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Lee Benson, Deseret News
In the administration offices at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Judah Battista enjoys a respite with Lucas, formerly a "vicious Vick dog."
To Judah Battista, Lucas is Exhibit A in the argument that all dogs are good dogs if they're treated well.

KANAB — He came to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary four years ago under court order and with a reputation as one mean hombre.

Of all the pit bulls in Michael Vick's Bad Newz Kennels, Lucas was the baddest of them all — Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan and a little Ray Lewis rolled into one, the grand champion, the most vicious of the vicious Vick dogs.

When his dog-fighting operation was busted, Vick was sent to prison and so, in a sense, was Lucas. The court shipped him and 21 of his fighting mates from Virginia to this sprawling, 3,800-acre animal sanctuary outside Kanab, with the stipulation that Lucas spend the rest of his days here. It was your basic life sentence.

That was in January 2008.

Nearly four years later, or 28 by his reckoning, Lucas is running the place.

Open the door to the executive offices, and there he is, a smile on his face, a lick on his lips, and eager anticipation of either a pet or a treat written all over his eyes.

Only the fading scars on his neck and face suggest that he was once the toughest, scariest and most-abused dog in Virginia.

On the day I made Lucas's acquaintance, Judah Battista, the director of animal care at Best Friends, dropped by to talk about how life has gone for Lucas and the rest of the Vick dogs who were relocated to Utah.

While their rate of rehabilitation has varied, he reports that, to a dog, their progress has been consistent and resoundingly successful.

Six of the 21 fighters — Oliver, Mel, Cherry, Halle, Shadow and Handsome Dan — have been adopted and left Best Friends entirely. A seventh, Little Red, is in a foster home about to be adopted.

The rest are alive, well and thriving in Dogtown Heights, the Best Friends suburb that is home to about 400 dogs. (In all, some 1,700 animals, ranging from house cats to horses, are housed in the entire Best Friends Sanctuary at any given time).

That includes Lucas, who has become such a hit they bring him to the administration offices at least two days a week to keep the humans company.

To Judah, Lucas is Exhibit A in the argument that all dogs are good dogs if they're treated well.

He grimaces when he thinks about what could have happened to Lucas and the rest of Vick's pit bulls purely due to reputation.

Many people in authority wanted to euthanize all 49 dogs that were found in various states of neglect and abuse in the Bad Newz Kennels when it was first discovered that in addition to being a star quarterback in the National Football League, Michael Vick was also an illegal-dog-fighting promoter.

The conventional wisdom was that the dogs would never be able to recover. Putting them down was the most compassionate thing to do.

This wasn't just non-dog people saying this. This was the opinion of many who belong to the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

But others, like the people at Best Friends, thought otherwise. And in the end, after considerable debate and cajoling, they mostly prevailed. Only a handful of the Vick dogs in the most critical condition were euthanized.

The rest were farmed out. Almost half of them came to Best Friends.

It brings a smile to Battista's face to talk about how that's turned out.

"Historically, dogs were punished or killed for the crimes of their owners," he says. "There was a prevailing assumption that all dogs in these circumstances were innately vicious, rather than that the people who owned them and were responsible for them were innately vicious. It was very fear-based decision-making.

"But we knew that meanness wasn't the summary of their nature," he continues. "Using stereotypes doesn't help anyone. They can all be rehabilitated. It just takes time and affection and attention.

"What we needed to prove was that man could be dog's best friend as much as dogs could be man's best friend."

After that speech, Judah gave Lucas a treat.

And Lucas? He jumped in Judah's lap and gobbled it down.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: [email protected]