KANAB Lucas isn't your typical brown-eyed bundle of puppy love. His massive muzzle is crisscrossed with jagged, now-healed cuts and his finely muscled body is pitted with old puncture wounds and bite marks.
"His face is so scarred, but he's such an amazing dog," coos Carissa Hendrick as Lucas enthusiastically wiggles into her arms, covering her face with sloppy kisses. "He knows he's in a safe place."
Lucas, along with 21 other pit bulls, once belonged to ex-NFL quarterback Michael Vick and his now disbanded Bad Newz Kennels dog-fighting ring in Virginia. Lucas and his canine buddies are now living at Best Friends Animal Society, the nation's largest no-kill animal shelter, located just outside of Kanab in the red rock wonderland of Angel Canyon.
"A lot of the dogs came here really fearful, but they're starting to come around," said Hendrick, who works as a caregiver for the dogs placed with Best Friends. "I thought these dogs would be more of a challenge, but they're not at all what I expected."
Vick is serving a 23-month prison term for bankrolling the illegal operation and helping to kill dogs he considered to be under-performing. Three co-conspirators have also been sentenced in the high-profile case.
"We heard early on some discussion that these dogs should all be euthanized because they were fighting dogs," said Best Friends CEO Paul Berry. "We wanted to get in on that discussion because that's not necessary. We've had some good success with dogs like that and offered to take all or some of the dogs."
A judge agreed and approved that request, sending 22 of Vick's pit bulls to the 3,700-acre retreat in southwestern Utah.
"Pit bulls are a misunderstood breed. Their reputation is way overblown," says Best Friends spokesman John Polis, who helped put together a coming-out-party of sorts for the dogs and the media on Monday.
Take Little Red and Black Bear, for example, says McKenzie Garcia, who with her husband, John Garcia, worked with the pit bulls at shelters back east before bringing them to Utah.
"Black Bear is just a sweetheart. He gets all goofy when he plays," says Garcia, who also helped in Best Friends' animal rescue effort after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. "He's doing better here, although he's still worried. Usually when these dogs saw large groups of people making lots of noise it meant something bad was going to happen. This is actually good for them. I think they need this so they know they can be around people and nothing will hurt them."
Little Red, who is easily half the size of Lucas and appears to be quite skittish and shy, was clearly used as a breeder. She is wary of strangers and careful about getting too close.
Veterinarian Frank McMillan is monitoring the behavior of each dog, noting clues about the animal's emotional well-being and signs of trauma.
"The interesting thing that we're trying to find out is what the aftereffects are for a dog after a life of combat," says McMillan, who has written extensively on animal health and welfare issues. "We know there is post-traumatic syndrome in dogs, but the life of a fighting dog is different than that of a soldier in wartime. We want to know what fighting does to these dogs, what kind of emotional stress and trauma it causes, and what we can do about it."
McMillan, who moved from Los Angeles to Kanab last year for the sole purpose of working at Best Friends, said he is "encouraged" by the dogs' progress. While he doesn't expect to clear every pit bull for adoption, he clearly believes most of the dogs will eventually find a home away from Best Friends.
"The improvement I'm seeing in these dogs is a real comfort," he said. "We're tracking how their emotional status is changing, how they're responding to different situations, and things are going well. These dogs are so lovable."
You don't have to tell that to Michelle Besmehn, dog care manager at Best Friends, or to Lucas, who is busy scoring more face time with a Deseret Morning News photographer.
"Lucas doesn't feel sorry for himself. He's moved on," she says.For more information about Best Friends and its programs log on to bestfriends.org.