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.
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 they’re neglected.
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 have playmates.
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 dogs.”
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 leg).
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 it.
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 a `pit 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 fights.
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 process.
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 to death.
“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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