Vick Dogs Start Long Road to Recovery

Former fighting dogs move to sanctuary for physical, psychological healing.

February 18, 2009, 12:54 PM

Feb. 2, 2008 — -- Lucas, a brown, doe-eyed pit bull, was one of Michael Vick's prize fighters, and he has the scars to prove it. First beaten, then rewarded with food, he learned to endure pain and to kill.

As a stud, Lucas would have been worth $20,000, but today, after years of violent training and fighting, he needs round-the-clock care — even when he is sleeping — to help heal the physical and psychological wounds.

The champ's name was changed, but so have his fortunes. Today he is getting therapy for post-traumatic stress at Best Friends animal sanctuary in Utah.

"He's all prestige," said Best Friends CEO Paul Berry. "But you can imagine what he has been through with all the scars over his arms and face."

Lucas is one of 48 dogs seized at the dogfighting training camp run by the star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. Vick is now serving a 23-month sentence in federal prison. He has been suspended from the National Football League, and his future with the Falcons is murky at best.

This week, the court in this high-profile case lifted a gag order and allowed those involved in the care of the dogs to talk publicly about their condition.

The National Geographic Channel announced it is following the dogs' re-socialization progress in its television series "Dogtown," which is based at Best Friends. For the next six months, film crews will watch four of the most aggressive dogs re-socialize.

Best Friends, the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the nation, cares for 1,500 dogs, cats, horses, goats and other animals. With an annual budget of about $30 million, most of it from private donations, it has rescued animals traumatized by Hurricane Katrina and those who have suffered in hoarding situations or puppy mills.

"Being the Mayo Clinic for dogs, they take the most difficult cases where dogs have no of hope of surviving," said "Dogtown" producer Chris Valentini. "They care so deeply about the animals."

"Dogtown" originally began documenting the work at Best Friends last year, and the three initial episodes were very popular, the producers said. The episodes chronicling the Vick dogs will air this summer, and producers hope it will be as successful as its initial episodes at the sanctuary.

"When you marry the science with the natural history and the emotional component, you have powerful television," said Valentini.

The Vick dogs, which once fought for $30,000 purses, knew nothing but violence. They were run on treadmills to exhaustion, beaten if they didn't show enough aggression and subjected to psychologically confusing training methods.

After the Virginia training camp was raided this summer, the courts ordered the NFL star to pay $928,000 in restitution to cover the cost of moving and caring for the animals.

Rebecca J. Huss, professor of animal law at Indiana's Valparaiso University Law School, was appointed legal guardian of the 47 dogs.

"I lost a lot of sleep," she said.. "I knew it was going to be a challenging project."

Huss was given the responsibility of protecting the safety of the public and the welfare of the dogs as she selected their individual placements at treatment facilities.

"Unlike seizing a John Deere tractor, these animals need to be cared for," said Huss.

More than half went to Best Friends, 10 went to the rescue organization Bad Rap in California and the rest were sent to new homes in Virginia, Georgia and Maryland. Some of the dogs are already making improvements; one has even been put to work at a hospital.

"Everyone was asked not to speak until now," Huss said. "Having the world hear has been very exciting for me."

Twenty-two Vick dogs arrived by charter plane at Best Friends Jan. 2 and will stay at the sanctuary for "at least" six to eight months, according to the caregivers.

The "pitty" and "bully" breed encompasses a wide variety of bulls and terriers that have been trained for their athletic prowess. They are not naturally vicious and are fiercely loyal to humans.

"There's a terrible misconception that pit bulls are lurking behind every corner waiting to attack human beings," said Best Friends spokesman John Polis. "They are very loving. But you take a compliant animal and teach it to do bad things, and guess what happens."

The dogs are so aggressive toward other animals that they must be isolated from the other 500 dogs at the facilities and live in single runs. For this reason, most will never find adoptive homes.

Best Friends is prepared to keep all of them and budgets $40,000 for the lifetime care of each dog.

The dogs need to be reprogrammed from brutal training regimens that are designed to break their spirit and logic.

"They don't trust, don't understand and don't know how to act," said Best Friends' Berry.

Slowly, animal handlers regain their trust by offering them food, not invading their space and having a familiar and constant human presence.

Georgia, a female bait dog who arrived with all her teeth crudely removed by fight trainers, had been constrained in "sloppy and cruel" rape racks for breeding. She was "pretty used up," according to Berry.

But after just a few weeks, Georgia is already cuddling up to her new trainers.

"They want to lay next to you and be close," he said. "They sense we are here to help."

Simple tasks help them toward recovery: taking them on walks, using a leash and basic obedience training. Some have had their first car ride.

"The basis of anything you do with animals is building a trusting relationship," said animal caregiver Jeff Popwich. "Then you can challenge them and expose them to different situations. It's like convincing a kid to go to the dentist."

The hardest part of rehabilitation is the psychological work. "The emotional scars run pretty deep," said Popwich.

Best Friends veterinarian Franklin McMillan, author of "Mental Health and Well-Being in Animals," believes animals have complex feelings like humans.

"Hard-nosed scientists say animals don't have emotions," said McMillan, "but they act in identical ways to humans. You can tell they are struggling."

Fear is the dominant emotion. Some dogs show a slight hesitation, others run halfway to meet their human caregivers then retreat, others huddle alone, trembling.

"Unlike people, we can't ask them what happened," he said. "Basically, we're putting the pieces together to find the right therapies."

Meanwhile, Vick's champion Lucas is making slow, but steady progress.

"You reach over there and grab his face and he melts," said Berry. "He's scared, nervous and hopeful. … He's scarred all over, but he's still a big puppy and he has to have time to grow up."

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