THE DOG approaches the outstretched hand. Her name is Sweet Jasmine, and she is 35 pounds of twitchy curiosity with a coat the color of fried chicken, a pink nose and brown eyes. She had spent a full 20 seconds studying this five-fingered offering before advancing. Now, as she moves forward, her tail points straight down, her butt is hunched toward the ground, her head is bowed, her ears pinned back. She stands at maybe three quarters of her height.
She gets within a foot of the hand and stops. She licks her snout, a sign of nervousness, and looks up at the stranger, seeking assurance. She looks back to the hand, licks her snout again and begins to extend her neck. Her nose is six inches away from the hand, one inch, half an inch. She sniffs once. She sniffs again. At this point almost any other dog in the world would offer up a gentle lick, a sweet hello, an invitation to be scratched or petted. She's come so far. She's so close.
But Jasmine pulls away.
PETA WANTED Jasmine dead. Not just Jasmine, and not just PETA. The Humane Society of the U.S., agreeing with PETA, took the position that Michael Vick's pit bulls, like all dogs saved from fight rings, were beyond rehabilitation and that trying to save them was a misappropriation of time and money. "The cruelty they've suffered is such that they can't lead what anyone who loves dogs would consider a normal life," says PETA spokesman Dan Shannon. "We feel it's better that they have their suffering ended once and for all." If you're a dog and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suggests you be put down, you've got problems. Jasmine has problems.
They began in 2001, about the same time Vick started cashing NFL paychecks and bought a 15-acre plot of land at 1915 Moonlight Road in Smithville, Va. The property sits across from a Baptist church. A bright green lawn surrounds a white brick house that has a pool and a basketball court in the backyard and is bordered by a white picket fence. When Vick bought the land, the house didn't exist and wouldn't be built for a few years. It wasn't a priority. The Atlanta Falcons' new quarterback never intended to live there.
Beyond the house, shrouded by trees, were five sheds painted black from top to bottom, including the windows and doors. Past them were scattered wire cages and wood doghouses. Farther still, where the trees got thicker, two partly buried car axles protruded from the ground. This was the home of Bad Newz Kennels, the dogfighting operation that Vick and three of his buddies started a year after Vick became the first pick of the 2001 NFL draft. When local and state authorities busted the operation in April 2007, 51 pit bulls were seized, Jasmine among them.
By most estimates Jasmine is around four years old, which means she was most likely born into Bad Newz, and her life there fit the kennel's name. A few of the dogs, probably pets, were kept in one of the sheds. The fighters and a handful of dogs that Bad Newz housed for other people lived in the outdoor kennels. The rest—dogs that were too young to fight, were used for breeding or were kept as bait dogs for the fighters to practice on—were chained to the car axles in the woods.
The water in the bowls was speckled with algae. Females were strapped into a "rape stand" so the dogs could breed without injuring each other. Some of the sheds held syringes and other medical supplies, and training equipment such as treadmills and spring bars (from which dogs hung, teeth clamped on rubber rings, to strengthen their jaws). The biggest shed had a fighting pit, once covered by a bloodstained carpet that was found in the woods.
According to court documents, from time to time Vick and his cohorts "rolled" the dogs: put them in the pit for short battles to see which ones had the right stuff. Those that fought got affection, food, vitamins and training sessions. The ones that showed no taste for blood were killed—by gunshot, electrocution, drowning, hanging or, in at least one case, being repeatedly slammed against the ground.
It's impossible to say what Jasmine saw while circling the axles deep in the woods, but dogs can hear a tick yawn at 50 yards. The sounds of the fights and the executions undoubtedly filtered through the trees.