Vick's Dogs Living a Dog's Life in Utah

Survivors of ex-NFL star's dog-fighting operation making amazing recovery.

ByNILS KONGSHAUG
January 08, 2009, 12:10 AM

— -- Forty-seven dogs were rescued from the Virginia house where former NFL quarterback Michael Vick ran an illegal dog-fighting ring.

They had been abused, underfed and overbred. Those unwilling or unable to fight were drowned, hanged, even electrocuted.

But 22 of the survivors of this canine version of hell are now living in what can only be described as a dog-paradise.

It is the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the nation, called Best Friends (www.bestfriends.org), located on 3,700 acres of Utah wilderness.

The dogs' physical injuries healed quickly, but trainers say their psychological scars will take longer.

Nevertheless, they've made remarkable progress in just the few months they've been in Utah.

Trainers say the dogs were "shut down" when they arrived, but most are now coming out of their shells. Their recovery is being chronicled by the National Geographic Channel for an upcoming episode of their series "Dog Town" to air this summer.

Vick paid nearly a million dollars for the lifetime care of the dogs rescued from the Bad Newz Kennels.

"We've got the resources, we've got the dedicated people and we've got the time to deal with this," said John Garcia, one of the trainers at Best Friends.

"You know we don't have five days and they get euthanized," he said, referring to practice at many kennels of killing dogs if they do not quickly find new homes. "We have the rest of their lives if need be to focus and work with them."

Only one of Vick's dogs at Best Friends wears a red collar, signifying she is aggressive with people. The others all wear green collars, but even they must be kept in separate cages, apart from each other.

Trained to fight, these dogs are still not safe around other dogs. When they're around people, though, they behave like like big puppies. If it weren't for the scars on their muzzles you might think they had always been pets.

Nearly all dogs rescued from fighting operations are euthanized. Even the Humane Society argued that Vick's dogs should be destroyed.

But Michelle Besmehn, the manager of the dog compound at Best Friends, believes any dog can be rehabilitated.

"I've heard a lot of comments, 'Oh my gosh, you've taken in maneaters,'" she said. "Once you meet them, you realize that's not actually true. It's definitely a misconception that these dogs -- because they're aggressive towards each other -- would be aggressive towards people."

The court has ordered that Lucas, Vick's personal fighting dog, may never be adopted. But the trainers at Best Friends hope the rest will be.

"They'll need some work before they're ready to go out in homes," Besmehn said. "But I'm very hopeful that every one will have an opportunity to find their home."

As for Lucas, he'll have a comfortable retirement at Best Friends.

Lucas sits in Garcia's lap and licks his face.

"What people have put him through, some pretty horrible experiences, it really shows what their personalities are if they still trust us," Garcia said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events