This is long, but it's a nice update on the Michael Vick dogs.
Lucas, a pit bull used in the Michael Vick dogfighting operation,
plays with caregiver
Paul Lindley at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, north of Kanab, Utah,
Thursday, Jan. 29.
Once left for dead, Vick's pit bulls recovering
A far way from Westminster, but these dogs are returning to normal lives
The Associated Press
updated 8:54 a.m. PT, Sat., Feb. 7, 2009
KANAB, Utah - There are the perky, high-energy sorts like Lucas, all wagging
tails and let's-go-play vivaciousness.
There are the runners like Curly, who never saw a fence line or dirt trail
they couldn't wear down.
And there are the divas like Georgia, who go on publicity junkets and stay
at the Beverly Hilton, wearing rhinestone-studded collars and hot pink tank
tops that say "Biscuits are a girl's best friend."
They could be your dog, your neighbor's, even one of those you see in a
magazine being doted on by a celebrity owner.
These, though, are Michael Vick's dogs.:D
Fourteen months after some experts left them for dead - in fact, said they
should die - they are alive and thriving at the Best Friends Animal Society
in the rocky red hills of Utah, rewriting the book about what pit bulls
really are and what they can be.
Most of these dogs will find homes someday. None of their ilk, however, will
be welcomed next week at America's best-known dog show, Westminster, at New
York's Madison Square Garden. The American Pit Bull Terrier is the country's
iconic and most divisive breed, but it isn't on the American Kennel Club's
list of accepted breeds. The AKC recognizes a cousin, the American
Staffordshire Terrier, instead.
"I don't really have anything to say about pit bulls because we don't deal
with them at all," said David Frei, the director of communications at
Westminster. "But AmStaffs are great dogs. I make the same blanket statement
about them as any breed. There are no bad dogs, only bad owners. If someone
gets involved with pit bulls and isn't bright enough to be the alpha dog in
the relationship, there can be problems."
American Pit Bull Terriers - a quintessentially American breed once best
represented by the dog staring quizzically at an RCA Victor phonograph - are
bred to be exceedingly kind and deferential to humans. But that trait has
largely been lost among the thousands of stories about pit bull bites,
maulings, fights and anti-pit bull legislation. Those stories have helped
make the dog Public Enemy No. 1 among the 400-plus breeds, 170 of which are
on the AKC registry.
"Often, the media gets it wrong," says Michelle Besmehn, the dog care
manager at Best Friends, who acknowledges that part of the Vick project is
to restore the reputation of the American Pit Bull Terrier.
"They'll say a person was mauled by a pit bull, and it's not a pit bull,
it's a Mastiff or something else," she said. "It's frustrating because they
get a bad rap, and it's based on a general misconception."
Tim Racer, co-founder of BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About
Pitbulls), puts it more bluntly.
"If an AmStaff bites somebody, it suddenly becomes an American Pit Bull
Terrier, because that's what people want to do, is blame these dogs for all
dog bites," said Racer, whose group also saved 10 of Vick's dogs.
The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback is serving a 23-month sentence at the
federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., for his role in a dogfighting
conspiracy. He is scheduled for release July 20 but could serve the last few
months at a halfway house in Newport News, his hometown.
One of Vick's former dogs was euthanized because of health - not behavioral
- problems, and 21 remain at the Best Friends sanctuary. It's on 3,700 acres
near the Zion National Forest, with a canyon outside the lunchroom and
enough reds, browns, greens and pinks to keep a painter at his easel for
life. These were the toughest cases, the most neglected of the 47 dogs
rescued from Vick's Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia in 2007.
The Bad Newz dogs lived terrible lives, chained in dark, dank basements,
electrocuted if they didn't produce. The ones treated the best earned that
treatment because they could fight and win. Some, like Little Red, had their
teeth filed down so they could be used as "bait dogs" to spar with the
champions without hurting them.
"When she got here, her whole face was one scar," said John Garcia, the
manager of Dogtown, the dogs-only section of the sanctuary.
Initially, the dogs were so skittish that the trainers actually slept with
them at night. Today, they don't need such attention, but that's not to say
A full-time staff of 60 cares for the 438 dogs, and the Vick dogs get
special attention. They have spacious dog runs that connect to indoor living
spaces inside pod-shaped buildings scattered about the grounds. They go on
long walks and hikes, traverse agility courses set up around the sanctuary,
learn to ride in cars, eat like kings and queens. (The brand name of their
food: Canine Caviar.)
Half the Vick dogs adapted well enough to other dogs that they're allowed to
The others are being slowly introduced to other dogs.
They're all being prepared for their Canine Good Citizen tests - a 10-step
exam that measures things such as the ability to mingle with other dogs,
deal with strangers and behave on a leash. The test, which ultimately helps
determine whether they can go into permanent homes, was developed by the AKC
for all breeds.
"Centuries ago, pit bulls were used for bull baiting, dog fighting, things
like that," said Lisa Peterson, director of club communication for the AKC.
"When those activities were outlawed, there were a lot of lovers of the
breeds that wanted to save them. They do make excellent pets and great
When Vick's dogs were first seized, the courts received advice from People
for Ethical Treatment of Animals and other humane societies, which said the
animals should be euthanized because their chances of living normal lives
outside a shelter or sanctuary were minimal.
In stepped Best Friends, where thousands volunteer and many full-time
employees tell stories about leaving their city jobs to come to Utah and
take care of dogs (along with 790 cats, a few pigs, some sheep and a handful
of horses including one, Riley, who was recently fitted with a prosthetic
Best Friends, which runs on a $30 million to $40 million budget funded by
charitable donations, is a "no-kill" sanctuary, meaning no animal brought to
the facility will be euthanized because it can't find a permanent home.
Best Friends offers these dogs time. In many cases, Vick's dogs sorely need
Many of them arrived at the shelter with no idea how to interact with
people. No dog, regardless of breed, could be expected to bounce back
quickly given that kind of treatment, Garcia said.
"The way I personally present the dogs is,
They're dogs,'" Garcia said. "It's not necessarily a specific breed, per se. It would be nice to get some specific definition of what truly is an American Pit Bull Terrier and not just apit bull.' If people got away from the `pit bull' thing, it would be
a lot easier."
Two of Vick's champion dogs, Georgia and Lucas, have been ordered by the
court to live permanently at Best Friends because of their violent pasts.
They hardly seem violent now, wagging their tails, licking visitors and
rolling over for belly rubs.
But there are unmistakable vestiges of the lives they used to lead.
Lucas, a one-time grand champion, has scars on his face and sides from
Georgia has no teeth and the sagging belly of a dog that has been bred many
times. It appears her teeth were surgically removed by a veterinarian, who
likely didn't care that he was doing it to make Georgia less threatening to
studs who were brought in to forcibly breed with her while she was tied to
what's known as a "rape stand."
Maybe the saddest part is that the dogs have always been bred to be
extremely loyal to people - so eager to please that they'll fight to the
death to make their master happy.
Denying the fighting gene in a pit bull would be like denying that the sun
rises in the east. It is, quite simply, a fact of life.
How the breed's history is interpreted, however, is where the stories
diverge and where the controversy about pedigree picks up.
One widely accepted history is that the AKC, in the 1930s, began calling the
American Pit Bull Terrier the American Staffordshire Terrier as a way of
ridding the breed of the stigma of the word "Pit."
The United Kennel Club, meanwhile, has always accepted American Pit Bull
Terriers on its registry. Since the split, subtle differences in breeding
have been implemented.
"I can recognize it, but not 100 percent of the time," Racer said.
"Basically, the whole thing was done to get away from the negative
connotation of pit bulls as a fighting breed."
Peterson at the AKC calls it mainly a difference in semantics. She says she
knows of no American Pit Bull Terrier group that has asked for the breed to
be registered with the AKC, so that hasn't been an issue.
She notes that the Westminster Best of Show in 2006 was a colored bull
terrier named Rufus - much smaller than an American Pit Bull Terrier, but
the kind of dog that could conceivably be targeted in breed specific
legislation that is the bane of the AKC and almost all pit bull enthusiasts.
Dozens of cities and counties have banned pit bulls by law. Insurance
companies refuse to cover homeowners with certain kind of dogs. Frank
McMillan, a vet at Best Friends, is doing a genetic study on the Vick dogs
to determine what, exactly, makes up a pit bull. The "genericizing," as
Racer calls it, of all dangerous dogs into one catchall term - "pit bull" -
is troubling to many enthusiasts.
McMillan also is tracking what works and what doesn't in the rehabilitation
The idea: To be able to present to other rescue operations some training
methods that have been scientifically proven as successful.
McMillan hopes some success stories will help the next group fighting breed
legislation or trying to dissuade a judge from putting a group of pit bulls
"We want a judge to be able to look at this project and say, `This is
encouraging,'" McMillan said. "All they have now is the occasional
friend-of-the-court brief. Anecdotes are good. But it's not science."
Neither, of course, is the Westminster Kennel Club Show.
It is, in many ways, a beauty contest, one the American Pit Bull Terrier
will not be part of when it starts Monday.
Is that such a bad thing?
"Nobody agrees on these things," Racer said. "But if one of those American
Staffordshires bites someone, nobody's going to know the difference at the
shelter where it gets sent. So what I would say is, pit bulls are competing
at Westminster. They're just calling it something different."
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