JASMINE RUNS in the yard of the small suburban Baltimore house, jumping on Sweet Pea, another pit bull, and nipping at the back of her neck. Sweet Pea spins and leaps into Jasmine, and the two tumble together for a minute, then pop up and continue their romp. When they roll around it's difficult to tell one from the other, because they are the exact same color. Sweet Pea is a few years older and a little bigger, and she has markings that Jasmine does not: a series of scars on her snout and head indicative of combat. Still, Sweet Pea loves to be around other dogs. She and Jasmine have a special connection and have brought each other a bit of peace. The people who know them best think that Sweet Pea is probably Jasmine's mother. That's why their families try to arrange play dates for them twice a month.
Jasmine wound up in the hands of Catalina Stirling, a 35-year-old artist who lives with her husband, Davor Mrkoci, 32, an electrical engineer; her children, Nino (4 1/2) and Anais (2 1/2); Rogue, a spunky spaniel-lab mix; Desmond, a three-legged foster basenji-lab mix; and Thaiz, the family cat. The fenced yard is big enough for running, and the living-dining area, which contains almost no furniture, has a smattering of dog beds and water bowls. Catalina and her children have painted angels on one wall.
In her evaluation Jasmine was considered for sanctuary with Best Friends, but when volunteers from the Baltimore rescue group Recycled Love went to see the pit bulls at the Washington (D.C.) Animal Rescue League, a volunteer was so moved by the sight of Jasmine hiding under the blanket that she crawled into the cage and began massaging and whispering to the dog. Jasmine seemed to respond. So Huss sent Jasmine and Sweet Pea to Recycled Love, which subsequently turned Jasmine over to the woman who had crawled into the cage: Catalina Stirling.
Despite a promising start, Jasmine had a long way to go. For months she sat in her little cage in Stirling's house and refused to come out. "I had to pick her up and carry her outside so she could go to the bathroom," Stirling says. "She wouldn't even stand up until I had walked away. There's a little hole in the yard, and once she was done, she would go lie in the hole." It was three or four months before Jasmine would exit the cage on her own, and then only to go out, relieve herself and lie in the hole. Sweet Pea, who's better adjusted but still battles her own demons, was an hour away, and her visits helped draw out Jasmine. After six months Stirling could finally take both dogs for a walk in a big park near her house.
Jasmine has come far, but she still has many fears. Around people she almost always walks with her head and tail down. She won't let anyone approach her from behind, and she spends most of the day in her pen, sitting quietly, the open door yawning before her. Stirling works with her endlessly. "I feel like what I do for her is so little compared with what she does for me," she says, welling up.
In the end, 47 of the 51 Vick dogs were saved. (Two died while in the shelters; one was destroyed because it was too violent; and another was euthanized for medical reasons.) Twenty-two dogs went to Best Friends, where McMillan and his staff chart their emotional state daily; almost all show steady improvement in categories such as calmness, sociability and happiness. McMillan believes 17 of the dogs will eventually be adopted, and applicants are being screened for the first of those. The other 25 have been spread around the country; the biggest group, 10, went to California with BAD RAP. Fourteen of the 25 have been placed in permanent homes, and the rest are in foster care.
Still, it's Jasmine, lying in her kennel, who embodies the question at the heart of the Vick dogs' story. Was it worth the time and effort to save these 47 dogs when millions languish in shelters? Charmers such as Zippy and Leo and Jonny Justice seem to provide the obvious answer, but even for these dogs any incidence of aggression, provoked or not, will play only one way in the headlines. It's a lifelong sentence to a very short leash. PETA's position is unchanged. "Some [of the dogs] will end up with something resembling a normal life," Shannon says, "but the chances are very slim, and it's not a good risk to take."
Then there are dogs like Lucas, who will never leave sanctuary because of his history as a fighter, and Jasmine and Sweet Pea, who will never leave their Recycled Love families. "There was a lot of discussion about whether to save all of the sanctuary cases," says Reynolds, "but in the end [Best Friends] decided that's what they are there for. There are no regrets."
BAD RAP works out of Oakland Animal Services, where above the main entrance is inscribed a Gandhi quote that dog people cite often: THE GREATNESS OF A NATION AND ITS MORAL PROGRESS CAN BE JUDGED BY THE WAY ITS ANIMALS ARE TREATED.
" Vick showed the worst of us, our bloodlust, but this rescue showed the best," Reynolds says. "I don't think any of us thought it was possible to save these dogs—the government, the rescuers, the regular people—but we surprised ourselves."