- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

Michael Vick’s lawyer hopes his client will be allowed to leave federal prison this month, where he is serving time on dogfighting charges, and move on to a halfway house.

Here’s a better idea: Send him to Shea Hillenbrand’s farm in Gilbert, Ariz.

“I got six pit bulls here he can play with,” the baseball player said. “That is the biggest rescue dog out there. People can’t handle them, and they are so hard to adopt out. A lot of pounds and humane societies won’t take them. I had seven, but I got one adopted, luckily. They are sweet dogs. You just have to respect them.”

Hillenbrand is the anti-Vick - a professional athlete who could be the Humane Society poster boy. He and his wife, Jessica, own and operate Marley Farms, home to more than 100 animals, many of whom were rescued from abuse.

They recently rescued 13 horses from a “feed lot” in Fallon, Nev., where kill-buyers purchase animals with the sole purpose of slaughtering them for profit. And they rescued 32 dogs from local animal-control centers in Superior and Apache Junction, Ariz., just hours before they were to be put down.

Before that, Hillenbrand rescued 26 horses.

“These are young horses, show horses, kid’s horses, really sound horses,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. Our goal is to rescue them and adopt them out, as well as the dogs. Three weeks ago we had 55 dogs. We have successfully adopted out 30 of them already.”

Hillenbrand opened Marley Farms, which is primarily a horse farm and boarding facility, in May 2007. He didn’t exactly grow up a country boy, born and raised in Arcadia just outside of Los Angeles. His animal exposure was limited to the typical young boy interest - dogs, hamsters and fish. But he had bigger ideas for the future.

“I was a horse farmer who grew up in the city,” Hillenbrand said.

He married Jessica, the daughter of a veterinarian from Mesa, Ariz., and in 2001 - Hillenbrand’s rookie season with the Boston Red Sox - he bought his first horse. As his baseball career flourished, so did his interest in working with animals. He and Jessica opened Marley Farms, but baseball remained Hillenbrand’s first passion.

In 2008, though, he found himself out of a major league job and began devoting more time to Marley Farms. He expanded it to include a program under their foundation, Against All Odds, for underprivileged children to visit with the animals.

“Whether you have one dog or a horse or 150 animals like I do, it is just something that you are born with, that passion, it is in your blood, like baseball,” Hillenbrand said. “It is something you feel, and I feel it is one of my purposes in life, to do these things.”

Hillenbrand’s love for baseball remains, and he wants to land a job this season with a major league team. The 33-year-old said his agent has had preliminary talks with the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics.

“We will see,” he said. “I am preparing myself as I do every offseason, and I hope I get the opportunity to play.”

Hillenbrand prepared himself to play last offseason but never got a call. He has a career .284 batting average, 108 home runs and 490 RBI in seven major league seasons with the Red Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, Toronto Blue Jays, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

But it was in Toronto in 2006 where Hillenbrand gained a reputation that may have kept him from getting a job last year. He got into a dispute with the organization when he left the team for three days during the adoption process of his daughter and then got into a disagreement over playing time with manager John Gibbons that escalated to the point where Gibbons challenged Hillenbrand to a fight. The Blue Jays traded Hillenbrand to the Giants shortly after.

“That still looms out there,” Hillenbrand said. “It was an unfortunate thing that happened. It was a very emotional time in my life with the adoption of my daughter. The manager there had a lot of stress in the situation, and we just didn’t see eye to eye on this. The situation got out of control. I have learned from it tremendously, and hopefully I can still have a chance to play.”

He wants to play badly enough that he played for the York Revolution in the Atlantic League for a stretch in the hopes of catching with a team late in the season.

“I still want to play,” Hillenbrand said. “I took some time off, cleared some things up in my mind in baseball and I tried to pursue it to get picked up in September by someone or to get a job for spring training.”

“I am only 33, and I am a late bloomer physically. I feel I can still help a team compete and do some good things. I feel good and can still play, first, third and at [designated hitter]. I can help a team.”

He also can help teach a few things to the likes of Vick and others like him who placed such little value on life.

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