Michael Vick Fighting Dogs Get "Rehab" Care

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Of that amount, most rescue groups received $5,000 per adoptable dog.

But Best Friends received $18,275 per dog, because the animals could spend a significant amount of time—if not the rest of their lives—at the sanctuary.

Rebecca Huss, a professor at Valparaiso University School of Law, is the dogs' court-appointed guardian.

She decided which rescue organizations would receive the pit bulls, and noted that none of the groups knew they'd receive money when they initially agreed to take the animals.

"Although we're hopeful that many of the dogs will be adopted out to the public, the reality is some of the dogs may need lifetime care," she said.

McMillan, Best Friends' veterinarian, feels permanent sanctuary housing is a humane option for emotionally stable dogs. For others, though, it wouldn't be the best choice.

"If an animal is suffering—whether it's physical discomfort or emotional—and can't be healed to the point of generally enjoying life, we're not going to continue to harbor them in a sanctuary just to make the claim that we don't put any animals to sleep," he said.

Life in DogTown

To care for the Vick dogs, Best Friends retrofitted an octagonal kennel so the pit bulls could be individually housed in an area of the sanctuary known as DogTown.

This sanctuary is featured in a new National Geographic Channel series called DogTown. (National Geographic Channel is part owned by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

The shelter also beefed up security over concerns that dog fighters might try to steal the animals.

Otherwise, the dogs aren't treated any differently from the sanctuary's other animals. Throughout the day staff members play with the dogs and take them for walks.

"These aren't the killer dogs people might think they are," said sanctuary co-founder Michael Mountain. "They're frisky, fun, and very loving."

Of the 48 surviving Vick dogs, one was euthanized because it displayed excessive human aggression.

About half of the remaining dogs might need permanent sanctuary housing, according to a team of six certified applied animal behaviorists.

The team's hands-on evaluation took into consideration how the dogs reacted to people, other dogs, food, toys, and unusual situations.

In general, the dogs were poorly socialized and needed to develop a comfort level with people and other dogs, said team leader Stephen Zawistowski of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in New York City.

Several of the pit bulls exhibited "pretty strong" dog aggression and weren't candidates for adoption.

However, the team felt that skilled caretakers and financial support for their lifetime care could give the animals a "reasonable life living at a sanctuary," he said.

"Certainly we would not want to place dogs that had aggression problems toward people," Zawistowski said.

"That's just not appropriate and not good for public safety."

Not all of the Vick dogs were fighters, though, said Huss, the dogs' legal guardian.

Some of them were found unscathed and were likely used for breeding.

Lucas, a brawny, fawn-colored dog housed at Best Friends, was a champion fighter, and as a stud he would have been worth $20,000.

Now, however, all of the pit bulls taken from the Vick estate have been sterilized, Huss said, to diminish their value in the eyes of other dog fighters.

Hope for Change

Normally authorities euthanize dogs seized from fighting operations because of the potential danger to future owners or concerns that they'll fall back into the wrong hands.

The Vick dogs' situation is unique, because of the large sum of money set aside for lifetime care, extensive evaluation by animal behavior experts, and overwhelming demand by rescue groups to house the dogs.

"Let's face it, people wanted these dogs because they were the Vick dogs, [even though] there are pit bulls sitting around in shelters everywhere across the country right now," ASPCA's Zawistowski said.

"Many of them are going to be euthanized today when the shelter closes, [but] these dogs had certain panache.

"So there were a variety of things that worked in the favor of being able to do this."

He hopes that the highly publicized Vick case will help shelters change their policies on rescued fighting dogs.

For example, ASPCA's behavioral evaluation forms used in the case were recently sent to two shelters for assessments of seized fighting dogs that normally would have been put down.

Other facilities that have taken in the Vick dogs include:

• Animal Rescue of Tidewater in Chesapeake, Virginia

• BAD RAP in Oakland, California

• Georgia SPCA in Suwanee

• Our Pack in San Francisco, California

• Recycled Love, Inc., in Baltimore, Maryland

• Richmond Animal League in Virginia

• SPCA of Monterey County in California

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