SURRY COUNTY — The neighbors’ hunting dogs were howling as Monica Severy walked through the house her nonprofit group is racing to buy, a 4,600-square-foot white-brick structure with vaulted ceilings, two whirlpool tubs, gleaming granite, a fireplace in one bathroom, a massive chandelier and 15 acres of land.
The place makes her sick.
Severy thinks the stains on the cream-colored carpet are spattered blood. And she’s certain that the four large black buildings behind the house, with rusty chains, blacked-out windows and a discarded needle, were used for dogfights.
But much to the dismay of some neighbors, Dogs Deserve Better, a nonprofit organization opposed to chaining and penning dogs, wants to purchase Michael Vick’s old house.
Vick was the No. 1 draft pick in 2001 and was one of the NFL’s most electrifying players before he pleaded guilty to conspiracy in connection with a dogfighting ring in this rural Southeastern Virginia community, where dogs were drowned, shot and electrocuted.
His former property had been on the market for several years when the group — with a whole lot of fervor and not nearly enough cash — agreed to the $595,000 asking price. Now, with online contests, small wine-and-cheese tastings, a few people shaving their heads for donations and other scrappy efforts, the group and its 5,000 dues-paying members hope to raise enough money to close on a 45-day contract with the investor who owns the property.
So far, they have about $120,000 toward their goal: replacing the ugly memory of Vick’s dogfighting operation, Bad Newz Kennels, with the Good Newz Rehab Center for Chained and Penned Dogs.
Tamira Thayne, the group’s founder, would live in the mansion with the dogs, helping to socialize and house train them. The group would leave the line of concrete-floored, chain-link kennels outside and the narrow, scratched-up stalls in the sheds as memorials.
“The dogs deserve for this to be seen,” she said. “It’s an important piece of history.”
The symbolism apparently isn’t lost on Vick, who volunteered for the Humane Society of the United States after serving 21 months in federal prison. Through his publicist, Vick said he supported the transformation of his former property.
“I believe it would be positive and beneficial for a rescue group to purchase the property and create an animal sanctuary,” said Vick, who is a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and was named the Associated Press’s comeback player of the year.
The symbolism isn’t lost on neighbors, either. This is hunting country, and up and down Moonlight Road, with its shorn cotton fields, piney woods, big houses, “no trespassing” signs and battered trailers, there are chain-link pens with plywood doghouses.
Many dogs in this tidewater area are working canines, not furry playmates or pampered surrogate children.
Some residents are suspicious — or incredulous — about Dogs Deserve Better’s goals and statements, including one on the group’s Web site that reads, “They live as prisoners, yet long to be pets.”
When Severy went to the house for the inspection, she said a neighbor came over to say he would fight the group’s plan because there are 200 hunting dogs on Moonlight Road alone. These are working dogs that live outside and get plenty of food and water, not abused animals, he told her.
Richie Clark, who lives next door, said he’s worried that a rescue dog might bite one of his young daughters if they’re outside playing.
He added: “A lot of people think hunting dogs are only out during deer season, but a lot of people, like me, let our dogs out all the time. They get in the woods and run around. It’s not like they’re in a pen nine months of the year and only get out three months.”
His wife, Stacey Clark, said she views the plan “as a publicity stunt more than rehabilitating dogs, because you can do that anywhere.” She wonders why the group would want to go to an area where hunting is so popular.
“There’s even a hunt club on our street,” she said. “Why come to Surry County if you’re against everything the county has to offer?”
Deana Lewis, who works in the area cleaning houses, said that it is better to chain dogs than let them run loose. She turned her wrist to show a big scar; as a child, she pushed her hand through a glass door while scared and trying to get away from a dog.
As for having the dogs live in Vick’s former house, Lewis burst out laughing, shocked.
“That’s crazy!” said Lewis, who is a dog owner. “Come on! Take in some homeless children if you want to help out. There is plenty of need right here.”
Hunting is a way of life here, Lewis added. And while she doesn’t like dogfighting, she knows it’s common and didn’t know it was illegal.
Severy and Thayne said they are used to people who do not understand their cause or why they sometimes chain themselves to doghouses to bring attention to the issue.
Both grew up with dogs that were chained outside. Thayne said she feels guilty about avoiding her family’s hunting beagle, who smelled bad and was frantic whenever people came near.
Thayne started Dogs Deserve Better after walking past a neighbor’s chained dog for years. She eventually asked the family to give her the black lab mix. In the nine years since, she has taken in about 150 dogs, she said.
The group tries to persuade owners to give up unwanted dogs. If it suspects abuse, members call authorities to take the dogs.
With volunteers across the country working with dogs in their homes, the group decided it needed more space and a dedicated rehabilitation center. It was looking at land near Charlottesville when someone suggested Vick’s Surry County home.
Thayne remembers first reading about the Vick case as she sat at her desk at Dogs Deserve Better in Tipton, Pa. She was furious and horrified. But when she visited the property, she said, “I felt really good there. I felt, like, the spirits of the dogs. . . . I felt like they welcomed us: ‘Oh, thank God, finally someone’s come who can do something better.’ ”
Thayne said people have asked why the group doesn’t buy a cheaper property. “You can never please everybody,” she said.
The house isn’t perfect for dogs, she acknowledged. “We’ll need lots of doggie doors for them to go out and go to the bathroom.” The carpet isn’t ideal for house-training dogs, and because the rooms are big, there aren’t many places to keep animals separate.
That’s why the group’s long-term goal is to raise $3 million. The house, with a big back deck, would be great for fundraising, it says.
That is if Dogs Deserve Better can buy the house. The group met with bankers several days ago to talk about making a down payment and getting a loan, because it has nowhere near enough cash to pay for it outright.
Members were told that they could have until late April to raise the money to qualify for financing — a huge relief, Severy said.
Severy walked behind the house, stepping through weeds to the black sheds. She swung open the doors and shuddered.
“They left the buckets they used to drown the dogs,” she said.
When she sees the property’s trees, she thinks of hanging dogs. When she sees the narrow, blacked-out kennels, she thinks of tortured, cowering animals trying to chew their way out.
She no longer goes to the second floor of the biggest shed, where the fighting ring was. It’s now covered with dust and dirt; there, a rodent scurried under an old sweat suit and a rusty chain was left on the floor.
The first time she visited, she thought: “The hell with this. Let’s buy one of the ones in Charlottesville with the rolling hills, the streams, the little bridge. Those are so pretty.
“But this is where we need to be. This is where we can make the biggest difference.”