A rescued German Shepherd is now living a life free of chains thanks to the dedicate of Tamira Thayne and Good Newz Rehab Center. This canine rehabilitation operation is housed in Michael Vick's former Surry estate.
Words by Phyllis Speidell Photos by John H. Sheally II
Sloan walks confidently into the lawyer's office. He's about to sign off on a real estate deal that will change not only his life, but the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, of other who endure the same deprivations he has survived.
Sloan's a 7-year-old German shepherd whose unflappable demeanor belies his first six and a half years chained in a Pennsylvania yard. For the last six months he's lived with Tamira Thayne, founder and CEO of Dogs Deserve Better, an award-winning national non-profit that seeks to get dogs off chains and into homes with families.
Freed from his chain, Sloan has become a canine ambassador for Dogs Deserve Better and the organization's new Good Newz Rehab Center for Chained and Penned Dogs.
If the name sounds familiar, think of the infamous Bad Newz Kennels, the dog fighting operation in Surry County, connected to NFL star Michael Vick.
On May 27 Sloan and Thayne are in Virginia Beach to close the sale of the 4,000-plus-square foot house and property Vick once owned to Dogs Deserve Better.
Sloan's paw print on the deal seems an appropriate tribute to the scores of dogs that were brutally trained to fight there.
In 2007 the house on rural Moonlight Road gained instant notoriety when a drug raid by local police and the FBI revealed that Vick and three friends, and later co-defendants, raised pit bulls there, trained them for fighting and held clandestine dogfights.
Coincidentally, also in 2007, a Blair County, Pennsylvania court convicted Thayne of theft and receiving stolen property for rescuing Doogie, an older dog she says was chained constantly, without food or water for three days, unable to stand up and dying.
Vick served time. Thayne was sentenced to community service and appealed. The appeal denied, she served the sentence and applied for a pardon. The rescued dog lived a good five months before he died.
Thayne seems nervously happy signing on the $595,000 purchase price with a 30 percent down payment and hopes that fundraising for the center will pay off the mortgage and fund a new rehab center. The house will hold offices and a resident manager's quarters. Thayne and her husband plan to buy a home somewhere in the area.
Who knows what's going through Sloan's mind as he rides the elevator eight floors down from the lawyer's office to the lobby of the glass walled Virginia Beach Towne Bank building. Oblivious to his surroundings as he strides through the lobby, Sloan smacks headfirst into the glass vestibule door. Photographer John Sheally and I grab the door only to see him bump into the second glass door a few steps later.
Not surprising since he's rarely been inside an office building, let alone one with elevators and seemingly invisible glass doors, but Sloan shakes off the shock and jumps in the van to ride to Surry, his new home and his new life.
Later in the afternoon we walk with Thayne and Sloan through the house and property. She talks about her master plan for an ultimate $2.5 million facility there.
She founded Dogs Deserve Better in 1992 to educate pet owners to the inhumanity of chaining an animal 24/7. Chaining, she says, leaves dogs un-socialized and often aggressively territorial of their small environment. Thayne estimates that her group has rescued 3000 dogs directly and many more by education.
They're the best when an owner contacts us and says we educated them, she says. That's our real goal change their minds and you make a difference.
Another goal is to establish a national rehab facility. When a local DDB volunteer mentioned the house Vick built in 2002 was for sale again, Thayne knew it would be perfect logistically and symbolically.
The dense woods on the 15-acre site, thinned somewhat by storms in the last few years, camouflaged the out buildings that housed the Bad Newz Kennel's fighting operation behind the imposing house. Sloan pricks his ears, alert, as he walks past those dark structures.
Vick crossed a moral line and all the secrecy indicates that they knew what they were doing was wrong, Thayne says, adding that she hopes his well-publicized transformation into an animal rights activist is valid and permanent.
She plans to lock the somber outbuildings a memorial to fighting dogs. But the rest of the property and the house need work secure fencing, bone-shaped doggy pools in the back yard and modifications to the house.
This may have been a good house for people but not for dogs, she says.
The first floor will house the Dogs Deserve Better offices for Thayne and resident manager Elaine Peachey. Until the rehab facility is built the spacious downstairs master bedroom with a jetted tub and separate shower is where Sloan and the other dogs, all rescues, sleep.
Hunter a tan Cane Corso Mastiff doesn't live up to his aggressive rep as he snuggles against my hip. Polly, a hound/Rottweiler mix from a Missouri hoarder with too many dogs, and Roxie, a small black lab mix, are wary. Ebby and Riley, a mother/ son duo, are a mixed breed with some wolf or hybrid heritage and don't get along with anyone but each other.
A hundred DDB volunteers across the country will refer dogs to the center. Rehabbed dogs will be adopted out to eligible new homes nationally as well.
The center will rehab a maximum of 70 dogs at a time, allaying some neighbors' concerns that hundreds of dogs would be kept on the property. Until the center is built, Thayne plans to keep no more than 25 dogs at a time.
The county officials were welcoming, Thayne says, but the next door neighbor planted a row of new, vivid yellow no trespassing signs every 20 feet along the property line. And there have been a few ugly phone calls from folks elsewhere, but Thayne and Peachey hope that will change when people understand the mission.
Surry native Satara Chambers agrees it could happen. She works as an accounting technician in Newport News and says she understands what Vick meant about growing up with dog fighting. But I don't approve of it, she says. I see animals chained up 24/7, and that's cruel so if they are going to rehab those dogs to be sociable and play with kids that's good.
Melvin Haskett, 62, and a mechanic who's also a Surry native, says he was surprised to hear about the dog fighting at the Vick home but knows that it's around.
I'm OK with rehab if it helps, he tells us. There are a lot of animals running around here so this may be a good thing.
On move-in day in late June the corn in fields lining Moonlight Road is literally as high as an elephant's eye. Joe Horvath, Thayne's husband, is unloading the 26-foot rental truck in the driveway. Horvath and Thayne were married on June 20 while chained to doghouses in front of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., during the Dogs Deserve Better Chain Off annual fundraiser.
Horvath and Thayne knew each other years ago when both were stationed in Germany with the Air Force and re-connected two years ago on Facebook.
Dogs Deserve Better is all consuming for Tammy, but I've learned to ride with it, says Horvath, an analyst for a government contractor.
She works seven days a week, 10 or 12 hours a day for the dogs.
Thayne, who has a bachelor's of the arts degree and 16 years experience in graphic design, grew up with dogs chained in the back yard as the norm.
No animals were allowed in my parents' house so when they left I'd let all the animals in, she says. My mother complained and my father killed all my cats.
When she was in Germany she noticed how well the locals treated their pets.
Dogs were part of the family, in their place and still dogs, but loved and respected, she says. ìWe had a wire haired dachshund there and I think a lynch mob would have formed if we had chained the dog.
A few years later back in her hometown near Altoona, Pa., she slipped food to Worthless, a black lab mix chained down the road from her house. The owner told her to stop.
About then Thayne, reeling from a couple divorces, sought a mission in her life.
Every time I prayed about that God sent an image of Worthless, she says. So she set up an anti-chaining website.
Like-minded volunteers began to contact her and, in 1992, Dogs Deserve Better was born, the first group to rally against the chaining of dogs.
According to Debbie George, director of media and community relations in Suffolk, there is no state law in Virginia that prohibits tethering or sets limits on the amount of time an animal can be chained. The law does require that the animal have adequate space, food and water, access to shelter and a tether at least three times its length, measured from the nose to the base of the tail.
That means, she says, that a dog can be chained 24/7 legally unless the municipality restricts the time. Locally only Virginia Beach and Norfolk set a time limit three consecutive hours.
Meghan Linear, chief animal control officer in Suffolk, says that even where laws limit the time, enforcement requires someone to watch the dog constantly, and many departments don't have that manpower.
If state requirements are met, our hands are tied, she says. The solution is educating owners who chain or pen dogs to provide interaction, exercise and companionship.
Larry Oxton knows there's a need for education. A concrete construction contractor partial to pit bulls, he and his wife Michele are two of the Good Newz Rehab Center's growing cadre of local volunteers. Chesapeake residents, they're involved in dog rescue work across Hampton Roads.
I'd like to see this center get as many dogs as possible off chains and into homes, he says. And don't tell me chaining is all part of the culture the culture needs to be changed.
Alisa Wilson, from Windsor, and her family also signed on as volunteers. They have been in the rescue loop for a few years, she says.
As you travel around you become more aware of chained dogs some with chains you could pull a backhoe with, she says. This gives us an opportunity to help more than one or two dogs at a time.
Thayne is optimistic about the future of Good Newz Rehab, but all the hopes and all the work came too late for Buddy. Buddy, a 10-year-old Labradoodle, lived his entire life permanently chained in Cheatham County, Tenn. and was scheduled to be the center's first official intake. However, underweight by 20 pounds, deaf, covered with fleas and ticks and infested with heartworms, Buddy was too ill to travel and was euthanized. His ashes will be scattered at the Good Newz Rehab Center.
So, thoughts from Michael Vick on Good Newz Rehab Center for Chained and Penned Dogs?
After serving a 23-month sentence on dog fighting charges, Vick announced a commitment to speak out against dog fighting. In July Vick joined Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, on Capitol Hill in the Rayburn House Office Building to publicly support federal legislation to penalize those who finance or bring children to dog fights and cock fights.
In an emailed statement from his personal publicist, Vick says: I believe that a rescue group creating an animal sanctuary on the property is beneficial for the community. Through my work with the Humane Society of the United States, I have been able to talk to thousands of at-risk youth across the country and teach them the lessons that I have learned. It is my hope that through the great work of animal welfare organizations with rescue, education and enforcement that positive and meaningful changes will happen nationwide.