SURRY, Va. -- Ray Lane never really saw the dogs. They'd bark and growl at night, just like the hounds he calls summa dogs, summa 'dis, summa 'dat the mutts. They uttered no secrets.
The Surry animal shelter is a perfect place to hide federal evidence. It's a brown, drab building swallowed up by lush green trees at the bottom of a twisting gravel road. A chain-link fence about 10 feet high keeps the unsavory out. For a good piece of the summer, the orders for the garbage-truck drivers who park near the shelter were strict. Zip in to use the bathroom, then get out. Do not pet the dogs. Do not look at or talk about the dogs.
Then one day, a black Suburban and two white trucks rolled down the gravel road and whisked Michael Vick's dogs away, to another secret site, to eat and bark somewhere else.
"The government got them," says Lane, a sanitation worker who used to be Surry's animal control officer. "It's not like they were 'Men in Black' or anything. You can just tell people have a title 'bout them by the way they walk and carry themselves. They had a title to them."
It's kind of strange. Everybody knows everybody in this town where Bible passages are stamped on license plate frames and you can get fried flounder in the same place that sells gas. But nobody really knows the dogs. Collectively, they're about 50 of the best-kept secrets in the Vick dogfighting case, living, breathing, barking evidence preserved in shelters across a swath of more than 100 miles in Virginia.
Their homes are identified in federal court documents as Locations A, B, C, D, E and F; their handlers have been given strict orders not to talk. Amid the cloak-and-dagger secrecy, confusion abounds. Late last week, various media outlets reported that the case's federal judge, Henry E. Hudson, ordered the U.S. Marshals Service to take custody of the dogs. The Marshals Service says there has been no such order.
Other reports said Hudson will decide the fate of the dogs. Hudson's secretary says that's not true. The pit bulls are in the custody of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sources with knowledge of the situation say, and will be evaluated by veterinarians and other animal experts to determine whether they can be rehabilitated and placed in other homes.
Since they are fighting dogs, bred to destroy other animals, their chances of making it are slim. Even PETA and the Humane Society of the United States have suggested that the best option is probably euthanasia. So the pit bulls wait, in 4-by-6 kennels. They're fed, watered and cared for, likely awaiting their ultimate death sentences.
"It's almost like they're in a witness protection program," says PETA spokesman Dan Shannon.
"It's very unusual. Normally you wouldn't see a case play out for this length of time. On one hand, it's unfortunate for the animals that their futures are kind of hanging in the balance for this court case. I don't know the details of where they're living, but you've got to figure this has probably been the best four months of their lives at this point."
In Surry County, a pit bull is considered a trophy among some young, single males. Gearheads have Hemis, muscleheads have pecs, and in these parts, testosterone levels can be measured by the thickness of a dog. Lane says he ran into a lot of dogs during his eight-month run as animal control officer. Chows, he hated. But he rarely met a bad pit bull.
The pit bull, advocates say, is a misunderstood animal.
The dog is banned in Miami, Denver and Ontario, Canada. Insurance companies often drop customers who own a squinted-eyed dog that even looks like a pit. But there was a time when they were Hollywood stars, when Petey was the loveable pooch on "Our Gang." Too much bad publicity, pit lovers say. Animal People, which studies dog attacks through media reports, says pit bulls and their mixes were responsible for 110 deaths from 1982 to 2006.
Too many bad owners, says John Goodwin, deputy manager of the Animal Cruelty Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States. He's been on raids when bloodied pit bulls licked his hand as they were being carted away. He's also seen what dogs can do to other four-legged creatures.
"I would say pit bulls are people dogs," Goodwin says. "They are generally very loyal dogs that want to please the person they're with.
"The problem is that some people exploit that and have the dogs please them by fighting them to death."
The Humane Society estimates there are 40,000 professional dogfighters in this country.
Game-bred pit bulls, Goodwin says, fare the worst at shelters because they are high-energy, athletic animals that need attention and exercise. Their owners train them on tread mills and teach them to be killing machines. Shelter life is a completely different world. In Surry, there are 14 cages, seven on each side, with a drain in the middle. Most cages are no bigger than a walk-in closet. Because of staffing issues in small-town shelters, some of the dogs might not get walked. This can result in "cage rage," in which the dog jumps up and down and paces in its tiny quarters.
Some gnaw the plastic off air kennels, which are used to hold the dogs while their runs are cleaned. Some chew so hard that their gums bleed and their teeth break.
"It's a miserable life," Goodwin says. "They're anxious to get out and run and burn off some of that energy.
"It's unfortunate because they're dammed if they do and they're dammed if they don't."
When Vick's dogs were viewed by the Humane Society, a few people noted that some of the dogs were very friendly, and a couple of others were kind of scary. Animal experts say most game-bred dogs aren't inclined to attack people. They just want to maul the animals in the cages next to them.
And therein lies the dilemma, why some of the most hard-core animal advocates are recommending that the dogs be euthanized. One leap over a fence could lead to the death of a neighbor's beagle or cocker spaniel. That's just the way the dog was bred.
"I have never met a pit bull on a dogfighting raid that I didn't like," Goodwin says. "I regret the euthanasia angle to this. [But] you can't let these dogs socialize with other animals, and keeping them in some kind of solitary confinement for all their lives isn't suitable."
A woman in Georgia has filed a civil action against the United States government for the dogs. She lists the defendants as "approximately 53 bulldogs." She wants them to be spared, to have their teeth removed, then adopted out into society. If nobody wants them, Bernadette Allen says she'll shelter all of the dogs herself on her five-acre property outside of Atlanta.
"I want to be heard on the matter," Allen says. "I don't normally get involved in stuff like this. But I think these dogs are entitled to a chance."
Had Vick assaulted his girlfriend or punched out a teammate, critics say, he wouldn't have drawn near the public ire as he has for being involved in dogfighting. Maybe that's how much Americans revere their pets. Cat lovers may spend thousands of dollars on veterinarian bills; some dog ladies plunk down more on gourmet dog food than they do for their own dinner tables.
Pro athletes are not immune to this four-legged fixation. When cornerback Eric Warfield played for the Kansas City Chiefs, he lugged his prized Chihuahua around in a $1,500 Louis Vuitton bag and lavished it with a $6,000 necklace. Michael Bosilevac, a veterinarian who used to treat the pets of some Milwaukee Brewers players, says a player once had his initials engraved into his dog's gold teeth.
A few miles from the courthouse in Richmond where Vick will enter his plea on Monday, Jeremy Harrington plays with his puppy named Boca at Barker Park. Like many pet owners, he's torn over what should happen to the dogs confiscated on Vick's property. He doesn't think the public fixation with them is all that strange.
"If you do anything to another person, that person could've provoked you, but it's obviously never right to hit somebody," Harrington says. "A dog would never do anything to provoke it. It's an innocent thing."
Ray Lane never much liked being the animal control officer. When the job opened up a few years back, he was driving a garbage truck. The guy who used to be Surry's animal control officer doubled as the sanitation director. Lane would just take care of the animals. How hard, he figured, could that be?
"You know how taxpayers can get," he says. "You're not moving fast enough, you can't get there fast enough.
"It's the country, you know what I'm saying? People are pretty much friendly, but if you're a person like me who grew up around here, everybody knows you. It got to the point where some people would come to my house or call to my house just because they knew me since I was a little boy to come get a dog or they got a cat scratchin' at their door. I said, 'This is too much for me.'"
The man who works in the drab brown building now is James Smith, a young, religious sort who doesn't swear and used to work in a child detention center. If Jamey could handle those kids, Lane says, he could certainly handle the public, the feds, and even Michael Vick's dogs.
The sign on the shelter says "open" on Friday afternoon, but the door is locked and Smith doesn't answer. He says he's busy. Dogs are barking in the background. He says he won't tamper with a federal investigation, even though the dogs were taken away more than two weeks ago. He's grown tired of the media bothering him. He says they should cover Surry's football team, which should be pretty good this fall.
Privately, in the shelters that still house Vick dogs, some workers have grown attached to them and struggle with the idea of keeping the animals alive on doggie death row.
In general, the average shelter worker has a shelf life of about five years, says Richard Samuels, an animal control officer who's president of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force. When dealing with game-bred dogs, they still nurse the animals, feed them and even pet them. They take them for walks on their own lunch breaks.
"They do get attached to them," he says. "It's like having your pet every day, you just don't take him home. And then you have to put him to sleep.
"Mentally, it's very stressful. Some days you win, and some days you lose."
Veterinarians say putting a dog to sleep is painless. Forty seconds, and a dog the size of a pit bull is gone. In some clinics, dogs are given an overdose of Phenobarbital, an anticonvulsant for humans. It sedates them, then stops the heart.
Sometimes pet owners want to be there. When they can't handle it, they call Karen Cohen, a certified animal chaplain in Virginia, one of the first in the country. She does pet memorial services and counsels grieving owners.
She's been thinking about the Vick dogs, praying for them and nearly offered her services to the U.S. Attorney's office. Then she thought of all the people who are already involved, the feds and the shelter workers, and decided she didn't want to "muddy the waters."
"I feel compassion for both the perpetrator and the dogs," Cohen says. "There must be something, I feel, a disconnect somewhere for Mr. Vick to have treated animals this way, though it is not uncommon for people to think animals don't have feelings like we do.
"I think every living thing has a soul. I think it's pretty egocentric for the human animal to think we're that much better than other life forms."
It is Thursday, and judgment day has supposedly come for Vick's dogs. Local TV stations carry a story saying this is the last day for the public to claim the animals, and that the clock is ticking. The forfeiture notice is a formality, really, something the U.S. Attorney's office is required to run in the newspaper for seized property, whether it's guns, drugs or dogs.
The deadline comes and goes and all is quiet for the dogs. About a 40-minute drive from Vick's house on Moonlight Road, where they were seized, a sign with a fluffy kitten on it twists outside the Chesapeake animal shelter. The sign says welcome, but a woman in a uniform inside quickly stiffens. She says no one in the shelter will talk about the dogs.
Down the road in Suffolk, where a mom and her kids are dropping off a hamperful of stray kittens, they're issuing the same no comments. This is how serious they are about dog leaks -- an animal group snapped pictures of the dogs, gave them to a few media outlets and caught heat for it.
There are at least two reasons for the deep secrecy. The dogs are considered federal evidence. The dogs came from a successful kennel and are considered valuable to other dogfighters or would-be thieves.
So in a move befitting dogs that don't like each other, they were scattered in shelters over at least six towns, according to federal court records. Thirteen pit bulls were taken to Surry, but according to court records, two of them died. The remaining 11 were moved to Hanover County. Another 19 pit bulls were put in a shelter in Sussex County. Ten were taken to Chesapeake, three were taken to Virginia Beach, five to Suffolk and one to Hopewell. One dog, a Presa Canario, was returned to its owner on Aug. 13. Approximately 12 other dogs were seized from the Vick residence. Some are believed to be beagles, and animal activists hope they are adoptable. It's unclear why Vick had them.
Sources with knowledge of the situation say the dogs are still alive, and it could be weeks before their fates are decided. Lane, who's standing outside the animal shelter on a hot afternoon as the flies buzz by, never got to talk to Smith about whether he was sad or relieved when the dogs were taken. That's classified, too.
But in a two-man operation with 14 kennels, a town of stray dogs and 11 precious pieces of federal evidence, Lane assumes Smith was relieved.
"Those dogs were pretty much like babies when they were here," he says. "I know they were treated like babies. Just because of the case. You've got to [keep] evidence up. What good is dead evidence?"
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.