It took all day, but by nightfall 22 pit bulls that survived Michael Vick's interstate dog-fighting ring found a new lease on life at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab.
"They're here, they're safe, they're fine," Best Friends spokeswoman Barbara Williamson said on Wednesday. The dogs arrived at the Kanab City Airport in a chartered plane that left the Richmond International Airport in Virginia earlier that day.
The dogs were released to the care of Best Friends after a lengthy court process, which included in-depth evaluations of each dog and discussions about where to place the 47 pit bulls that were taken from Vick's Virginia property. Seven shelters in all were asked to care for the rescued animals, all of them no-kill shelters like Best Friends.
"This is their first night here, and they're settling in, sniffing around, getting used to their new place," said Patty Hegwood, Best Friends animal care director. "We'll have 24-hour security and people around them so they don't feel lonely."
A team of Best Friends specialists is already familiar with the dogs chosen to live at the sanctuary, she said, after spending several weeks working one-on-one with the animals before they arrived here.
"We were laughing about how we'd have to divide the dogs into three different types," Hegwood said. "We've got a few that just roll over and want their tummy rubbed."
One pit bull in particular seems to be thrilled to be in Utah's red rock country, she added.
"We heard all this clanging around tonight and discovered one of the dogs is just in love with his water dish. He was rolling it around and chasing after it," Hegwood said. "We are hoping all of them get nice and comfortable and can be who they really are. We're excited to see what kind of personalities emerge."
A court order prohibits Best Friends from allowing photos to be taken of the dogs or discussing what they have been through, their physical condition or whether any of the animals are showing behavioral problems, Williamson said.
Best Friends, located on 33,000 acres outside of Kanab in Angels Canyon, was entrusted with more of the dogs than any other shelter primarily because it is accustomed to dealing with special-needs animals, said John Polis, public relations manager of Best Friends.
"The dogs were in good spirits as they were loaded into individual crates for the flight. We had two folks from Best Friends on the plane with them to make sure they did well," said Polis, who was in Virginia to help move the dogs to their new home in southern Utah, more than 1,700 miles away. "There will be lots of evaluations for each dog, probably several over the next six months or so."
Each of the former fighting dogs will have its own 10-foot-by-20-foot outdoor run and indoor shelter and feeding area. Because of the building's octagon shape, the dogs' caregivers can see all of the animals at a glance.
"We are approaching this like Best Friends is their forever home, but there is a chance one or more could eventually be adopted out," Polis said. "We're approaching that in a very conservative way. Historically, it's taken time for dog-aggressive dogs to assimilate to their new surroundings."
Best Friends is no stranger to rescuing animals in trouble. The nonprofit organization waded into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit and worked nonstop to help animals and their owners who were forced to leave their pets behind. More than 100 dogs were airlifted out of Beirut last year when local animal shelters were unable to care for them.Vick and three others were convicted of federal charges for their roles in the Bad Newz Kennels dog-fighting ring. Suspended from his job as Atlanta Falcons quarterback, Vick is now serving a 23-month prison sentence.