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“You get them in a shelter and see this dog with huge, open wounds that haven’t been treated, and he’s still wagging his tail and licking your hand and looking at you with big, brown doggie eyes,” said Debbie Hill, the Humane Society’s vice president of operations. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a golden retriever, a Saint Bernard or a pit bull. They all have that look of, ‘Something terrible happened to me and I didn’t deserve that.’ It’s still a dog. They still deserve a second chance.”

With an annual budget of $43 million that comes exclusively from donations, some critics in the animal-welfare business deride Best Friends as an unrealistic utopia _ a facility that has the time and resources to work with animals in a way hardly anyone else can.

But they make no apologies, and their work with the Vick dogs is important. After the raid on the Vick dogfighting ring, animal behaviorists labeled the pit bulls as hopeless and recommended they be euthanized. Best Friends stepped in, did its own evaluations and offered to take the toughest cases.

Many people considered the toughest of the tough to be Lucas, the pit bull who was Vick’s top fighter. These days, the biggest problem you might have is prying him out of your lap when you want to stand up.

Still, the scars on his face are impossible to miss. He also has a tick-borne blood disease called Bebesia, common among fighters who suffer many an open wound. Despite his excellent behavior, Lucas is one of two Vick dogs who cannot be adopted _ he was determined to have had too rough a history to live outside the sanctuary.

As is illustrated by spending time with the one-time champion and current sweetheart, the cruelest twist in the Vick story is that the QB and his cohorts took advantage of the pit bull’s instinctive desire to please humans by turning them into fighters who were rewarded by their masters for success in the ring.

Eventually, Vick and company got caught.

In April 2007, about six dozen dogs were seized from Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels operation and Vick was subsequently sentenced to 23 months in federal prison.

He was reinstated to the NFL for the 2009 season and has been doing public-service work, most notably in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States, which calls his story “the strongest possible example of why dogfighting is a dead end.”

Not everyone sees it that way, however.

His recent suggestion that getting another dog “would be a big step for me in the rehabilitation process,” and the debate that ensued, left some wondering if he truly feels remorse for what he did.

“If you got the sense that every day, he woke up and lived with that and wrestled with that, I think there would be a different response from the animal-loving public,” Battista said. “That’s not what he has communicated. It’s not to say he needs to do it. But if there’s any confusion of why a big chunk of the public doesn’t feel that he’s genuine, that’s why. There isn’t a sense of him connecting with his own behavior and own conscience at a level that most people can understand.”

So, while football fans and animal lovers continue to judge Vick on very different scales, the dogs in Utah keep taking two steps forward and one step back.

Another of Vick’s prize pups, Georgia, recently had knee surgery, and while she’s still a camera-loving attention grabber, some of her progress was slowed in the aftermath of the operation.

Willie, one of the toughest cases among the Vick dogs, is getting better at interacting with new people but still has medical issues stemming from his own bout with Bebesia.

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