Photo from Best Friends Animal Society

Last week, six families who adopted dogs from Best Friends Animal Society, saved from Michael Vick's Bad Newz Kennels, brought the dogs back to Kanab to celebrate five years of freedom.

Dubbed the "Vicktory" dogs, they were among the 22 dogs deemed the most in need of help when the football star's dog fighting operation was shut down in 2008. The return also marked the first time the the families came together to the place where the dogs were rehabilitated.

Recently, Best Friends also ran an update on the Vicktory dogs and what life is like for them five years after being rescued.

To show our support, here's the story Jeremy Pugh wrote for our February 2011 issue on the shelter.

Best Friends

Story by Jeremy Pugh, photos by Grace Chon.

John Garcia is in a tough spot.

He’s walking down a hall to a quarantined area in a cinder-blocked kennel in Surrey County, Virginia. He has the weight of the criminal justice system of Virginia and the spotlight of a nation of rabid football fans watching Michael Vick’s fall from glory on his shoulders. And then there are the baying and snarling pit bulls, waiting for him at the end of the echoing hallway. 

Michael Vick’s dogs. Those ones. Those terrifying, slavering piles of muscle and bone and teeth, trained to kill, to maim and brutalize their brothers in the underworld sport of dog fighting. Yeah. Tough spot.

He’s here amid the growls and barks and TV crews waiting outside, the black-robed judge at the courthouse and a whole world of dog lovers and redneck football fanatics wondering how it’ll all shake out. He’s got to decide how many of these violent, trained killers he can save. And his answer?  All of them. 

Two-thousand miles and three years from that moment, I’m in Garcia’s office at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, outside of Kanab, Utah, asking him to recount those tense days in Virginia. The moon-faced, always-smiling 29-year-old is choking up with pride as he tells me about how all of them, all 48 supposedly deadly dogs, made it out of the hell that was their lives on Vick’s compound. 

“Dogs. All dogs,” he begins, “they live in the moment. They live to please us. They are truly man’s best friend. The dogs in this case weren’t the problem; the people who they were trying to please were. We got them out of there. Taught them love and put them in our pack here and they have forgotten that terrible place they were in.”

Garcia is the co-manager of Dogtown, the canine section of a sprawling 3,000-acre spread up Angel Canyon outside of Kanab that is the world’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary and a place of peace and serenity in a world filled with oil spills, wars and chaos. Here, in this rugged place in Utah’s color country, it’s all about responsibility for these creatures. It’s a beatific mission seeking to fulfill our role as the benevolent caretakers for all creatures great and small.

Flagship for a movement

Best Friends was founded in 1984 by a small group of like-minded individuals from California who bought the arid acreage and built it brick-by-brick into the lovingly landscaped desert oasis it is today. Best Friends is nice, really nice. It’s like an Amangiri resort for domestic animals. I had pictured the place as an overrun cacophony of dogs and cats, horses and pigs, parrots and rabbits, rescued by hippy-dippy types from California, who had no real plan for how to deal with their good intentions. 

Nope. That, what I described just there, would be what Garcia would call “a hoarding situation,” and Best Friends cleans up hundreds of hoarding situations every year. Hoarding among staffers and volunteers is a no-no. Garcia himself only has two dogs and a cat at his house in Fredonia, Ariz., just over the border from Kanab. The dogs at Dogtown are quite enough. This place is the opposite of a hoarding situation. The sanctuary only takes in animals it can legitimately care for, despite hundreds of pleas every day. Learning to say “no” is a big part of animal rescue.

And, with its eco-friendly buildings, immaculate animal enclosures, clever signage and well-groomed roads all situated in a stunning desert landscape, it’s a mecca for animal lovers from all over the world who visit by the thousands to volunteer. This is the flagship of a movement, a shiny, well-kept first line of a larger plan to put an end to kill shelters, puppy mills, backyard potbelly pig breeders, rainforest bird poachers and notions that these creatures among us are less than us in some way. The Buddha would love it. Jesus would love it. Whichever many-armed-Hindu god that looks after animals (Vishnu?) would love it. Mohammed? He’d be down. Hell. I love it, and I’m a heathen cat person. 

Garcia’s office in the well-air-conditioned building with dogs baying and barking around the baseball-diamond-sized runs outside is a case in point, designed with the comfort of dogs in mind. The sanctuary’s founders celebrated their 25th anniversary last year, and Garcia has seen 12 of those years himself. He came to work here when he was 17 years old, and he literally worked his way up from the bottom. 

“My first job at Dogtown was hauling dog poop to the dump,” he laughs.

He grew up in neighboring Fredonia, as “the only fat kid with the last name Garcia.” In the rural, Mormon community, his dog Sprocket was his best friend, and the boy-and-his dog-against-the-world ethos he learned in those days has made Garcia the man he is now. The man that was able to walk into that animal shelter in Virginia and know what he was dealing with.

“These dogs were scary,” he says, grinning before his next sentence. “They were scary to someone who didn’t know what he was dealing with. I had not one ounce of fear walking in there. There is a difference between animal aggression and human aggression. People think that if a dog is a fighter he’s aggressive toward humans. But he’s not. He’s aggressive toward other dogs. These dogs were under-socialized. They didn’t know what do with humans, so they exhibited typical dog behavior. They were scared. They were just scared. That’s what I saw. And if they’re scared of you, they’ll try to scare you.”

The Face of Dogtown

Oh yeah. BTW. Garcia is a star. He’s the main figure in National Geographic Channel’s Dogtown series, a reality show about the sanctuary that concluded its fourth season earlier this year. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he went to Mississippi and spent nine months helping rescue the dogs, cats and all type of creatures left high and dry by the collapse of the levies in New Orleans. He’s demure and all, “just-part-of-the-team,” but like it or not, he’s the face of Best Friends to millions of people around the world. He’s even been on Oprah. And when it comes down to Michael Vick or, even, a force of nature like Katrina, he’s never brought any judgment to bear on a football player he doesn’t know or the Almighty for sending the flood. 

“I’m a very in-the-moment person. If I have no control over something, I say, ‘Let’s fix it; what’s the solution?’ ” he tells me. “We were at day one with these dogs. I didn’t worry about what happened before to them. To me there was no Michael Vick, no hurricane. That was the past. I said, ‘We’re going to take good care of you starting now.’ I believe that dogs teach humans. I’ve met a lot of dogs that have been through emotional and physical trauma humans wouldn’t be able to even talk about. And here they are still looking for love and guidance from us. I’ve met humans who get traumatized on their way to work, and we’re supposed to be the top of the food chain.”

Garcia is most definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy. He’s a worker, on the front lines of a movement to redefine the way we all think of animals. I ask him, though, how a place like Best Friends can be justified, all this effort, infrastructure and willpower brought to bear, when there are starving and homeless people among us. 

“The way I look at it is that animals don’t have the ability to choose what their life is,” he says. “Humans do. I feel like I owe dogs for the life I have and the way they’ve shown me how to be kind and nice. And our animals help people, they bring joy and life to their adopted parents, we train service and search dogs that save lives, and we’re all animals, really. By helping each other, we help teach one another to be kinder. You can learn a lot from a dog. Trust me. I’m living proof.” 

Done with my karmic talk with Garcia, I look through my notes on a shady bench near the gravel road outside the Cat World headquarters in the late-afternoon desert heat and quiet. A woman walks by with a stroller. I think, “Oh she’s brought her baby out here to see the kitty-cats” but then a feline sneeze erupts from the bassinet. Ah. That tracks. 

I’m at Best Friends, after all. Where animals and their care are paramount. Putting a cat in a pram for a stroll is nothing compared to the things I’ve seen these two days in the land where the animal kingdom of your biology class is taken literally and humans are just as much a part of the taxonomy as a red-tailed hawk.

Helping Humans, too

Best Friends draws thousand of volunteers each year who spend their two-week vacation in a place where to be kind to animals is holy writ. The animals here, in a way, are the salvation of the humans who come to this island of misfit toys to care for creatures redeemed from cruelty at human hands. They give new life to the people who come seeking solutions and, even, absolution. Perhaps they come because it gives them a purpose and results easily seen in a world where more and more, the problems of our kind, from the top of the food chain, seem insurmountable and beyond hope. The cause of helping a puppy, kitten, pig, or parrot is a simple equation that draws on the deep well of compassion we all hold. It’s an easy kindness without the messiness of human problems, and out here, they’re with fellow humans, brothers and sisters, who believe the same—that all creatures are worth loving. 

It’s the ultimate and literal case of birds of a feather flocking together. This is a paradise for those seeking peace, a calming place, a summer camp without bullies, a retreat where all of their bottled up love can find an outlet, and tenderness is not scorned. There is a place for us all, from the lowliest parakeet to the most hurting human, and it lies in the desert outside of Kanab, up Angel Canyon.