects the writer's opinion. Reach him at

Timeline of the Michael Vick dogs
April 25, 2007 -- 66 dogs, including 53 pit bulls are seized from the Vick property and are distributed among six animal control shelters in Virginia.
July 2, 2007 -- The U.S. attorney's office files papers seeking federal government ownership of the 53 pit bulls.
July 30, 2007 -- BAD RAP submits proposal requesting permission to evaluate dogs for potential placement.
Sept. 9, 2007 -- BAD RAP submits recommendations for disposition of dogs to foster care homes or to sanctuary care.
Oct. 1, 2007 -- Report reveals only one dog displayed aggression toward humans and many presented no threat to other animals.
Oct. 21, 2007 - Three dogs leave the shelters with east coast rescue groups.
Oct. 23, 2007 -- 13 dogs arrive in Oakland, Calif., and move in foster care homes.
Dec. 17, 2007 -- 10 dogs are signed over to BAD RAP's permanent custody. Dogs transition into family settings in preparation for adoption into qualified homes.

*** To learn more about the rescued dogs, visit

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