That wasn't hard to do with Zippy. When she arrived from the rescue group BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls) in October 2007, "she was afraid of her own shadow," says Berenice. Loud noises made her jump, and when she entered another room she'd crawl through the doorway on her belly. That lasted about six weeks, but once Zippy got comfortable she took over the house. She races from room to room, goes for runs with Berenice and plays in the yard with the other two dogs: the family's big blue pit bull, Crash, and another foster dog, Roller, a bulldog-pit mix.
As the girls run out of energy, Zippy moves on. She pops up from below the tangle of limbs and black hair that are Eliana and Vanessa and prances over to Jesse, who's still holding his infant son. Zippy noses up to the baby, takes a few sniffs and then licks his foot. Taste test concluded, she shoots over to the side door, pushes down the handle with her snout and disappears into the side yard. "You see that?" Berenice says. "This one's so smart. I never had another dog here who figured out how to do that." Moments later there's a little rap at the door. Berenice pulls it open and in comes Zippy, ears up, tail wagging.
Eliana, meanwhile, has pulled a spiral-bound notebook from her book bag. It's late November, and she wants to read a Thanksgiving essay she wrote at school. As her little voice takes hold of the room, Zippy curls into a circle beside her. The last lines of the story go like this: "Zippy is one of a kind. I named her Zippy because she is really fast. I don't want any of my dogs to be adopted."
AFTER BEING taken from the Moonlight Road property, Vick's dogs were dispersed to six animal-control facilities in Virginia. Conditions differed slightly from place to place, but for the most part each dog was kept alone in a cage for months at a time. They were often forced to relieve themselves where they stood, and they weren't let out even while their cages were being cleaned; attendants simply hosed down the floors with the dogs inside. They were given so little attention because workers assumed they were dangerous and would be put down after Vick's trial. The common belief is that any money and time spent caring for dogs saved from fight rings would be better devoted to the millions of dogs already sitting in shelters, about half of which are destroyed each year.
What the pit bulls had going for them was the same thing that had once seemed to doom them: Michael Vick. They were, in a sense, celebrities, and there was a massive public outcry to help them. Letters and e-mails poured in to the offices of Judge Henry E. Hudson and of Mike Gill, assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gill had worked on several animal-related cases and still had ties to the rescue community. He reached out to, among others, Zawistowski. Could the ASPCA put together a team to evaluate the animals and determine if any of them could be saved?
Around the same time Donna Reynolds, the executive director and cofounder, along with her husband, Tim Racer, of BAD RAP, sent Gill a seven-page proposal suggesting a dog-by-dog evaluation to see if any could be spared. The couple, who have placed more than 400 pit bulls in new homes during the last 10 years, knew it was a long shot. It's faster and easier to judge the entire barrel as rotten. Zawistowski put together a team composed of himself, two other ASPCA staffers, three outside certified animal behaviorists and three members of BAD RAP, including Reynolds and Racer.
On Aug. 23, 2007, Vick appeared in U.S. District Court in Richmond, and Judge Hudson accepted a plea agreement in which the former quarterback admitted that he had been involved in dogfighting and had personally participated in killing animals. The agreement required him to pay $928,000 for the care and treatment of the dogs, including any humane destruction deemed necessary. "That was the landmark moment—when he not only gave the dogs the money but referred to it as restitution," says Zawistowski. "That's when these dogs went from weapons to victims."
On Sept. 4, 5 and 6, under tight security and a court-imposed gag order, Zawistowski's team assembled in Virginia. It quickly agreed on a protocol for testing the dogs that would show their level of socialization and aggressiveness. Among other things, the dogs were presented with people, toys, food and other dogs. Their reactions and their overall demeanor were evaluated. In those three days the team assessed 49 dogs at six sites.
It didn't help that the assessors had no idea what to expect. Besides their time at Bad Newz, the dogs had spent four months locked up in shelters with minimal attention. That alone could push many dogs over the brink. "I thought, If we can save three or four, it will be fantastic," Reynolds says.
Adds Racer, "We had been told these were the most vicious dogs in America."