By Champ Clark
February 18, 2008 12:00 PM

The police who raided the Bad Newz Kennels owned by Michael Vick—once the highest-paid star in the NFL—couldn’t believe what they found: 49 terrorized pit bulls, many malnourished and nursing injuries while chained to old car axles scattered in the woods of Surry, Va. Investigators uncovered the buried remains of dozens of dogs that had been drowned or hanged, simply for being unwilling fighters. But justice was served. Last December federal judge Henry Hudson sentenced Vick, 27, to 23 months in prison. In what animal rights activists are calling a precedent-setting move, the judge also ordered Vick to pay close to $1 million for victim restitution and lifetime care and rehabilitation of the 47 surviving pit bulls. (One of the dogs rescued by police was later destroyed due to ill health, another because it was aggressive.) “These dogs are almost always euthanized,” says Rebecca Huss, a Valparaiso University law professor and special guardian appointed by the court to evaluate and place each animal. “This is the first time on a federal level that dogs seized in a fighting operation have been given this kind of second chance.”

One thriving beneficiary of the judge’s compassionate decision is 2-year-old Hector, visibly scarred from his days at the dog-fighting operation but today basking in the affection he gets at Bad Rap, a pit-bull rescue organization in Oakland, Calif., one of eight groups chosen by Huss to rehab the former fighters. At his weekly training sessions, Hector learns the basic obedience and social skills denied him by Vick. “It’s like a light has been switched on,” says Donna Reynolds, who founded the group with her husband, Tim Racer, in 1999. “It’s a complete turn-around.” Hector has already been approved for adoption, though Judge Hudson has mandated a six-month waiting period before the dogs permanently move in with families. In the meantime Hector is free to romp and play. Says Racer: “If Michael Vick could see what’s happening here, I’d hope he’d find it in his heart to say, ‘Wow, look what they’ve done with my dogs!'”