Happy ending for most of Vick’s dogs

The resurrection of Michael Vick(notes) took another swift step forward Sunday when he led the Philadelphia Eagles to victory in his first start in more than three NFL seasons. Now he’s in the middle of a debate about who should be the team’s regular starter. It’s a welcomed type of argument for a man who spent 21 months in federal prison, lost a $100 million contract and became a national pariah for his role in a vicious interstate dogfighting ring.

Jim Gorant was less concerned about Vick’s future than that of Vick’s victims – the 51 dogs authorities recovered on Vick’s property in rural Virginia, 22 of which went to Best Friends animal sanctuary in Utah. If Vick paid his debt to society (as he did, even becoming a Humane Society lecturer), he’d no doubt get a second chance (as he should).

One of the rescued dogs hides in its shelter at Best Friends animal sanctuary, north of Kanab, Utah.
(Douglas C. Pizac/AP Photo)

But what of Michael Vick’s dogs? It turns out there’s a redemption story there as well, one that Gorant, a writer for Sports Illustrated, details in the just-released book “The Lost Dogs”.

It starts with the decision by authorities to raid Vick’s property in April 2007 and carries through the rescue of the animals, the Vick legal proceedings, the groundbreaking decision to not destroy the mostly pit bulls and eventually a series of success stories for many of the dogs.

It’s a book that’s equal parts horrifying and hopeful. And while every person and dog involved would’ve been better served if Bad Newz Kennels never existed, there are plenty of positives coming out of a story that at first seemed to contain only misery.

Forty-seven of the 51 dogs survived. While not all have fully rehabbed, a good number of them live with families. Their new owners view the dogs’ scarred bodies as loveable and marvel at the ability to put years of aggressive training and systematic torture behind them. Four even work in therapy roles – including one in California which is so gentle and peaceful he’s used as a “listener” for self-conscious children trying to work on their reading skills.

Perhaps most remarkably, if it wasn’t for the high-profile nature of the Vick case and the quarterback’s ability to pay for their postrescue care (Vick reportedly spent a court-mandated $1 million on it), each of the dogs would’ve been destroyed. Dogs which came from fighting busts had previously been considered so far gone that trying to retrain them would take a disproportionate amount of already limited resources.

“Ninety percent of the time, they would’ve been put down,” Gorant said. “Even PETA and the Humane Society recommended it. [The theory was] there are already good dogs out there who need care. Why invest time, effort and money to save these few when so many dogs are out there that need help?”

The public outcry over the Vick dogs helped change that. An attempt was made to retrain them, and the success rate was so high that “the Humane Society changed its official policy,” Gorant said.

The major change, according to Gorant, is to evaluate each dog as an individual case rather than make a sweeping ruling on all animals which come from a fighting ring.

“It’s definitely a positive,” he said.

There’s more. The Vick case drew so much public outrage that police across the country have reportedly stepped up efforts to break fighting rings. Where the crime was considered a lower priority in the past, now resources are offered – if only because it often leads to the discovery of other criminal behavior. It’s not cub scouts who operate these things.

“Law enforcement realized that this is something worth their time,” Gorant said.

The book also delves deeply into a look at the pit bull breed, making the case that it is inherently a calm, friendly dog. It was originally bred as a family farm dog. It’s the fighting rings which have ruined the pit bulls’ rep – something that surprised even Gorant.

“All I knew about pit bulls was from the headlines,” he said.

Vick missed all of the ‘2007 and ’08 NFL seasons.
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The book has its greatest impact in going past the headlines and detailing the recovery process of the individual dogs. The odds for success remained long, but the dogs took to the training at various levels. Seventeen have been deemed adequately adjusted. Seventeen are still in training facilities. The rest are in various spots in between.

The success stories will prove a winner for any dog lover. Consider Hector, a big, brown pit bull whose scarred chest and legs told of a veteran (and thereby successful and vicious) fighter. If there was ever a dog that at first glance would be considered too far gone to save, he was it.

Instead, the shelter found a pleasant demeanor and even a mischievous side (he loves hide-and-seek and is a klutz). He quickly passed his Canine Good Citizen tests and wound up in the Minnesota home of Roo Yori, who is known for training police dogs and flying-disc champions.

Hector now visits schools and nursing homes, offering comfort and entertainment and using his celebrity status as one of “Michael Vick’s dogs” to pound home an anti-fighting message.

Hector didn’t score any touchdowns Sunday. Yet, like Michael Vick, his life has moved forward in ways which few could’ve envisioned three and a half-year ago. Vick is back to being a football player, Hector a normal dog.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 21, 2010