KANAB, Utah — Not long before lunchtime, Mya’s wagging tail splashes as she waits for the tank to drain. The bowlegged black pit bull just finished a three-minute hydrotherapy session, guided by treats offered from a staffer reaching down into the apparatus. But while Mya walks slowly on the submerged treadmill, she notices Laura Rethoret’s car through the window. Once the tank empties, Mya scurries down the ramp as fast as she can with her weakened legs, which have splayed more as she’s aged.
“Good morning, beautiful!” says Rethoret, who embraces Mya with a towel. “I’m right here!”
Rethoret loads Mya and her runmate, Curly, into her car and drives to the quiet office where the dogs hang out a few times a week. These dogs are reminders that even now, 12 years later, survivors of former NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation live on in pockets throughout the country, including here at Best Friends Animal Society’s 3,700-acre sanctuary.
Vick was from Newport News and as a star quarterback led Virginia Tech to the 2000 national championship game, losing to Florida State. He was the first player selected in the 2001 NFL draft and played for 13 seasons.
Vick pleaded guilty in 2007 to running an illegal dogfighting ring in southeastern Virginia, and served nearly two years in federal prison and home confinement before resuming his football career.
The scandal cast a spotlight on the problem of dogfighting rings around the nation. But for 47 dogs pulled from Bad Newz Kennels, there was another, less publicized development that helped change how dogs taken in large-scale dogfighting busts are treated. Rather than being euthanized, the Vick dogs were given a chance to live.
The dogs became ambassadors, tail-wagging proof of what’s possible through rescue and rehabilitation. In doing so, they changed how the public — and some prominent rescue organizations — view dogs freed from fighting rings. Dogfighting remains prevalent, but now, in large part thanks to these dogs, others seized in fight busts are evaluated to see if they can become pets.
The Washington Post tracked down all 47 dogs and compiled a comprehensive look into their post-adoption lives and the families they joined. They landed in homes from California to Rhode Island, embraced by people with jobs ranging from preschool teacher to attorney. Some adopters love sports. Others had never heard of Vick, once the highest-paid player in the NFL who at the time of the bust starred for the Atlanta Falcons. Some of the dogs struggled to heal emotionally and remained fearful through their lives. But they all found homes far more loving than the horror-film kennel that made headlines around the globe.
“While Michael Vick [was] a deplorable person in a lot of ways, the fact that he was the one that got caught was a really a big boom for this whole topic and for these animals,” Best Friends co-founder Francis Battista said. “It just catapulted it into the public eye.”
In late August, just a few weeks after her therapy session, Mya spent her final moments lying on blankets and surrounded by Best Friends staffers, including Rethoret, whose face turned red as Mya slipped away. She’s one of five of the Vick dogs who have died in recent months, leaving just 11 survivors. They are poignant reminders of their tragic beginnings but also of the grace, patience and unexpected opportunities that followed.
When Vick’s dogfighting operation was broken up, animal rescues from around the country understood the gravity of the case but also the opportunities it presented because of the NFL star’s fame. Eight organizations received custody of the animals. Some groups placed a single dog into a foster home. Best Friends agreed to give the 22 most challenging cases a place to recover and, for some, a permanent home.
The organizations worked to redefine what made a dog adoptable. The dogs were seen as victims, not irreparably damaged. They weren’t just pit bulls or fight dogs. They became Mya and Curly, Frodo and Zippy.
“Michael Vick brought dogfighting into the living room of every American,” said Heather Gutshall, who adopted Handsome Dan and later founded a rescue organization that aims to help survivors of dogfighting. “Am I glad it happened? No. Am I glad, that if it was going to happen, that it happened the way it did? Absolutely. They changed the landscape.”
In southern Utah, the city of Kanab makes the NFL feel like a distant enterprise. The feature of the town, which has fewer than 5,000 residents and two stoplights, is that it once served as the backdrop for Western films.
As the highway curves from the tiny town center and through a scenic southwestern landscape of vast skies and towering orange cliffs, one right turn leads into Best Friends, a haven for second chances that is home to 1,600 animals, including dogs, cats, horses and birds. Dogs cruise by with caregivers on golf carts. The chorus of barking chaos quiets as you venture deeper through the sandy trails. It’s busy and boisterous yet vast and peaceful.
John Garcia, who at the time of the Vick case co-managed the Dogtown at Best Friends, grew up in a neighboring town without a TV. He doesn’t watch sports. Garcia only learned of Vick through his case, but he remembers the message from the rescue’s senior leadership: “Hey, if we get involved in this, it’s a big deal,” he said. “We may be able to change the world.”
The pressure to help the dogs — and to prove they could indeed be helped — was palpable. Because Vick’s fame turned the dogfighting bust into a national story, not just a conversation in the animal welfare community, many watched with curiosity or skepticism, wondering whether a dog from a traumatic past could ever live normally in society.
BADRAP, an Oakland-based organization, emerged as an early voice advocating for the dogs. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States thought they should be killed, in keeping with their long-standing belief that the emotional trauma such dogs had suffered would be too much to overcome. Of the 51 dogs listed in court documents, just one needed to be euthanized for behavioral reasons. One, named Rose, was euthanized for medical reasons, and two died in care.
BADRAP had worked with individual dogs seized from fighting situations many times, which gave the organization confidence. Donna Reynolds, the director of BADRAP, said once staff members met the dogs for evaluations in Virginia, there was a sense of relief — “wiping brow with back of hand,” she called it. They knew they’d be able to work with them.
Pit bulls continue to face breed discrimination, with blanket bans in parts of the country. As of this year, however, 22 states have provisions against this type of legislation, and Best Friends has spearheaded initiatives to increase that number. Rehabilitating the Vick dogs has helped further the argument that the owner, not the breed, dictates a dog’s behavior. And this marquee moment in animal welfare preached values that extend beyond just pit bulls and into the overarching no-kill movement.
“This is what really excites me because it goes to that pushing the boundaries and the demonstration of what is adoptable,” Best Friends CEO Julie Castle said. “That flag has always been something that we’ve held.”
Most involved with the Vick case, from the adopters to rescue staffers, express indifference toward the former quarterback himself. Visitors often ask Michelle Weaver, who once co-managed Dogtown and now oversees all animal care at Best Friends, what she thinks about the quarterback who abused dogs such as the ones that have lounged in her office for years. Her answer: She doesn’t think about Vick. Her energy usually goes toward the dogs. Is Curly feeling OK? He’s been slowing down lately. How’s Cherry, whose photo hangs near Weaver’s desk, doing in his Connecticut home?
“There’s not the anger. I think in the early days there was,” said Stacy Dubuc, a Green Bay Packers fan who adopted Ginger from the SPCA for Monterey County in northern California. “Honestly at this point, I hate to say it, but somehow [Vick] is involved in my life. And I have the best dog possible because of it. He was the face of dogfighting. It took a celebrity to become that. And I don’t talk about him.”
Vick, who paid nearly $1 million restitution for care of the dogs, says he regrets it all and didn’t have the strength to stop what he realized was wrong about a year before he was caught. Vick, 39, retired in 2017 and is an NFL analyst with Fox Sports. He has advocated for stronger animal cruelty laws and works to educate children.
“I think people have moved on,” Vick said in a telephone interview. “I think they’ve moved past it. It’s been 12-plus years since it all happened, so I don’t get any questions about it anymore. People don’t talk about it. They don’t ask me about it. Life is kind of normal. But I still have a responsibility, and that will never change.”
Mel’s life was not normal.
Mel trembled whenever strangers entered Richard Hunter’s suburban Las Vegas home, the emotional scars from his time at Bad Newz Kennels still evident 12 years on. But Hunter always emphasized the progress Mel had made, though he let the dog’s continued struggles serve as a reminder of what Vick did.
Every night, Hunter walked Mel and his two other dogs. It would take Mel a minute to get going. He’d pause in the short driveway, look in each direction, take slow steps, assess the situation and only then decide he was ready to walk. The stories of all these dogs, Hunter said, shouldn’t be reduced to a Disney-style tale.
“Everybody is great in a lot of ways now,” Hunter said in July, shortly before Mel’s death following a brief and unexpected illness. “But you better believe the ghosts of what Vick did to him and did to those other dogs stays with them to this day and always will.”
When Mel and the other 21 Best Friends dogs arrived at the Utah sanctuary, they surprised the staff with their shyness. While some of Dogtown’s newest residents, dubbed the Vicktory dogs, were overconfident and aggressive, many seemed under-socialized and afraid. For at least six months, the dogs had 24-hour care. Garcia slept on the concrete floor of the building that housed the dogs for a month straight.
Progress was gradual. The issues varied. Georgia, a former dogfighting champion, reacted to other dogs a football field away. Others loved canine companions, and socializing with dogs helped them get closer to people. Many had never walked on a leash. They hadn’t lived in a home environment. They needed to learn how to play.
“It was clear,” Weaver said, “that their world was pretty small before.”
Once in homes, the dogs still had their own quirks, which in many ways exemplify the legacy these dogs will leave — that all animals, even from a fighting background, should be treated as individuals. Layla, who died in June, needed her collar removed when she ate. The clanging of her tag hitting the stainless steel food bowl frightened her. Shadow, one of the 11 still alive, remains terrified of ladders, making his family wonder if he saw dogs being hanged. His adopters don’t think Shadow fought, but the fights took place on the second level of a shed, accessible by a ladder.
Public Facebook pages have chronicled the dogs’ post-adoption adventures for thousands of followers. (Handsome Dan’s page has 546,000 likes.) Adopters shared successes and the dogs’ lives in a world that slowly became more comfortable.
“I almost forget where he came from because he’s such a typical dog now,” said Melissa Fiaccone, who adopted Cherry. The dog’s confidence has surged through the years. Cherry spent a week this summer in a cabin with more than a dozen people, including many children. The family posted a photo of Cherry on a dock with his eyes squinting and his massive tongue flopping happily. He frequently attends public events and loves greeting everyone. Fiaccone’s husband, Paul, says Cherry “took on the rock star persona.”
About a year after the Vick dogs were dispersed around the country, a North Carolina man pleaded guilty to dogfighting. All 127 dogs seized, and the puppies born during the legal proceedings, were euthanized. Leaders from across animal welfare met to confront the issue, and it prompted the Humane Society to adjust its stance on dogs seized from fight busts. The experience with the Vick dogs, Battista said, was pivotal in that policy change.
PETA’s stance “remains firmly the same as it was in 2007,” Senior Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch said in a statement, adding that dogs from these situations can be “unpredictable” and a danger to other animals and humans.
Dogfighting continues to be a problem in the United States, but Janette Reever, a senior specialist for Humane Society International’s global anti-dogfighting program, said she believes it’s declining. Dogfighting is an underground enterprise, however, so there’s not comprehensive data to prove that.
Since 2008, dogfighting has been a felony in all 50 states, and Reever said law enforcement has realized animal cruelty is often joined by other illegal activities, providing an additional incentive for police to look into reports of fighting rings.
Uba, a Vick dog who lives with Letti de Little in Northern Virginia, has a housemate named Jamie, a dog from a 2013 multistate fight bust in which 367 dogs were seized. The Missouri 500, a 2009 seizure of more than 400 dogs, is still the largest fight bust in U.S. history, and “thank God it happened after the Vick case,” said Ledy VanKavage, a senior legislative attorney for Best Friends whose dog, Karma, was among those rescued.
“She would be dead but for the Vick dogs,” VanKavage said. “I have no doubt. They were game-changers.”
Across from a small church in rural Virginia, Vick’s property has been purchased by Dogs Deserve Better, an organization that focuses on rescuing chained and penned dogs. On a summer day, dogs run in the fenced yard and the mood feels cheerful.
Then there are the four sheds, where Vick kept and fought his dogs. All are painted black, even the windows, to make them less visible at night. The group decided to preserve these relics of the dogfighting operation for educational purposes. The kennels inside one of the buildings still show claw marks on the walls. But there’s hope and remembrance, too, through memorial candles and trees dedicated to each dog planted in a grassy field out back.
“They’ve gone through so much, and they’ve changed so much,” Garcia said. “They’ll never be forgotten.”
Garcia now works as the safety and security manager at Best Friends. Sometimes during night shifts, he wanders up to the sanctuary’s cemeteries, where hundreds of wind chimes ring at different pitches in the breeze and intensify into a song when a strong wind arrives. It’s peaceful and quiet.
A number of the Vicktory dogs rest there, with small memorial stones towering into mountains on top of their graves.
One has a toy golf cart, representing how the dog loved riding around with caregivers, along with an old tennis ball. A couple of the adopters brought their dogs’ ashes back to Best Friends, the place that gave them a chance. That’s what felt right, and it helps preserve their legacy, as the dogs fade further from the public eye.
But far from this canyon and across the country, other dogs live because of these 47. So as time eventually defeats them all, the message on a slab of stone in the cemetery carries hope and truth.
“Do not stand by my grave and cry,” the poem reminds those who enter through the ornate gates. “I am not there. I did not die.”