The Legacy of Lucas the Vicktory Dog

Rescued from Michael Vick’s fighting dog kennel, this happy-go-lucky pit bull changed the world for canines confiscated from dogfighting busts.

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It was January 2008, and as the dual-prop cargo plane carrying 22 pit bulls rumbled through the sky en route from Washington, D.C., to Utah, John Garcia fidgeted nervously in the jump seat. At the time, Garcia was co-manager of Dogtown at Best Friends Animal Society’s sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. (The facility is also home to sanctuaries for cats, horses, pigs, rabbits, birds and some wild animals as well as a memorial park called Angels Rest.)

Every half hour or so, Garcia checked on the dogs, which had been rescued, along with 25 other pit bulls, during an April 2007 raid on NFL player Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels dog fighting operation. Best Friends had arranged to rehabilitate 22 of the dogs, and Garcia was in charge of transporting them from six interim kennels in Virginia and Washington, D.C., to Dogtown.

As he maneuvered through the cabin, Garcia heard the sound of loud snoring emanating from one of the crates. “I looked over and it was Lucas,” he says. Lucas was the most notorious of all the former Vick dogs, renamed the “Vicktory dogs” by rescuers, because he had been Vick’s grand champion fighting dog. “He was sleeping so soundly that he was snoring like a bear,” Garcia says. “I couldn’t believe it. After all he’d been through, he was the most relaxed dog of all.”

Garcia did not realize it at the time, but Lucas would play an important role in changing the policy regarding dogs confiscated from fighting rings.

COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY

“The good news from the Bad Newz Kennels is the progress made on behalf of victims of dog fighting cruelty because of this case,” says Attorney LedyVanKavage, senior legislative attorney for Best Friends in Collinsville, Ill.

VanKavage helped craft a resolution passed in 2011 by the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, urging all federal, state, territorial and local legislative bodies and governmental agencies to enact laws and implement policies to ensure the humane treatment of seized animals. The resolution calls for individual evaluation of each animal and prompt transfer to an appropriate rescue organization or adoptive home.

“In the past, dogs seized from fighting rings were automatically euthanized, even if they were puppies,” VanKavage says. “The ABA resolution calls for euthanization only in cases where the animal’s medical or behavioral condition warrants such action.”

Tim Racer, cofounder and head trainer at BAD RAP, a pit bull education and rescue group in Oakland, Calif., was part of a team called in by the federal judge in charge of the Vick case to evaluate the dogs during their stay at the interim kennels. The team’s job was to categorize the dogs according to temperament and recommend placement strategies, according to Racer.

“Some dogs were deemed suitable for immediate adoption or foster care, while others required longer-term rehabilitation in sanctuaries,” he says. The assessment process involved a lot of physical handling, which Racer says Lucas took in stride. Lucas “clearly enjoyed the human interaction. He pretty much wagged his tail the entire time.”

“Some dogs were deemed suitable for immediate adoption or foster care, while others required longer-term rehabilitation in sanctuaries,” he says. The assessment process involved a lot of physical handling, which Racer says Lucas took in stride. Lucas “clearly enjoyed the human interaction. He pretty much wagged his tail the entire time.”

Despite Lucas’ friendly disposition toward people, he had gained a reputation as Vick’s most-prized fighting dog, and the judge placed one condition on his release to Best Friends: Lucas was required to live out the remainder of his life at the sanctuary.

At home in Dogtown

Lucas settled into his new residence almost immediately, according to Garcia. “When we first put the dogs in their runs, there was silence for a few minutes, like they didn’t know what to do,” he says. Suddenly, the staff heard the sounds of toys flying and water buckets clanking. “Lucas had started the ruckus,” Garcia says. “He was home, and he knew it.”

Jen Sexton, a Dogtown team leader who joined Best Friends 10 months after the Vicktory dogs arrived, recalls falling for Lucas during their first meeting. “I had been told he was very social, but I was still apprehensive because of his history,” Sexton says. That apprehension quickly dissolved. “As I approached his run, he spotted me and immediately began wagging his tail.” When she opened the gate, Lucas darted outside and jumped onto the flat roof of his doghouse. “His tail was going a mile a minute,” she says. “He flashed me his famous Lucas grin and that was it. My heart just melted.”

Sexton later learned that Lucas extended that same level of enthusiasm toward everyone who entered his living quarters. “He loved to jump onto his dog house and greet people because that put him at your eye level, which made it easier to pet him,” she says.

Simply irresistible

Lucas’ sociability and love of people won the hearts of the Best Friends’ staff, including chief executive officer Gregory Castle, who extended him the rare privilege of spending several days a week in the organization’s executive offices. Lucas quickly formed a strong bond with Castle’s assistant, Brenda Escher.

Escher and Lucas enjoyed many long walks throughout the Best Friends property, which she says often took an embarrassing turn. “Lucas was obviously quite strong, and when he wanted to end the walk, he’d stop suddenly in his tracks, plant his paws firmly into the ground and refuse to move,” she says. “The only way I could get him going again was to stand next to him and begin trotting. I think he got a kick out of the whole scene, as did anyone who happened to be watching.”

On “Lucas days,” a steady stream of staff members dropped by the executive offices to spend time with him, according to Escher. “He had a charisma that people just gravitated toward,” she says. “He quickly realized he was a celebrity and welcomed everyone with a big smile. He had a smile that could knock your socks off.”

Like all celebrities, Lucas had his demands. “When visitors sat down on a chair, he would plant his hind end on their feet and lean in,” Escher says. “That was their cue to give him a bum rub. And, of course, they always accommodated him.”

COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY McKenzie Garcia, a caregiver at Best Friends Animal Society and John Garcia's wife, is all smiles around the charming pitbull.
COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
McKenzie Garcia, a caregiver at Best Friends Animal Society and John Garcia’s wife, is all smiles around the charming pitbull.

Goodwill ambassador

Lucas’ celebrity status elevated further in the spring of 2012, when the county sheriff lifted a ban that prevented the Vicktory dogs from interacting with anyone other than Best Friends’ staff. “The ban was an initial public safety precaution that we were able to get lifted during the last year of Lucas’ life,” Garcia says.

After that, Lucas became the most popular dog in Dogtown, according to Sexton. “Requests flooded in from visitors who wanted to meet him. Everyone had read about his story of courage and survival, and they wanted to experience him for themselves,” she says. Lucas became a greeter in the lobby of the Best Friends headquarters, where volunteers signed in for the day. “People clamored to be near him and have their pictures taken with him like he was a rock star,” Sexton says. “He sometimes met hundreds of people in a week, and he just soaked it all in. He had an endless amount of love for everyone.”

Canine rock stars also need their downtime, and Lucas got plenty.

COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY Lucas gives Best Friends first responder Ethan Gurney some love.
COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
Lucas gives Best Friends first responder Ethan Gurney some love.

A day in the life

When he wasn’t hanging out in the Best Friend’s executive offices or greeting visitors in the headquarters’ lobby, Lucas enjoyed the many activities of Dogtown. “He loved the stimulation,” Garcia says. “He was a very happy fellow here.”

Garcia and Lucas often hiked along the walking trails and into the canyons on the Best Friends property, stopping to enjoy the scenery and a picnic lunch. “He was a great picnicker,” Garcia says. “He even carried his own backpack with his food and water. Boy, did he get excited when he saw that backpack.”

On hot days, Lucas enjoyed hitching a ride on one of Dogtown’s many golf carts and road trips into town for his favorite guilty pleasure — McDonald’s cheeseburgers. “Lucas loved cheeseburgers,” Sexton says.

He also loved a giant black-and-white stuffed dog that had been given to him by one of the volunteers. “It was about half his size, and he would drag it around with him everywhere,” Sexton says. “He’d even lug it onto the roof of his doghouse and snuggle with it while he napped.”

COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY Lucas cuddles up to Michelle Weaver, Lake County (Indiana) sheriff's department detective.
COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
Lucas cuddles up to Michelle Weaver, Lake County (Indiana) sheriff’s department detective.

Lucas leaves a legacy

After four and a half years charming everyone he met at Dogtown, the self-appointed role model for former fighting dogs passed away in June 2013 from babesiosis, a parasitic disease common among fighting dogs that infects the red blood cells, resulting in hemolyticanemia. Due to the excellent care he received from Best Friends’ veterinarians, Lucas lived much longer than expected, but at the estimated age of 13, he could no longer rebound from his final episode. He was humanely euthanized at the sanctuary, surrounded by his Best Friends family.

“We were all in the room, feeding him little pieces of cheeseburger,” Sexton says. Although he could no longer stand, he still wagged his tail. “That was so typical of Lucas,” she says. “It didn’t matter how down he was or how bad he felt. All of his people were there and he was happy.”

Best Friends held a memorial service attended by staff and volunteers who shared stories of the dog Garcia calls a gentle giant. “In spite of what he endured, Lucas’ true heart and soul was amazing,” he says. “He was a one-of-a-kind fellow.”

Escher, who was one of his closest companions, perhaps sums up Lucas’ life and legacy best. “No matter how much adversity an animal has experienced, they all have the ability to grow into loving beings and be our best friends. Lucas was definitely one of mine.”

Just by being himself, the grand champion with the imposing stature and scarred muzzle helped change people’s attitudes and public policy toward former fighting dogs. The largest dog fighting bust in U.S. history, known as the Missouri 500, occurred in July 2009 and involved 500 pit bulls across eight states. “Prior to the Vicktory dogs, the Missouri 500 would have been summarily euthanized without even the chance for individual evaluation,” VanKavage says. “Instead, they were given that chance and as a result, 60 percent of them were placed in homes, including one of them, Karma, in my home.”

Progress is also occurring in the 13 states that have legislation automatically classifying dogs seized from fighting rings as dangerous or vicious. In 2011, Florida became the first state to pass a bill repealing such legislation. A similar bill was pending in Wisconsin as of presstime.

“Repealing archaic laws on the state level represents a major step forward in giving former fighting dogs a chance, and it wouldn’t have happened without the publicity from Lucas and the other Vicktory dogs,” VanKavage says. “He was a game changer.”

Lucas was indeed a champion, but his greatest victories were won outside the ring.

COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY An indelible part of the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary, Lucas' memory is paid tribute with heartfelt words.
COURTESY OF BEST FRIENDS ANIMAL SOCIETY
An indelible part of the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary, Lucas’ memory is paid tribute with heartfelt words.

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Diana Laverdure

Diana Laverdure is an award-winning dog healthcare writer. Her book, The Canine Thyroid Epidemic: Answers You Need for Your Dog (Dogwise Publishing, 2011), with W. Jean Dodds, DVM, was named Best Care/Health Book of 2011 by the Dog Writers Association of America, and received the 2011 Eukanuba Canine Health Award. She lives with her rescued shepherd mix, Chase.

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