A second chance

Twelve years ago, 47 dogs were rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation and allowed to live. They've enriched the lives of countless humans and altered the course of animal welfare.

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 pleaded guilty in 2007 to running an illegal dogfighting ring in southeastern Virginia, a scandal that 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. 

Best Friends Animal Society’s sanctuary sits on 3,700 scenic acres in Kanab, Utah. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Mya, getting her head scratched, was among the 22 most challenging cases from Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation taken in by Best Friends. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Meryl, believed to be 16 years old, rode on a golf cart with caregiver Jeff Jabs at Best Friends. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Mya, getting her head scratched, was among the 22 most challenging cases from Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation taken in by Best Friends. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post) Meryl, believed to be 16 years old, rode on a golf cart with caregiver Jeff Jabs at Best Friends. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

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 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.”

John Garcia, petting Curly at Best Friends, said the rescued Vick dogs will never be forgotten. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Marquee moment in animal welfare

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. 

Tim Racer of the rescue group BADRAP, holding an article on Vick. The organization knew the dogs weren’t a lost cause. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

Vick, shown entering his guilty plea in 2007, said he regretted his actions and ended up advocating for stronger animal cruelty laws. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

PETA activists demonstrated during a Vick court hearing. The group has not altered its view that dogs from fighting rings should be euthanized. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

Vick, shown entering his guilty plea in 2007, said he regretted his actions and ended up advocating for stronger animal cruelty laws. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post) PETA activists demonstrated during a Vick court hearing. The group has not altered its view that dogs from fighting rings should be euthanized. (Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)

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 okay? He’s been slowing down lately. How’s Cherry, whose photo hangs near Weaver’s desk, doing in his Connecticut home? 


Rescue: Richmond Animal League

Adopted: March 2008

By: Molly Gibb

New hometown: Oklahoma City

Died: September 2009

Gibb said Alf evolved from victim to survivor to thriver. “Yes, he was just my family dog and my companion,” Gibb said. “And yet he was also America's dog. There was a great responsibility and privilege to be able to have him ... as an educator regarding the human-canine bond.'”


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: April 2008

By: Linda Chwistek

New hometown: Vallejo, Calif.

Died: April 2017

Audie competed in the 2015 American Kennel Club championship, but his fear of people and dogs meant initially the area had to be cleared for him to practice agility. As he grew more comfortable among strangers, Chwistek would bring him to public libraries and speak about dog ownership.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Died: February 2009

Bonita arrived at Best Friends shy, but she opened up quickly. Occasionally, Bonita would “get the bucking broncos,” John Garcia said, and gallop around in her run. Bonita dealt with babesiosis, a disease common among fight dogs, and she died due to anesthesia complications during surgery.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: September 2009

By: Paul and Melissa Fiaccone

New hometown: Granby, Conn.

Still Alive: Yes

Paul Fiaccone saw Cherry on a National Geographic documentary. “You just kind of wanted to reach through the TV screen and grab him and let him know that everything was going to be okay,” he said. Cherry, who loves popcorn, lives with two kids, another dog and two cats.


Rescue: Georgia SPCA

Adopted: October 2008

By: Warren Anderson

New hometown: Moncks Corner, S.C.

Died: May 2019

When Chuckie died, Anderson topped his grave with a concrete slab. Anderson created a mosaic silhouette of a dog, above which he etched the word Vicktory. “It's been a hard few years for me,” Anderson said. “Chuckie was my bright spot, you know what I mean?”


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Still Alive: Yes

Curly earned the nickname “Naughty” thanks to his endearing habit of getting into trouble while spending time in Best Friends offices. He recently stole a packet of cat food, but Michelle Weaver and others have noticed a bit less mischievousness as he’s aged.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Died: January 2017

Denzel was involved in an overnight incident with an uncertain sequence of events. Best Friends said a dog escaped its run and broke into the run of Vick dog Tug, who broke into Denzel’s run. A fight ensued that left the first dog dead and Tug and Denzel in need of medical attention.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Died: June 2012

When Garcia met Ellen, she was confident and loved people but had scarring and a partially paralyzed face, suggesting she had fought. Garcia remembers Ellen leaping off a picnic table, all four legs outstretched, and bouncing off her well-fed stomach. She earned the nickname Ellen Belly.


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: August 2008

By: Sasha Best and Peter Schmidt

New hometown: Oakland

Died: May 2019

Ernie's history was “definitely not something I advertised,” Sasha Best said. “Not because of any ill will or any concerns, but I really resonated with this idea of, 'Wow, Ernie, you've been through so much. I would love for you to just be able to be a dog and do the dog things.'"


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: Fall 2007

By: Kim and Toby Ramirez

New hometown: Fremont, Calif.

Still Alive: Yes

Frodo used to have nightmares, letting out heartbreaking cries. Kim Ramirez still soothes him at night by turning the TV to a music channel or leaving the fan on. “I've had to somewhat rearrange my life in a way for Frodo,” Ramirez said. “And he's worth it, believe me.”


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: February 2012

By: Amy Egger

New hometown: Arlington, Va.

Died: December 2013

It was her eyes, “the most beautiful, soulful eyes,” that Egger said drew her to Georgia. “I always say that despite all she endured, her broken tail, her broken jaw and all, her spirit couldn't be broken,” Egger said. “That spirit will always be with me — her beautiful, unbreakable spirit.”


Rescue: SPCA for Monterey County

Adopted: November 2007

By: Stacy Dubuc

New hometown: Monterey, Calif.

Still Alive: Yes

On the fifth anniversary of Ginger’s adoption, Dubuc bought a brick in honor of Ginger at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. This summer, the two drove to Wisconsin to find Ginger’s brick. On the road trip, they visited many natural places and other adopters of Vick dogs.


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: May 2011

By: Susan (last name withheld)

New hometown: Sacramento and Reno, Nev.

Died: November 2018

For two years, Susan browsed the Internet looking at dogs as a “balm to my grief” as her other dog's health declined, always returning to Grace's page. When her dog died, she reached out to BADRAP. Only then did she learn the dog she had fallen in love with came from the Vick case.


Rescue: Richmond Animal League

Adopted: December 2007

By: Sharon Cornett

New hometown: Midlothian, Va.

Died: January 2015

Gracie wasn’t afraid or timid and didn't have issues around people or other dogs. “One would have expected her to be afraid of this environment with ceiling fans and televisions and cats and all that kind of stuff,” Cornett said. “No, she jumped right up on the sofa.”


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: January 2009

By: Traci Madson

New hometown: Kamas, Utah

Died: October 2016

Madson said Halle a couple times woke her up as if she needed to go out. As soon as Madson left her bed, Halle bolted to steal her spot. “Her eyes would be closed like she was trying to act like she was asleep, but her tail would be wagging,” Madson said. “Of course, I would let her keep it.”

Handsome Dan

Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: July 2009

By: Heather Gutshall

New hometown: Providence, R.I.

Died: July 2018

Handsome Dan grew to love and trust Gutshall and would sleep under her daughter's crib. His legacy survives through Handsome Dan’s Rescue, founded by Gutshall. His Facebook page has 546,000 likes.


Rescue: Recycled Love, Inc.

Adopted: December 2007

By: Paul and Sarah De Santis

New hometown: Freeland, Md.

Died: March 2017

Harriet lived most of her life on the De Santis farm in Maryland alongside barn cats, horses and a mini donkey. De Santis often guided Harriet through agility work, but he said “she might have been as big of a couch potato as she was an athlete.”


Rescue: Out of the Pits

Adopted: March 2008

By: Sara Quinn

New hometown: Northern Vermont

Died: May 2011

Hazel had physical reminders of her past — a missing piece of her tongue and worn or broken teeth — and it was clear she had been bred many times. But emotionally she was well-adjusted. Hazel became an service dog for Quinn, helping her deal with anxiety attacks.


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: June 2008

By: Roo and Clara Yori

New hometown: Rochester, Minn.

Died: October 2014

Roo Yori had already advocated for pit bulls and knew the Vick case “was going to be a unique situation that I agreed we needed to capitalize on it as best as we could." Hector arrived without major issues apart from needing to learn better house manners.


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: Spring 2008

By: Nicole Rattay

New hometown: San Diego

Died: Spring 2013

Iggy was “hyper vigilant about his surroundings” and fearful of anything outside his home, said Rattay, who kept Iggy’s life as structured as possible. Iggy only felt safe around a couple of people, but when he was comfortable, Rattay described him as a goofball who loved belly rubs.

Jhumpa Jones

Rescue: Out of the Pits

Adopted: February 2008

By: Kathleen Pierce

New hometown: Albany, N.Y.

Died: September 2017

For about a year Pierce kept Jhumpa out of the public eye. “But then I realized the potential of telling her story,” she said. Jhumpa participated in outreach activities related to the Vick dogs. “This little dog took an incredibly dark beginning,” Pierce said, “and ended it with just an incredibly beautiful end.”

Jonny Justice

Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: October 2007

By: Cris Cohen and Jennifer Long

New hometown: San Francisco

Still Alive: Yes

Jonny has found fame, with a stuffed animal company selling a replica of him. His family channeled his love for children by having kids read to him as part of a literacy program. "The least we could do would be to give back to this world," Cohen said. "Because somebody took the effort to save him."


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: May 2014

By: Unknown

Died: May 2015

Lance joined his adopted home after a long stay at Best Friends. On a public Facebook page, the family posted photos of Lance. "Please remember the love and happy times in his life and not the bad," Lance's family wrote after he died. "... He had such a kind and gentle soul."


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: May 2013

By: Tess Rushton

New hometown: Durango, Colo.

Died: June 2019

When Rushton saw Layla at a Best Friends event, “It was like, oh, my God, love was in my eyes,” she said. Layla was the sanctuary's newest candidate for adoption. Rushton recalled how on her way home, "I'm already scheming, filling out the adoption papers and hoping that nobody beats me to her.”


Rescue: Our Pack, Inc.

Adopted: December 2007

By: Marthina McClay

New hometown: Los Gatos, Calif.

Died: December 2011

Just five weeks after McClay adopted Leo, he became registered as a therapy dog, visiting hospitals and rehabilitation centers. “He gave such a loving energy to people, and he gave them hope," McClay said. “I just remember he gave them what he probably didn't get."

Little Red

Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: September 2011

By: Susan Weidel

New hometown: Laramie, Wyo.

Died: April 2017

A photo of Little Red hung in Weidel’s office for about three years, a reminder of her dream to one day adopt her. Almost four years after first arriving in Utah, Little Red passed the Canine Good Citizen test and could head home with Weidel to Wyoming.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Died: June 2013

Lucas, one of two dogs court-ordered to remain at Best Friends for life, was “the easiest dog out of all of them by far,” Garcia said. But Lucas had such confidence staff worried he wouldn’t signal he was on the verge of reacting to another dog, so they kept him safely away. He loved people.


Rescue: Georgia SPCA

Adopted: August 2009

By: Brandon Bond

New hometown: Marietta, Ga.

Still Alive: Yes

"Makavelli is the hero of our family," Bond wrote in a message. "Through his adversity, his heart explodes with love for our other dogs and our son. He sleeps in bed with us and steals all of the pillows. Although, he still does not like loud noises or bonfires. He is a true blessing from God."


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: June 2010

By: Richard Hunter

New hometown: Las Vegas

Died: August 2019

Whenever Mel entered a new environment, he found a safe space. Before he died, Mel lived with two dogs and four cats, one 20. Hunter joked that he had "three big dogs, two pit bulls, one from the most infamous dogfighting ring in history, and the house is run by an old cat.”


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Still Alive: Yes

On the door to Meryl’s run at Best Friends, a sign reads, “No blankets or soft toys.” She’s had multiple surgeries to remove bits of plastic toys from her stomach. Believed to be 16 years old, Meryl is one of two Vick dogs still living at the sanctuary. She enjoys slow walks, golf cart rides and naps.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Died: August 2019

Mya was so great with other dogs the Best Friends staff enlisted her help to teach puppies socialization skills. Until her recent death, Mya lived with Curly, another Vick dog, in the same run where the dogs from this case were first housed.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: November 2009

By: David Sprinkle and Erika Weber-Sprinkle

New hometown: Wichita

Died: February 2013

“After seeing what all Oliver had been through, I couldn't handle the anger," Erika Weber-Sprinkle said. "I had to find a different way to channel it because it ruined me. Period. End of story. And Oliver taught me to love.”


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: May 2012

By: Rachel Johnson

New hometown: Nevada, Colo., New York

Died: January 2017

After his adoption, Oscar trembled in the corner. He hated cameras and strange noises. Johnson leaned on other adopters for support. "I had their assurances that I was doing absolutely nothing wrong, just to give him time, give him space, and he would come around eventually," she said. "And he did."


Rescue: Animal Rescue of Tidewater

Adopted: November 2007

By: Rhoda Tucker

New hometown: South Norfolk, Va.

Died: January 2017

Tucker would take Piper to schools, libraries and churches to teach kids about dogs and debunk pit bull stereotypes. She would never volunteer Piper's past. “I didn't want that to be any more a part of her life than it had to be,” she said.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: August 2013

By: Kevin and Jacque Johnson

New hometown: Fredonia, Ariz.

Died: May 2015

The Johnsons, who worked at Best Friends, decided to adopt Ray once he passed his Canine Good Citizen test. The greatest hurdle for Ray, whose scars suggested he had fought, was his reactivity toward other dogs. When Ray passed the test, Jacque cried at the news.


Rescue: SPCA for Monterey County

Adopted: February 2008

By: Amanda Mouisset

New hometown: Monterey, Calif.

Died: April 2010

Red came to Mouisset with severe scarring and a reserved demeanor. He wasn’t comfortable walking through doorways, and household noises scared him. But during his short post-adoption life, Red became more social. “He just really blossomed,” Mouisset said, “and became a really lovely dog.”


Rescue: Georgia SPCA


Died: June 2008

Seven, known as Aretha at the shelter in Virginia, headed south to the Georgia SPCA. Jane Stewart, who worked there at the time, described Seven as a "very sweet dog" who had scarring on her body. She died not long after her adoption when she was hit by a car.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: January 2011

By: Susan and Harold (last name withheld)

New hometown: Arizona

Still Alive: Yes

Shadow had “horrible, terrible nightmares,” Susan said. Before bed, she would lie with her head in his crate and sing to him. After nearly two years, the nightmares stopped, and now "he has dreams and his feet are running and he's wagging his tail.”


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Adopted: May 2012

By: Annick Muhlemann

New hometown: Fredonia, Ariz.

Still Alive: Yes

Two of the three couch cushions in Muhlemann's living room have been replaced by a sleeping bag and blanket for a dog lounge. Everything is for her three dogs — including Squeaker, whose tongue frequently flops to the side because she’s missing her canines — two rabbits and a bearded dragon.


Rescue: SPCA for Monterey County

Adopted: June 2010

By: Amanda Mouisset

New hometown: Monterey, Calif.

Died: November 2018

Not long after Red died, Mouisset adopted another Vick dog. Only family and close friends knew about Stella’s past during their eight years together. “They were no longer Michael Vick dogs,” Mouisset said. “They were my dogs. That's how I wanted people to see them — how I saw them.”

Sweet Jasmine

Rescue: Recycled Love, Inc.

Adopted: December 2007

By: Catalina Stirling

New hometown: Frederick, Md.

Died: August 2009

Sweet Jasmine was on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2008. She "challenged millions of people to question the treatment of animals, to reevaluate their own prejudices and to open their eyes to previously unknown, to them, horrors of dog fighting and rampant animal abuse," the rescue said.

Sweet Pea

Rescue: Recycled Love, Inc.

Adopted: December 2007

By: Mike Wilson

New hometown: Baltimore

Died: July 2017

"Her emotional scars ran deep and never truly healed completely," read a tribute to Sweet Pea. "But in her 10 years with us, she knew nothing but unconditional love and unwavering protection from her foster dad Mike. Her small world consisted of a few of us; but it was the world where she would always be safe."


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: July 2008

By: Cindy Houser

New hometown: Livermore, Calif.

Died: April 2017

Teddles once appeared in a photoshoot with Vick. When the 75-pound dog arrived at Houser’s home, he would flatten at the sound of trains passing nearby. It took about four years for Teddles to reveal his true self: a goofy, social dog who loved cuddling on the couch.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Died: June 2016

Tug’s name always seemed fitting to Garcia, who spent a year trying to teach him how to walk better on a leash. Tug never quite mastered that skill. But Garcia remembers Tug's large grin and his face that said, “I'm the happiest dog in the world.”


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: December 2007

By: Letti de Little

New hometown: Annandale, Va.

Still Alive: Yes

When Uba came home to de Little, he was energetic but too nervous to go for a walk. Instead, Uba loved to run on a treadmill. Eventually de Little discovered K9 Nose Work, an activity where dogs search for scents. Uba enjoys eating peanut butter, lying in the sun and destroying remote controls.


Rescue: Best Friends Animal Society

Never adopted

New hometown: Kanab, Utah

Died: August 2017

Willie had challenges and became more selective with people as time passed. He lived at Best Friends for almost 10 years. “He liked to push balls around, so we gave him the things that he really liked," Weaver said, "but to help him feel the most secure, what we could give him was a good routine.”


Rescue: BADRAP

Adopted: October 2007

By: Berenice Hernandez

New hometown: Concord, Calif.

Still Alive: Yes

When Hernandez brought Zippy home, she would zoom around the house and leap over furniture. Hernandez’s young daughters, Eliana and Vanessa, decided Zippy was a perfect name for her. Zippy has slowed down a bit, but she still loves mealtime and finding sunny spots for lounging.

“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.” 

Adopter Richard Hunter said Mel still showed signs of emotional damage 12 years after his rescue. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Dogs treated as individuals

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.”

Melissa Crampton leads Dakota from a building that was part of Vick's dogfighting compound in southeastern Virginia. Dogs Deserve Better turned Bad Newz Kennels into the Good Newz Rehab Center. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

They were game-changers

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.”

Georgia, one of the rescued Vick dogs, is remembered at the Best Friends cemetery. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Emily Giambalvo

Emily Giambalvo covers University of Maryland athletics for The Washington Post.

About this story

Photos of the dogs provided by The Washington Post, Best Friends Animal Society, BADRAP, Geoffrey Tischman, Ashley Clark and family photos. Design and development by Brandon Ferrill. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti.