Vicktory dog Denzel was a fighter, but not in the way that NFL player Michael Vick wanted him to be. This brave dog fought against the trauma of his past to find happiness and friendship at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. He also fought against serious health issues that threatened to take him down time and time again. He suffered from a strain of the blood parasite babesia, which is spread among dogs forced to fight by way of bites. It can be managed but not cured, and each bout takes an increasing toll.
Sadly, Denzel lost his battle today. His health had declined during the past few months and his body was tired. Surrounded by his friends — the Best Friends caregivers and vets who loved him and fought for him until the end — Denzel took his last breath and left this world.
There were no dry eyes in the house. As one of the 22 dogs who came to Best Friends in January of 2008 after being rescued from the dogfighting ring at Michael Vick’s property, Denzel had survived unspeakable trauma in his early years. But he never let his past define him.
Dog rescued from fighting ring leaves a legacy
Denzel and the other survivors who came to Best Friends nine years ago last week were dubbed the Vicktory dogs because, once they were saved and brought to safety, their lives changed from trauma to triumph. They proved to the world that dogs rescued from illegal fighting rings deserve a chance at life. In the process, they touched the hearts and the lives of the people who loved them at the Sanctuary, while also becoming national ambassadors for other dogs forced into illegal dog fighting.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly nine years since the Vicktory dogs arrived at Best Friends,” says Michelle Weaver, director of animal care at Best Friends. “Some have gone on to loving homes, some have passed away and others are growing older. For the people who love and care for them as their own, it’s always really hard to say goodbye. But it helps to know that these dogs have a legacy that lives on.”
Their story reached millions through the National Geographic Channel’s 2008 television show “DogTown,” as well as The Champions, a documentary film about their lives. They became well-known to many who had never met them, but felt like they knew them.
Dogs with individual challenges
Like all dogs, each of the Vicktory dogs was an individual. Each one had his or her own challenges to overcome. There were shy dogs and more outgoing dogs. There were a few like Denzel who chose to place their trust in very few people.
One of the first people at Best Friends to meet Denzel was John Garcia, the assistant manager of Dogtown when the Vicktory dogs were first rescued. John traveled to meet the dogs in the Washington, D.C., area prior to their transport to the Sanctuary. “Denzel was a great guy,” says John. “The first time I met him and did his assessment, he was a wild, fun-loving big guy who loved everyone.”
Similarly, when Denzel first arrived at Best Friends, he wasn’t picky about who he liked. Instead, he was happy to be surrounded by people who wanted to help him. But the babesia often made him feel sick and less interested in meeting people.
As time passed, Denzel became more and more selective. Unless you were in his small inner circle, he could be challenging to work with. So, while many of the Vicktory dogs went on to adoptive homes, Denzel stayed with Best Friends.
Denzel got the best possible medical care and emotional support at the Sanctuary, and he needed a lot of it throughout the years. But he didn’t simply live out his days at the Sanctuary. This was Denzel’s home, and the people who loved him were his family.
The following includes those family members’ memories of the dog who will live forever in their hearts. Denzel, beloved for years by those who cared for him as their own, will be sorely missed.
Denzel’s signature trick
Dogtown caregiver Paul Lindley started working with Denzel about six months after he arrived at the Sanctuary. “Denzel loved training and always remembered it,” says Paul. “He learned to wave, and that became his signature. You could be standing across a parking lot, wave at him, and Denzel would wave back. It’s what he was known for.”
Once Denzel opened his heart to someone, he loved that person fully. “He had his core group of people with him always,” Paul says. “He didn’t forget his people. Once you were in with Denzel, it was for life.”
Every time Denzel needed intensive treatment for babesia, he’d get meds three times a day. The third dose at midnight was often administered by Paul, who would then take him for a short walk. “It meant a lot to me to be able to do that for him — to be there for him when he was sick,” Paul says.
Choosing friends and forming bonds
Carissa Hendrick was another Dogtown caregiver who was there for Denzel from the early days. “Denzel remembered his original caregivers no matter what,” says Carissa. “It was a very strong bond. He was affectionate and snuggly (with us), and most people didn’t get to see that side of him. We were very lucky.”
Anyone to whom Denzel offered his friendship felt extremely special. One such person was Joe Menard, a Dogtown maintenance worker. “He picked me,” says Joe, who spent a lot of time working in the maintenance area behind Denzel’s yard. At first, Denzel put on a big barking show every time Joe came around, but that eventually changed.
“One day he stopped yelling and barking at me,” Joe says, “and soon he would come up and lean against the fence when I was there. It was cool to be friends with him. We had a good relationship. He loved car rides and would rest his head on your shoulder when you were driving.”
The sweetest guy
It was momentous when Denzel let someone in. “That moment when you first got to pet him was really special,” says Dogtown caregiver Haylee Heisel. “We were in his yard one day, and he just nudged my hand and let me pet him.” Denzel only let his friends see his sweet and sometimes quirky personality. Dogtown groomer Alyssa Hill says, “My favorite memory of him is when he was in the back of my car. He would rub on everything and roll around back there.”
Another bond forged from true dedication was the one Denzel developed with Best Friends veterinarian Dr. Patricia Patterson. She says, “Almost all my interactions (with him) were medical, but he and I kind of hit it off from the start, and I became one of ‘his people’ who he was more comfortable with. He was super sick from babesia when he came in after his rescue, and we nursed him through that. Then he had a couple of surgeries and we nursed him through that, too. I stayed all night with him at the clinic after one of his surgeries. I will most remember him for being the sweetest guy with me. I take that as a huge compliment, because he was not that way with everyone.”
Denzel loved the people who surrounded him with love and worked tirelessly as a team to keep him healthy and safe. His world may have been small, but he lived his life to the fullest at the Sanctuary, with his days full of things that brought him joy.
He loved playing with his bright red Jolly Ball. He loved food. He delighted in exploring different parts of the Sanctuary and hanging out in the most serene parts of it. He loved swimming in the creek and watching horses and mule deer with a quiet curiosity.
His favorite thing in the whole world was going to Angels Landing (a beautiful natural amphitheater on the Sanctuary grounds) and swimming in the pond there. He also loved going to the dog park and taking as many car and golf cart rides as he could get.
A lifesaving trust
“Denzel’s worth wasn’t at all diminished because he didn’t move on to a home,” Haylee says. “The most special thing about taking care of him, for me, was knowing he’d had that trauma and doing whatever we could every day to show him that he was safe here, and that it was OK.”
“Denzel was so strong in overcoming the abuse and battling his way back from health problems time after time,” says Michelle. “And here at the Sanctuary, he lived a life filled with love, surrounded by those he chose to love so fully in return.”
Denzel was many things to the people who loved him. Most of all, he was living proof to them and to the world that dogs rescued from fighting situations deserve a chance to know love and happiness. “When I look at him, I see all the other dogs (from fighting situations) who will have a chance now,” Paul says. “Denzel just needed someone to trust him.” That trust saved Denzel’s life, and it’s what will save other dogs like him.
The defining principle of Best Friends is that the life of every animal has intrinsic value, and their lives are not ours to dismiss or abuse. That’s why we accepted the Vicktory dogs and that’s why Denzel was able to enjoy a full life enriched by his friends and extended by the loving care of our medical staff.
All of us here at Best Friends and all of our members and friends are better for having had Denzel in our world. Rest in peace, my friend.
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CEO Best Friends Animal Society