Skip to main content

Happy New Year

Since being rescued 20 months ago from the dogfighting ring financed by Michael Vick, all but a few of the abused pit bulls have been recovering in sanctuary, foster care and adoptive homes. Now even the most traumatized of them can have a...

THE DOGapproaches the outstretched hand. Her name is Sweet Jasmine, and she is 35pounds of twitchy curiosity with a coat the color of fried chicken, a pink noseand brown eyes. She had spent a full 20 seconds studying this five-fingeredoffering before advancing. Now, as she moves forward, her tail points straightdown, her butt is hunched toward the ground, her head is bowed, her ears pinnedback. She stands at maybe three quarters of her height.

She gets within afoot of the hand and stops. She licks her snout, a sign of nervousness, andlooks up at the stranger, seeking assurance. She looks back to the hand, licksher snout again and begins to extend her neck. Her nose is six inches away fromthe hand, one inch, half an inch. She sniffs once. She sniffs again. At thispoint almost any other dog in the world would offer up a gentle lick, a sweethello, an invitation to be scratched or petted. She's come so far. She's soclose.

But Jasmine pullsaway.

PETA WANTEDJasmine dead. Not just Jasmine, and not just PETA. The Humane Society of theU.S., agreeing with PETA, took the position that Michael Vick's pit bulls, likeall dogs saved from fight rings, were beyond rehabilitation and that trying tosave them was a misappropriation of time and money. "The cruelty they'vesuffered is such that they can't lead what anyone who loves dogs would considera normal life," says PETA spokesman Dan Shannon. "We feel it's betterthat they have their suffering ended once and for all." If you're a dog andPeople for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suggests you be put down, you'vegot problems. Jasmine has problems.

They began in2001, about the same time Vick started cashing NFL paychecks and bought a15-acre plot of land at 1915 Moonlight Road in Smithville, Va. The propertysits across from a Baptist church. A bright green lawn surrounds a white brickhouse that has a pool and a basketball court in the backyard and is bordered bya white picket fence. When Vick bought the land, the house didn't exist andwouldn't be built for a few years. It wasn't a priority. The Atlanta Falcons'new quarterback never intended to live there.

Beyond the house,shrouded by trees, were five sheds painted black from top to bottom, includingthe windows and doors. Past them were scattered wire cages and wood doghouses.Farther still, where the trees got thicker, two partly buried car axlesprotruded from the ground. This was the home of Bad Newz Kennels, thedogfighting operation that Vick and three of his buddies started a year afterVick became the first pick of the 2001 NFL draft. When local and stateauthorities busted the operation in April 2007, 51 pit bulls were seized,Jasmine among them.

By most estimatesJasmine is around four years old, which means she was most likely born into BadNewz, and her life there fit the kennel's name. A few of the dogs, probablypets, were kept in one of the sheds. The fighters and a handful of dogs thatBad Newz housed for other people lived in the outdoor kennels. The rest—dogsthat were too young to fight, were used for breeding or were kept as bait dogsfor the fighters to practice on—were chained to the car axles in the woods.

The water in thebowls was speckled with algae. Females were strapped into a "rapestand" so the dogs could breed without injuring each other. Some of thesheds held syringes and other medical supplies, and training equipment such astreadmills and spring bars (from which dogs hung, teeth clamped on rubberrings, to strengthen their jaws). The biggest shed had a fighting pit, oncecovered by a bloodstained carpet that was found in the woods.

According tocourt documents, from time to time Vick and his cohorts "rolled" thedogs: put them in the pit for short battles to see which ones had the rightstuff. Those that fought got affection, food, vitamins and training sessions.The ones that showed no taste for blood were killed—by gunshot, electrocution,drowning, hanging or, in at least one case, being repeatedly slammed againstthe ground.

It's impossibleto say what Jasmine saw while circling the axles deep in the woods, but dogscan hear a tick yawn at 50 yards. The sounds of the fights and the executionsundoubtedly filtered through the trees.

"Multiplestudies have shown that if you take two mammals, say rats, and put them inboxes side by side, then give the first one electric shocks, the reaction ofthe second one—in terms of brain-wave and nervous-system activity—will beidentical," says Stephen Zawistowski, a certified applied animalbehaviorist and an executive vice president of the ASPCA. "The trauma isn'tlimited to the animal that's experiencing the pain."

In a sense, then,whatever atrocities any of the dogs suffered at 1915 Moonlight Road, all ofthem suffered. So one would think that April 25, 2007, the day law-enforcementofficials took the dogs from the Vick compound, would have been a good one forJasmine.

ZIPPY IS NOT abig dog, but she's a pit bull, one of the Vick pit bulls, and she's up on herhind legs straining against the collar, her front paws paddling the air like achild's arms in a swimming pool. The woman holding her back, BereniceMora-Hernandez, is not big either, and as she digs in her heels, it's not clearwho will win the tug-of-war. "Watch it!" she says to the visitors whostand frozen in her doorway. "Be careful. Sometimes she pees when she getsexcited, and I don't want her to get you." And just like that Zippy whizzeson the floor. Twice.

Berenice'ssix-year-old daughter, Vanessa, disappears and returns with a few paper towels.The spill absorbed, Zippy is set free to jump up and lick and wag her hellosbefore she leads everyone into the family room, where Berenice's husband,Jesse, sits with the couple's five-week-old son, Francisco, and two other dogs,who rise in their pens and start barking. But Zippy has no interest in them.Instead she leaps onto the couch where Vanessa's nine-year-old sister, Eliana,is waiting. Vanessa joins them, and over the next 15 minutes the two girls doeverything possible to provoke an abused and neglected pit bull who's beenrescued from a dogfighting ring. They grab Zippy's face, yank her tail, roll ontop of her, roll under her, pick her up, swing her around, stick their hands inher mouth. Eliana and Zippy end up nose to nose. The girl kisses the dog. Thedog licks the girl's entire face.

Zippy is proofthat pit bulls have an image problem. In truth these dogs are among the mostpeople-friendly on the planet. It has to be. In an organized dogfight three orfour people are in the ring, and the dogs are often pulled apart to rest beforeresuming combat. (The fight usually ends when one of the dogs refuses toreengage.) When separating two angry, adrenaline-filled animals, the handlershave to be sure the dogs won't turn on them, so over the years dogfighters haveeither killed or not bred dogs that showed signs of aggression toward humans."Of all dogs," says Dr. Frank McMillan, the director of well-beingstudies at Best Friends Animal Society, a 33,000-acre sanctuary in southernUtah, "pit bulls possess the single greatest ability to bond withpeople."

Perhaps that'swhy for decades pit bulls were considered great family dogs and in England wereknown as "nanny dogs" for their care of children. Petey in The LittleRascals was a pit bull, as was Stubby, a World War I hero for his actions withthe 102nd Infantry in Europe, such as locating wounded U.S. soldiers and aGerman spy. Most dog experts will attest that a pit bull properly trained andsocialized from a young age is a great pet.

Still, pit bullshistorically have been bred for aggression against other dogs, and if they'reput in uncontrolled situations, some of them will fight, and if they're notproperly socialized or have been abused, they can become aggressive towardpeople. It doesn't mean that all pit bulls are instinctively inclined to fight,but there is that potential. Bad Newz killed dogs because it couldn't get themto be aggressive enough. The kennel also raised at least two grand champions,dogs with a minimum of five wins apiece.

"A pit bullis like a Porsche. It's a finely tuned, highly muscled athlete," saysZawistowski. "And just like you wouldn't give a Porsche to a 16-year-old,you don't want just anyone to own a pit bull. It should be someone who hasexperience with dogs and is willing to spend the time, because with trainingand proper socialization you will get the most out of them as pets."

The pit bull'sp.r. mess can be likened to a lot of teens driving Porsches—accidents waitingto happen. Too many dogs were irresponsibly bred, encouraged to be aggressiveor put in situations in which they could not restrain themselves, and pit-bullmaulings became the equivalent of land-based shark attacks, guaranteeing aflush of screaming headlines and urban mythology. Some contend that thishysteria reached its apex with a 1987 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover that featured asnarling pit bull below the headline BEWARE OF THIS DOG. Despite the morebalanced article inside, which was occasioned by a series of attacks by pitbulls, the cover cemented the dogs' badass cred, and as rappers affected thegangster ethos, pit bulls became cool. Suddenly, any thug or wannabe thug knewwhat kind of dog to own. Many of these people didn't know how to train orsocialize or control the dogs, and the cycle fed itself.

Three pit bullsattacked 10-year-old Shawn Jones near the Hernandezes' town in NorthernCalifornia 7 1/2 years ago, tearing off the boy's ears and causing otherinjuries, but Berenice stood up for the breed then and still does. "It'salmost always the owner, not the dog," she says, who's responsible foraggressive behavior. Her family has been "fostering" pit bulls—mindingthem in their house in Concord until they can be adopted—for nine years and hasnever had a problem with one. "These girls have grown up with pit bullstheir whole lives, and they've loved every one of them."

That wasn't hardto do with Zippy. When she arrived from the rescue group BAD RAP (Bay AreaDoglovers Responsible About Pitbulls) in October 2007, "she was afraid ofher own shadow," says Berenice. Loud noises made her jump, and when sheentered another room she'd crawl through the doorway on her belly. That lastedabout six weeks, but once Zippy got comfortable she took over the house. Sheraces from room to room, goes for runs with Berenice and plays in the yard withthe other two dogs: the family's big blue pit bull, Crash, and another fosterdog, Roller, a bulldog-pit mix.

As the girls runout of energy, Zippy moves on. She pops up from below the tangle of limbs andblack hair that are Eliana and Vanessa and prances over to Jesse, who's stillholding his infant son. Zippy noses up to the baby, takes a few sniffs and thenlicks his foot. Taste test concluded, she shoots over to the side door, pushesdown the handle with her snout and disappears into the side yard. "You seethat?" Berenice says. "This one's so smart. I never had another doghere who figured out how to do that." Moments later there's a little rap atthe door. Berenice pulls it open and in comes Zippy, ears up, tail wagging.

Eliana,meanwhile, has pulled a spiral-bound notebook from her book bag. It's lateNovember, and she wants to read a Thanksgiving essay she wrote at school. Asher little voice takes hold of the room, Zippy curls into a circle beside her.The last lines of the story go like this: "Zippy is one of a kind. I namedher Zippy because she is really fast. I don't want any of my dogs to beadopted."

AFTER BEING takenfrom the Moonlight Road property, Vick's dogs were dispersed to sixanimal-control facilities in Virginia. Conditions differed slightly from placeto place, but for the most part each dog was kept alone in a cage for months ata time. They were often forced to relieve themselves where they stood, and theyweren't let out even while their cages were being cleaned; attendants simplyhosed down the floors with the dogs inside. They were given so little attentionbecause workers assumed they were dangerous and would be put down after Vick'strial. The common belief is that any money and time spent caring for dogs savedfrom fight rings would be better devoted to the millions of dogs alreadysitting in shelters, about half of which are destroyed each year.

What the pitbulls had going for them was the same thing that had once seemed to doom them:Michael Vick. They were, in a sense, celebrities, and there was a massivepublic outcry to help them. Letters and e-mails poured in to the offices ofJudge Henry E. Hudson and of Mike Gill, assistant U.S. attorney for the EasternDistrict of Virginia. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gill had worked onseveral animal-related cases and still had ties to the rescue community. Hereached out to, among others, Zawistowski. Could the ASPCA put together a teamto evaluate the animals and determine if any of them could be saved?

Around the sametime Donna Reynolds, the executive director and cofounder, along with herhusband, Tim Racer, of BAD RAP, sent Gill a seven-page proposal suggesting adog-by-dog evaluation to see if any could be spared. The couple, who haveplaced more than 400 pit bulls in new homes during the last 10 years, knew itwas a long shot. It's faster and easier to judge the entire barrel as rotten.Zawistowski put together a team composed of himself, two other ASPCA staffers,three outside certified animal behaviorists and three members of BAD RAP,including Reynolds and Racer.

On Aug. 23, 2007,Vick appeared in U.S. District Court in Richmond, and Judge Hudson accepted aplea agreement in which the former quarterback admitted that he had beeninvolved in dogfighting and had personally participated in killing animals. Theagreement required him to pay $928,000 for the care and treatment of the dogs,including any humane destruction deemed necessary. "That was the landmarkmoment—when he not only gave the dogs the money but referred to it asrestitution," says Zawistowski. "That's when these dogs went fromweapons to victims."

On Sept. 4, 5 and6, under tight security and a court-imposed gag order, Zawistowski's teamassembled in Virginia. It quickly agreed on a protocol for testing the dogsthat would show their level of socialization and aggressiveness. Among otherthings, the dogs were presented with people, toys, food and other dogs. Theirreactions and their overall demeanor were evaluated. In those three days theteam assessed 49 dogs at six sites.

It didn't helpthat the assessors had no idea what to expect. Besides their time at Bad Newz,the dogs had spent four months locked up in shelters with minimal attention.That alone could push many dogs over the brink. "I thought, If we can savethree or four, it will be fantastic," Reynolds says.

Adds Racer,"We had been told these were the most vicious dogs in America."

So what theyfound in the pens caught them off guard. "Some of them were just big goofydogs you'd find in any shelter," says Zawistowski. No more than a dozenwere seasoned fighters, and few showed a desire to harm anything.

"We weresurprised at how little aggression there was," says Reynolds. Many of thedogs had all but shut down. They cowered in the corners of their kennels orstood hunched with their heads lowered, their tails between their legs andtheir feet shifting nervously. Some didn't want to come out. As far as theyknew bad things happened when people came. Bad things happened when they wereled out of their cages.

One dog was soscared that even the confines of her kennel offered her no comfort. Shelterworkers used a blanket to construct a little tent inside her cage that shecould duck under. Remembering that dog, McMillan says, "Jasmine broke myheart."

JONNY JUSTICElikes to lie in a splash of sunlight that stretches across the floor of theliving room in the San Francisco split-level of Cris Cohen. Head lolling back,eyes closed, legs sticking up in the air, he lets the rays warm his pink belly.Comfy as this is, Jonny doesn't have long to linger. He's on a tight schedule.He's up every day at 6 a.m., out for a 45-minute walk, making sure to avoid thegarbage trucks, which freak him out. After that it's back home for a handful offood, some grooming, a quick scratch-down and then into his dog bed with a fewtoys and food puzzles. At lunchtime he's back out for a quick trip to the yard,some play time and a little lounging in the sun, followed by a return to thekennel until around 4:30. Then it's another long walk—an hour this time—dinner,a game of fetch in the yard, quiet time and sleep.

After theASPCA-led evaluations, the dogs were put into one of four categories:euthanize; sanctuary 2 (needs lifetime care given by trained professionals,with little chance for adoption); sanctuary 1 (needs a controlled environment,with a greater possibility of adoption); and foster (must live with experienceddog owners for a minimum of six months, and after further evaluation adoptionis likely). Rebecca Huss, a professor at the Valparaiso (Ind.) UniversitySchool of Law and an animal-law expert, was placed in charge of thedispersal.

Jonny was afoster dog that was taken in by Cohen, a longtime BAD RAP volunteer who ownsanother pit bull, Lily, and had cared for seven previous fosters. "When hefirst came, I could see he was dealing with some serious stress," Cohensays of Jonny. "Everything scared him: running water, flushing toilets,rattling pots. He was like Scooby-Doo seeing a ghost—he'd jump straight in theair and take off. We dealt with that by putting him on a solid routine.Everything the same, every day. Dogs thrive on that. If they know what toexpect, they can relax."

"You easetheir fears by building confidence through simple everyday tasks," saysMcMillan. "We have to show them that the world is not out to harm them.It's a peaceful, trustworthy place."

After about twomonths, Jonny began to chill out, and Cohen started working on his manners."His original name was Jonny Rotten," Cohen says, "because he wassuch a little monster. He'd never lived in a house before. He didn't know hisname. He had no clue what stairs were or how to go up them. He'd tie you up inthe leash every time you took him out. He'd just flat out run into stuff."Jonny responded to weekly obedience training and to Cohen's personal training,and in a few months his name was changed from Rotten to Justice.

During a walk inGolden Gate Park one day, Jonny was mobbed by a group of kids. Cohen wasn'tsure how Jonny would react to all those little hands thrust at him, but the dogloved it. He played with the children, and Cohen realized Jonny had an affinityfor them. He enrolled Jonny in training for the program Paws for Tales, inwhich kids who get nervous reading aloud in class practice their skills byreading to a canine audience of one. Jonny was certified in November, and nowonce a month he sits patiently listening to children read.

He's not the onlyone of Vick's former dogs lending a hand. Leo, who lives with foster motherMarthina McClay in Los Gatos, Calif., is a certified therapy dog who spends twoto three hours a week visiting cancer patients and troubled teens. Two otherdogs are also therapy dogs, and two more are in training. A total of six haveearned Canine Good Citizen certificates, issued by the American Kennel Club todogs who pass a series of 10 tests, including walking through a crowd andreacting to unexpected sights and sounds. "It's great to show people howmuch these dogs have to offer," says Cohen.

JASMINE RUNS inthe yard of the small suburban Baltimore house, jumping on Sweet Pea, anotherpit bull, and nipping at the back of her neck. Sweet Pea spins and leaps intoJasmine, and the two tumble together for a minute, then pop up and continuetheir romp. When they roll around it's difficult to tell one from the other,because they are the exact same color. Sweet Pea is a few years older and alittle bigger, and she has markings that Jasmine does not: a series of scars onher snout and head indicative of combat. Still, Sweet Pea loves to be aroundother dogs. She and Jasmine have a special connection and have brought eachother a bit of peace. The people who know them best think that Sweet Pea isprobably Jasmine's mother. That's why their families try to arrange play datesfor them twice a month.

Jasmine wound upin the hands of Catalina Stirling, a 35-year-old artist who lives with herhusband, Davor Mrkoci, 32, an electrical engineer; her children, Nino (4 1/2)and Anais (2 1/2); Rogue, a spunky spaniel-lab mix; Desmond, a three-leggedfoster basenji-lab mix; and Thaiz, the family cat. The fenced yard is bigenough for running, and the living-dining area, which contains almost nofurniture, has a smattering of dog beds and water bowls. Catalina and herchildren have painted angels on one wall.

In her evaluationJasmine was considered for sanctuary with Best Friends, but when volunteersfrom the Baltimore rescue group Recycled Love went to see the pit bulls at theWashington (D.C.) Animal Rescue League, a volunteer was so moved by the sightof Jasmine hiding under the blanket that she crawled into the cage and beganmassaging and whispering to the dog. Jasmine seemed to respond. So Huss sentJasmine and Sweet Pea to Recycled Love, which subsequently turned Jasmine overto the woman who had crawled into the cage: Catalina Stirling.

Despite apromising start, Jasmine had a long way to go. For months she sat in her littlecage in Stirling's house and refused to come out. "I had to pick her up andcarry her outside so she could go to the bathroom," Stirling says. "Shewouldn't even stand up until I had walked away. There's a little hole in theyard, and once she was done, she would go lie in the hole." It was three orfour months before Jasmine would exit the cage on her own, and then only to goout, relieve herself and lie in the hole. Sweet Pea, who's better adjusted butstill battles her own demons, was an hour away, and her visits helped draw outJasmine. After six months Stirling could finally take both dogs for a walk in abig park near her house.

Jasmine has comefar, but she still has many fears. Around people she almost always walks withher head and tail down. She won't let anyone approach her from behind, and shespends most of the day in her pen, sitting quietly, the open door yawningbefore her. Stirling works with her endlessly. "I feel like what I do forher is so little compared with what she does for me," she says, wellingup.

In the end, 47 ofthe 51 Vick dogs were saved. (Two died while in the shelters; one was destroyedbecause it was too violent; and another was euthanized for medical reasons.)Twenty-two dogs went to Best Friends, where McMillan and his staff chart theiremotional state daily; almost all show steady improvement in categories such ascalmness, sociability and happiness. McMillan believes 17 of the dogs willeventually be adopted, and applicants are being screened for the first ofthose. The other 25 have been spread around the country; the biggest group, 10,went to California with BAD RAP. Fourteen of the 25 have been placed inpermanent homes, and the rest are in foster care.

Still, it'sJasmine, lying in her kennel, who embodies the question at the heart of theVick dogs' story. Was it worth the time and effort to save these 47 dogs whenmillions languish in shelters? Charmers such as Zippy and Leo and Jonny Justiceseem to provide the obvious answer, but even for these dogs any incidence ofaggression, provoked or not, will play only one way in the headlines. It's alifelong sentence to a very short leash. PETA's position is unchanged."Some [of the dogs] will end up with something resembling a normallife," Shannon says, "but the chances are very slim, and it's not agood risk to take."

Then there aredogs like Lucas, who will never leave sanctuary because of his history as afighter, and Jasmine and Sweet Pea, who will never leave their Recycled Lovefamilies. "There was a lot of discussion about whether to save all of thesanctuary cases," says Reynolds, "but in the end [Best Friends] decidedthat's what they are there for. There are no regrets."

BAD RAP works outof Oakland Animal Services, where above the main entrance is inscribed a Gandhiquote that dog people cite often: THE GREATNESS OF A NATION AND ITS MORALPROGRESS CAN BE JUDGED BY THE WAY ITS ANIMALS ARE TREATED.

"Vick showedthe worst of us, our bloodlust, but this rescue showed the best," Reynoldssays. "I don't think any of us thought it was possible to save thesedogs—the government, the rescuers, the regular people—but we surprisedourselves."

Jasmine doesn'tknow about any of that as she sits on the back deck of Stirling's house.Stirling kneels next to her, gently stroking the dog's back. "I used tothink any dog could be rehabbed if you gave it food, exercise and love,"she says, "but I know now it's not totally true. Jasmine's happy, butshe'll never be like other dogs."

It's quiet for amoment, and the breeze blows a shower of brown and red leaves off the trees.Then Jasmine turns, looks up, and licks Catalina's face. It is the sweetest ofkisses.

To supportanimal-care groups cited in this article, go to their respective,,

Because of Vick, these dogs were celebrities, andthere was a massive public outcry to help them.

"Some were just big goofy dogs," saysZawistowski. "We were surprised at how little aggression therewas."

"Vick showed the worst of us, our bloodlust,"Reynolds says, "but this rescue showed the best."



CRIME AND PUNISHMENT Vick (top, in November, and above, in 2004) went to jail after admitting to killing dogs.



[See caption above]


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

THE HEALING TOUCH Teddles revels in the hands-on attention he gets from his adoptive owner, Cindy Houser.



SWEET JASMINE CATALINA STIRLING Stirling won Jasmine's trust by climbing into her kennel with her.


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

GRACE DONNA REYNOLDS BAD RAP's Reynolds and Racer are vetting a family for Grace.


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

AUDIE LINDA CHWISTEK Chwistek and her husband, Bill Cook, have adopted Audie.



SWEET PEA MICHAEL WILSON Wilson makes sure Sweet Pea has regular reunions with Jasmine.


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

ZIPPY THE HERNANDEZES Zip's posse (clockwise from left): Vanessa, Berenice, Jesse, Francisco, Eliana.


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

UBA LETTI DE LITTLE Adopted by De Little, Uba shares a house with a cat named William.


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

FRODO KIM RAMIREZ This hobbit namesake may make a permanent home with Ramirez.


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

ERNIE ANDY AND SASHA GIBBS For the time being, Ernie is in foster care with the Bay Area couple.


Photograph by Deanne Fitzmaurice

JONNY JUSTICE CALVIN DIFFERDING A good listener, Jonny helps Calvin feel more comfortable reading aloud.