SALT LAKE CITY - Twenty-two of the pit bulls seized from suspended NFL quarterback Michael Vick's dogfighting operation are sniffing the dry desert air, getting to know human kindness and gobbling treats at a Utah animal sanctuary.
Each dog has its own pen inside an octagonal housing unit and an outdoor run. They're being fed 'canine caviar' - a special dog-food formulation. They're chewing rubber bones. They can wrestle rubber toys filled with doggie treats.
'We're walking these guys and touching them more,' said Patty Hegwood, director of animal care for the Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, about 260 miles south of Salt Lake City.
'This is red cliffs and rocks and desert as oppose to Virginia, which is green and humid. So they have lots of noses up in the air, taking in all the different smells. Some are a little pensive. They're trying to figure out where they are, basically. They're looking at us like, 'Who the heck are you?'
The dogs landed Wednesday after an 8-hour flight in a chartered twin-prop from Richmond, Va. Other shelters are taking another 25 dogs from Vick's 15-acre country estate in southeastern Virginia.
'It's the end of a long grind for these guys,' Best Friends spokesman John Polis said.
'Our fondest hope is that they get adopted, but we have to be very conservative because these dogs come from a rough background,' he said.
Caretakers are keeping the pit bulls separated from some 600 other dogs at a 3,000-acre sanctuary that leases another 30,000 acres of federal land for grazing animals.
Best Friends has 400 employees.
Helping the pit bulls adjust to a new social life will be difficult, but their handlers will observe the animals for at least six months and work to correct any behavior problems, Polis said.
Polis said the sanctuary euthanizes dogs only for medical reasons.
A court order prevents the sanctuary from discussing any of the dogs conditions until a man linked with the dogfighting operation is sentenced Jan. 25, Polis said.
Vick is serving a 23-month prison sentence for dogfighting conspiracy.
The Best Friends sanctuary will appear in a new National Geographic channel series called 'Dog Town' that starts today.