article by Dan Simon
She wags her tail and gives kisses to anyone who greets her. But the deep scars on her face are permanent reminders of her difficult and violent past.
Ellen is one of the 47 pit bulls seized from an illegal dog fighting ring on property owned by disgraced NFL quarterback Michael Vick.
The dogs were bred to fight to the death. Of course, if trained properly they can be gentle loyal pets.
Twenty-two of the pit bulls now reside at sanctuary at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in the mountain town of Kanab, Utah. The 25 other dogs have been placed at rehabilitation shelters across the country.
All of them are lucky to be alive.
The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wanted the dogs euthanized. But rescue operations won their fight to give these animals a second chance at life.
"There's a belief by a lot of people that these dogs cannot be rehabilitated," said the facility's veterinarian, Dr. Frank McMillan. "It's true that they can't all be [rehabilitated], but we're finding out here and elsewhere, that they can and they become very nice pets." Watch how the dogs are learning to interact with people »
The dogs have only been at the shelter about a month and their caregivers have already seen signs of progress.
"I was surprised at how many were shy. There were quite a few that were under socialized and pretty shut down," said Michelle Besmehn, who oversees the dogs at the sanctuary.
"I've been really pleased at how quickly they're coming around. It's actually been fun to see personalities are starting to show. "
One of the most affectionate and lovable dogs at the shelter is Lucas -- Vick's champion fighter.
Shelter staff believes the scarred, brown 65-pound pit bull won praise and special treatment for winning fights and money, perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars for Vick and his associates.
Despite his good nature, a court ruled that Lucas can never leave the sanctuary because of his violent past.
Dogs that didn't fight well were beaten, drowned, shot and even electrocuted by Vick and his associates, according to court records.
Thought it's nearly impossible to know the extent of the emotional and physical abuse these dogs endured, in some cases it's apparent.
One dog, Georgia, had all 42 of her teeth pulled. Caregivers believe it was to prevent her from attacking male dogs during forced breeding.
"We don't know who did it. We assume it's because she was such a valuable breeding dog," McMillian said. "Very often females will not accept males in breeding and will attack."
The National Geographic Channel will profile Georgia and three of the other pit bulls as part of an ongoing television series, "Dogtown," which follows the rehabilitation and resocialization of the worst cases.
The hope is that six months from now, some of the dogs will become normal, lovable pets that are safe enough to adopt.
Even if they never get adopted, the dogs will always have a home at Best Friends, which doesn't euthanize for behavioral reasons.
The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback is serving a 23-month sentence at maximum-security prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. The NFL suspended Vick indefinitely without pay. He agreed to pay nearly $1 million to subsidize the various facilities that are caring for his former pit bulls.
"To me, and to those of us that care about animals, it's more than fair and maybe not enough," said McMillan.