- Associated Press - Saturday, January 29, 2011

KANAB, UTAH (AP) - At the Pro Bowl this weekend in Hawaii, Michael Vick will start at quarterback _ an unmistakable benchmark for what has been a rapid, successful and, in some circles, surprising comeback.

A few thousand miles away in the wilderness of Utah, the pit bulls Vick once owned are making a comeback of their own, though theirs has been a much slower, steadier climb.

Take the case of Little Red. Three years ago, she would race to the nearest corner and cower, her face buried against the wall, at the sight of any human or dog. Or Ellen, who would growl at anyone who came near her, especially if they dared glance over at her food dish.

Both dogs had such bad problems, experts said, they’d be better off dead.

These days, though, Little Red wags her tail a mile a minute and is almost inseparable from her new, best buddy _ a cattle dog mix named Google. And Ellen, a tannish-brown bundle of energy, still loves her food but loves her visitors even more _ smothering them with kisses as soon as they walk through the door.

These dogs and 13 others are rehabilitating at the Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, a world away from where their lives began, chained in basements and forced into dogfighting rings as part of the business bankrolled by Vick, the Eagles quarterback who has been out of prison for more than a year, and just this week received his first paid endorsement deal since his release.

On the one hand, the Vick dogs are all success stories _ on the road to recovery and serving as ambassadors for a breed that has been widely derided as too dangerous.

In another respect, though, their recoveries are slow and sometimes painful, many filled with diseases, injuries and skittishness that manifested themselves under their stewardship of Vick.

“Some people might say, ‘Three years, that seems like such a long time,’” said John Garcia, a manager of the dog operation at Best Friends, who has done extensive work with the Vick pit bulls. “But we measure their progress in baby steps, especially when they were on the other side of this for as long as some of these dogs were.”

Much as it has been hard to fit the story of Vick’s comeback in a tidy little box, the trajectory of these dogs’ lives, their recovery and the message they send, is difficult to sum up.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that while Vick made his way into the news this season by suggesting he might someday want to be a dog owner again _ prompting a flurry of opinions, with the U.S. Humane Society and even President Obama weighing in _ the folks at Best Friends stayed mostly silent.

They released a two-sentence statement saying that, given what his dogs have been through, the quarterback shouldn’t qualify as a dog owner. But Best Friends also has conceded that Vick has put a brighter spotlight on the problem of dogfighting and the rehabilitation of pit bulls than they ever imagined possible.

“I’d have to say that he brought attention to the issue in a rather unfortunate way,” said Best Friends co-founder Francis Battista. “It’s like people dying in a burning building. It brings attention to the fire codes. It’s not something you ever want to happen, but now that it’s become public and been addressed, there’s a positive.

“But how do you rank the damage and pain he caused?” Battista says.

At Best Friends, a 3,800-acre sanctuary that’s home to 417 dogs, 658 cats, 340 rabbits and a few dozen horses, pigs and parrots, they prefer to celebrate success stories.

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