From Vick to Vicktory: How the Michael Vick dogs got sanctuary

Eight months ago in Virginia, former pro football star Michael Vick boarded a plane headed west.

At about the same time, 22 pit bulls who survived the cruel "training" techniques of his Bad Newz Kennels began their own westward journey.

And while the convicted felon and the dogs may have been traveling in the same direction, their destinations could not have been more different. Or more deserved.

Michael Vick goes to prison

Vick's trip ended at the federal prison camp in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he is spending up to 23 months of his life in an appropriately dismal and dehumanizing place, far from the big money, bright lights and adoring fans he'd grown accustomed to.

Vick dogs get sanctuary

Meanwhile, the dogs – scared and scarred – were heading to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, to lives of love and promise … and fame, if you count feature stories on national and local television news shows, in the New York Times, the Washington Post and dozens of other newspapers across the country.

The former Vick dogs were on their way to becoming the Vicktory dogs, a name befitting of their courage, resilience and strong spirits.

Georgia, former Vick dog

One of the dogs, Georgia, was even the star of the Television Critics Association tour in Los Angeles, where the National Geographic Channel introduced her and the second season of "Dogtown." One writer called her the "biggest diva."

Georgia was among four dogs featured in the two-hour season premier of "Dogtown," which aired September 5. The episode, "Saving the Michael Vick Dogs," tells the story of their "journey toward healing."

But how they ended up at Dogtown, inside Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, is another story, one that almost wasn't written.

How the dogs ended up at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Throughout the Vick case, which began last summer, Best Friends' leadership, legal staff and animal care experts worked behind the scenes to ensure the dogs' future, even as other groups pushed for them to be euthanized.

A spokeswoman from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called them "ticking time bombs," and said that "rehabilitating fighting dogs is not in the cards."

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) agreed with PETA.

"Officials from our organization have examined some of these dogs and, generally speaking, they are some of the most aggressively trained pit bulls in the country," said HSUS president and chief executive officer Wayne Pacelle. "Hundreds of thousands of less-violent pit bulls, who are better candidates to be rehabilitated, are being put down. The fate of these dogs will be up to the government, but we have recommended to them, and believe, they will be eventually put down."

Fortunately, the government ignored that recommendation.

Meanwhile, away from the TV cameras, radio shows and newspaper interviews, Best Friends and others considered the well-being of the dogs and worked on their behalf.

"Several people got involved all at once, using their own contacts," said Russ Mead, Best Friends general counsel. "We were approached by an attorney in New York City, Flora Edwards, to help."

She spoke with him and Best Friends' chief executive officer, Paul Berry, who gave Mead the go-ahead to work on a legal brief to be filed in the case.

Eleven animal welfare groups were parties to the 31-page brief, which "speaks for the voiceless victims of the defendant's criminal conduct."

In addition to calling for appropriate prison time and fines for Vick, the document offered "a process to conduct assessments to determine which of the survivors can be saved and a plan to place as many dogs as possible in specialized care where they can be rehabilitated and to provide sanctuary and special care for those who have any potential quality of life."

Edwards, who has four rescued American pit-bull terriers, wrote that she was "pleased to have played a role in giving a voice to the victims." She said, "I am especially grateful to Russ Mead for the portions of the amicus brief which provided the court with insight as to the rehabilitation needs of the dogs and proud that we were all able to put our skills to work for a worthy cause."

Mead said the brief was significant because it spoke to the court on behalf of the victims of the crimes, the dogs themselves. "Unlike most of the rhetoric surrounding the case, our brief actually became part of the case. It is, of course, hard to say how much the brief influenced the court, but many of the points in the brief were followed by the judge."

About a month later, the judge appointed Valparaiso Law School professor Rebecca Huss to represent the interests of the dogs in the legal proceedings. She made two trips to perform individual assessments on the dogs, using a previous ASPCA assessment as background.

As part of her assessments, Huss "observed the evaluations that the Best Friends Animal Society team performed [and] discussed the status and long-term prospects of these dogs with the Best Friends Animal Society team." The team consisted of trainer John Garcia, vet tech Jeff Popowich and veterinarian Frank McMillan.

Placing the surviving dogs with animal organizations

Huss recommended to the court that Best Friends be entrusted with 22 of the 47 surviving dogs. The rest were placed across seven other organizations.

"Best Friends Animal Society is accustomed to dealing with dogs that have special medical and behavioral needs," she told U.S. district judge Henry Hudson, who approved her proposal. "Best Friends Animal Society is committed to providing what each of the dogs needs to be able to thrive in a sanctuary environment if it's necessary for a dog to remain in such an environment for life."

Berry said Best Friends is grateful that the court gave us the opportunity to do what we do best – provide a caring, rehabilitative home for abused, homeless animals.

Photo of Meryl, a Vicktory dog, by Gary Kalpakoff