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The Road To Recovery For Michael Vick's Dogs

In July 2007, Michael Vick and three other men were arrested and charged with operating an interstate dogfighting ring. When the authorities arrived, they seized 51 pit bulls from Vick's Virginia fighting compound, which he'd nicknamed the "Bad Newz Kennels." The pit bulls showed clear signs of being abused and tortured.

Much attention has been paid to Vick and whether he should have been eligible to return to the NFL when he was released from prison. It turns out there was also an extremely successful effort to rehabilitate the pit bulls rescued from his compound. Many found new lives as pets, and others live peacefully with other dogs in animal sanctuaries.

Jim Gorant, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, has been following the 49 surviving pit bulls the past three years. He's written a book about their story called The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption.

Gorant joins Dave Davies for a conversation about the rehabilitation of the dogs. He's joined by Hector, a pit bull rescued from Vick's compound; dog trainer Andrew Yori, who adopted Hector, and Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, a psychologist and ASPCA animal behavior specialist who worked extensively with the Vick dogs.

Zawistowski explains that the Vick case offered a rare opportunity to have both the knowledge and the resources to rehabilitate the pit bulls at the center of the case.

"I've been working in the field for over 20 years now and when I first started, when we did dog busts at the ASPCA, typically the dogs were euthanized," Zawistowski says. "Part of it was because our ability [to understand] dog behavior and knowledge hadn't really developed to the point where we really understood the opportunities and the trajectory of a rehabilitation program."

He says the Vick case was quite unusual and drew a lot of attention -- particularly because of the $1 million Vick was required to put aside for restitution. Zawistowski assembled a team to evaluate and test the 49 surviving pit bulls to see what might be possible for their rehabilitation.

"We thought maybe if we found a handful of dogs [that could be saved] it would be a precedent, it would be great for us. It would be great for the dogs," Zawistowski says. "The target might have been five or 10 dogs out of this particular group. That was what we were thinking we might get and if we got that, we'd be happy."

Forty-seven dogs were given to sanctuaries to be rehabilitated. (One dog had to be euthanized for behavior and another because of injuries.) Some of the dogs remain at those sanctuaries today while others have been successfully adopted.

Hector, who accompanied the three guests to the Fresh Air studios, bore some of the worst fighting scars of the Vick dogs. But with Yori's help, Hector eventually became one of four former Vick dogs to become a certified therapy dog. Hector and Yori now live in upstate New York, where Yori works for the Animal Farm Foundation.

Interview Highlights

On the tests used to evaluate the pit bulls

Zawistowski: "We had started developing a battery of tests ... : Could you touch the dog and handle the dog? Was the dog reactive? How did it respond to people? How did it respond to other dogs? Was the dog safe around food, toys and children? Things like that. So when we sat down to take a look at [the Vick] case, we needed to understand what the potential aggression problems were going to be. And we also needed to satisfy the government's concerns about liability. If this dog goes out and we permitted it and it attacks a small child, it's going to get back to us somehow. So we really needed to demonstrate to the government that the dogs were going to be safe when we made some recommendations for placement."

On beards and food

Zawistowski: "One of the things we often find with dogs in these rehabilitation situations is that these dogs don't do well with men with beards. I have a beard and a mustache. I've been called in many times to shelters to come in and look threatening -- so that's one of the things we'll do with these particular dogs. We often give them food -- something that's really highly desirable. And then if you try to take that food away from them, do they growl? Do they attack or something like that? And then the real test was: Could you bring in another dog? And we used a combination of both other dogs as well as dummy dogs or test dogs. And these were when we really weren't certain if it would be safe. In most of the cases, we were able to bring in another dog into the vicinity of the dog and they'd have very little reaction whatsoever."

On what was at stake with Vick's dogs

Zawistowski: "It was one of the handful of times that the nation was focused on a dogfighting case. The resources that were available were as good as we think we were ever going to get. So that if we failed, the question was going to be: Was another chance ever going to come? So we really wanted to make our best effort, and it's one of the reasons why if we could only pick out at least just the 10 best dogs, that would be a really great step forward for us. And what we have seen going forward with this case, is that this has now really become a standard practice in many dogfighting cases. They look to bring in a team of behaviorists. They look to have the dogs evaluated. I will say that many of these cases, they haven't saved 95 percent of the dogs in the case. It's been a third of the dogs in the case. It's been a quarter of the dogs in the case. But that's still better than not making the effort at all."

On fear of pit bulls

Jim Gorant: "As odd as it may seem, Michael Vick may be the best thing that ever happened to the pit bull. He gave the forum to discuss this and make it possible to get the message out there that these dogs are not what they've been made out to be in the headlines, that they really are just sort of dogs. And a lot varies from each one to another and then how they're raised and socialized and all of these issues that go around them. You can find the sweetest, most loving pit bulls in the world and you can find other dogs that are as mean as you want."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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