KANAB, Utah » At the Pro Bowl in Hawaii today, Michael Vick will start at quarterback — an unmistakable benchmark for what has been a rapid, successful and, in some circles, surprising comeback.
A few thousand miles away in the wilderness of Utah, the pit bulls Vick once owned are making a comeback of their own, though theirs has been a much slower climb.
Take Little Red. Three years ago she would race to the nearest corner and cower, her face buried against the wall, at the sight of any human or dog. Or Ellen, who would growl at anyone who came near, especially if they dared glance at her food dish.
Both dogs had such bad problems, experts said, they’d be better off dead.
These days, though, Little Red wags her tail a mile a minute and is almost inseparable from her new, best buddy: a cattle dog mix named Google. Ellen, a tannish-brown bundle of energy, still loves her food but loves her visitors even more — smothering them with kisses as soon as they walk through the door.
These dogs and 13 others are rehabilitating at the Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, a world away from where their lives began, chained in basements and forced into dogfighting rings as part of the business bankrolled by Vick, the Eagles quarterback who has been out of prison for more than a year, and last week received his first paid endorsement deal since his release.
On the one hand, the dogs are all success stories, on the road to recovery and serving as ambassadors for a breed widely derided as too dangerous.
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In another respect, their recoveries are slow and sometimes painful.
"Some people might say, ‘Three years, that seems like such a long time,’" said John Garcia, a manager of the dog operation at Best Friends, who has done extensive work with the pit bulls. "But we measure their progress in baby steps, especially when they were on the other side of this for as long as some of these dogs were."
Much as it has been hard to fit the story of Vick’s comeback in a tidy little box, the trajectory of these dogs’ lives, their recovery and the message they send, is difficult to sum up.
It wasn’t surprising, then, that while Vick made his way into the news this season by suggesting he might someday want to be a dog owner again, the folks at Best Friends stayed mostly silent.
They released a two-sentence statement saying that, given what his dogs have been through, the quarterback shouldn’t qualify as a dog owner. But they also has conceded that Vick has spotlighted the problem of dogfighting and rehabilitation of pit bulls.
"I’d have to say that he brought attention to the issue in a rather unfortunate way," said Best Friends co-founder Francis Battista.
At Best Friends, a 3,800-acre sanctuary that is home to 417 dogs, 658 cats, 340 rabbits and a few dozen horses, pigs and parrots, they prefer to celebrate success stories.
There are small victories, such as the days when Little Red, approached by a group of unfamiliar people, stands there, wagging her tail and waiting to be petted. There are big ones, such as the day when the dogs find permanent homes, the way six of the 22 originally brought to Best Friends have thus far.
"When they announced on TV that Michael Vick was eligible to play football again, I lost every single bit of inner peace," said Erika, who adopted one of the Vick dogs, Oliver, and didn’t want her last name used because she doesn’t want herself or Oliver to be targeted for harassment. "But I thought, no, no, no, don’t get angry. Don’t let a person like that ruin you. If I can’t control what happens to him, I can control what happens to me and I can channel this anger into a big bunch of love."
And so, she met Oliver, the dog they said would never kiss a human, but who now sleeps with his pet parent and showers her with kisses every morning when she wakes up.
"The ironic thing to me is, all along, Vick was the, quote, superstar," Erika said. "Now, all his victims are the actual superstars. I’ve got one of the real superstars sitting beside me."
Battered and bruised as they’ve been, it’s a rigorous process for these dogs to find permanent homes.
After learning the most basic of functions — walking up stairs, climbing into a car and other taken-for-granted "basics" not always taught in the dank, cruel world in which they lived under Vick’s care — they were slowly introduced into what would become their "normal" life.
They live in indoor-outdoor dog runs, with plenty of room for exercise. The dogs that can handle it have been slowly introduced to other dogs.
They go on long walks, learn how to handle new environments and encountering different animals, and generally live a good life at a so-called "no-kill" sanctuary where they have a home until adopted.
Before most of these dogs leave Best Friends for good, they have to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, which requires, among other things, that they accept friendly strangers, walk obediently on a leash and react calmly to other dogs. From there they have to find the right home.
Best Friends isn’t simply looking for any pet lover.
"We feel like dogs going into these homes are being ambassadors" for the breed, Garcia said. "They’re not just adopting a dog, but fighting the good fight."
By spreading the message that pit bulls are only as nice, or vicious, as their owners train them to be, the Vick dogs are helping rewrite the book on both the public perception of the breed.
In 2009, law enforcement completed the biggest bust of dogfighting operations in American history, pulling 427 animals out of rings in Missouri and surrounding states. Dogs rescued from the "Missouri 500" case, as it became known because some of the dogs subsequently gave birth, were cared for by the Humane Society of Missouri.
In the past, it’s likely none of the dogs would have even been given a chance. But over the span of months and years, the Humane Society tried to rehabilitate and find new homes for all the animals.
As of now, 247 of them have made it.
Vick was reinstated to the NFL for the 2009 season and has been doing public-service work, most notably in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States.
Not everyone sees it that way, however.
His recent suggestion that getting another dog "would be a big step for me in the rehabilitation process," and the debate that ensued, left some wondering whether he truly feels remorse for what he did.
So, while football fans and animal lovers continue to judge Vick on very different scales, the dogs in Utah keep taking two steps forward and one step back.
"Some say if a dog is bred to do something, you can’t undo that," Garcia said. "But to me, that’s like saying if everyone in your family has always fought in a war, you’re a warrior and you’re destined to do this. Not true. Everyone’s an individual. You can choose your own path in life. Same with dogs. The only difference is, they can’t choose it. We choose it for them."