ANGEL CANYON, Kane County — Michael Vick may be out of prison and wanting to eradicate dogfighting by working with the Humane Society, but he'll be nowhere near 22 of his former pit bulls who now make their home at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
The suspended NFL star was released from prison this week after serving 19 months for financing a dogfighting ring. The dogs rescued from Vick's operation — "Vicktory dogs" as they're now called — have risen to stardom, becoming celebrities in their own right. They have appeared on the National Geographic Channel series "DogTown" and now even boast their own Vicktory Dogs wine collection.
But these dogs aren't thinking about all the media attention and exposure they're getting. Instead, they're relishing in things they've never had or experienced before arriving at Best Friends 18 months ago: dog treats, love, walks, playing with toys, a safe home and overall tender loving care.
Like Meryl, for example, who is a court-ordered Vick dog and thus has to wear a red collar indicating that only staff members can pet her. She can't be fostered or adopted out. Workers, however, say she loves her new life — especially car and golf-cart rides, shaking hands, getting treats, giving kisses and playing with other dogs, cats and her trainers.
"She's court-ordered, but I'm hoping that's not set in stone," said Ann Allums, Meryl's certified dog trainer. "I hope for her to earn a Canine Good Certificate. We want to ask the courts to not label her and change her status. Then she can be fostered out."
Watching Meryl play with five other dogs and one cat with three adults in the same small office, it's hard to imagine what she and the other dogs went through. Some of Vick's dogs were hanged, drowned and electrocuted.
"I had to show her that people aren't threats to her," said Allums, who actually slept with Meryl constantly in her initial months at Best Friends. "I took it slowly. I didn't want to rush it," she says as Meryl licks her face.
"This dog should have been killed," media relations manager Barbara Williamson said with a chuckle.
"The Vick dogs have taught me a lot," Allums said, such as how to overcome fears, the importance of being resilient, bouncing back and overcoming adversity.
"Ten of the 22 are even cat-friendly," she said.
The Vicktory dogs aren't aware of the attention they've brought to their breed that has often been labeled dangerous and unwanted. Best Friends officials, however, want to change that reputation and have created a national campaign "Pit Bulls: Saving America's Dog" with a message to treat each dog as an individual.
Allums hopes that there will someday be no labeling for one incident.
Perhaps even Michael Vick can help change the reputation of pit bulls.
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, was first skeptical after Vick's associates contacted him to meet with Vick at Leavenworth. But Vick not only apologized for his unacceptable behavior, saying he deserved to be incarcerated for his conduct, but he requested to be involved in the Humane Society's national campaign to educate about eradicating dogfighting among urban teens along with former dog fighters and ex-gang members.
"I told him I wasn't interested in him doing a PSA or press release," said Pacelle. "If you're going to do this, you're going to do this from the ground up — a long-term commitment. If you're talking about giving me 10 years to this program then maybe we can do this."
And although some feel that Vick still deserves to wear a scarlet letter, others feel it's time for second chances.
"Best Friends is a home of second chances," Williamson said with a grin.
"He will have to prove himself," said Allums. "It will take time."
Vick told Pacelle he watched the special on his former dogs on television. "He said he was happy they were in a good situation."
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