The Road To Recovery For Michael Vick's Dogs

Andrew Yori and Hector i i

Andrew Yori (with Hector) is the director of care and enrichment for the Animal Farm Foundation, where he regularly cares for, trains and adopts dogs rescued from animal cruelty cases. Courtesy Andrew Yori hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Andrew Yori
Andrew Yori and Hector

Andrew Yori (with Hector) is the director of care and enrichment for the Animal Farm Foundation, where he regularly cares for, trains and adopts dogs rescued from animal cruelty cases.

Courtesy Andrew Yori
The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption
By Jim Gorant
Hardcover, 304 pages
Gotham
List price: $26
Read An Excerpt

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."

Jim Gorant and a pit bull i i

Jim Gorant is a senior editor at Sports Illustrated. Deanne Fitzmaurice hide caption

itoggle caption Deanne Fitzmaurice
Jim Gorant and a pit bull

Jim Gorant is a senior editor at Sports Illustrated.

Deanne Fitzmaurice

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."

Excerpt: 'The Lost Dogs'

The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs
The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption
By Jim Gorant
Hardcover, 304 pages
Gotham
List price: $26

An article I wrote about the Michael Vick dogs appeared on the cover of the December 29th, 2008, issue of Sports Illustrated. In the weeks after, the magazine received almost 488 letters and emails about the story and the dog pictured on the cover, the most we got in response to any issue for that entire year. By an overwhelming majority the letters were supportive, but there were some detractors.

My greatest fear was a flood of complaints from people with friends or loved ones that had been injured or lost to pit bull attacks, but there were remarkably few of those. Most of the complainers fell into two groups. The first: What does this have to do with sports? A fair question, if you take the narrowest view of the subject — if all you want from your subscription is games and players and straight up analysis — then that's a legitimate gripe. I would argue, however, that what defines Sports Illustrated and has set it apart for more than 50 years are well-told stories that attempt to put sports into a larger perspective, to offer a deeper and broader view of how the people and events in question reflect and contribute to the larger social and moral make-up of our society. To each is own, I suppose.

The second complaint was more troubling. In its simplest incarnation it usually went something like this: Why does it matter, they're just dogs? The more verbose in this camp might elaborate: People are dying and starving every day and we've got bigger problems. No one cares if you kill cows or chickens or hunt deer. What's different about dogs?

What is different about dogs? I had not directly addressed the question in the article. On some level it seemed obvious to me, but at the same time I couldn't put a satisfying answer to words. As I started work on this book, the question hung over my head. As I was interviewing experts, reading books on canine history and behavior, touring shelters and talking to dog lovers, I processed a lot of the information through the prism of that question.

The answer, cobbled together from all those readings and conversations, took me back to the beginning. Men first domesticated dogs more than 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors were hunting for their meals and sleeping next to open fires at night. Dogs were instant helpers in our struggle for survival. They guarded us in the dark and helped us find food by day. We offered them something too, scraps of food, some measure of protection, the heat of the flames. In an article about the origin of dogs that ran in the New York Times in early 2010, one expert on dog genetics theorized that, "dogs could have been the sentries that let hunter gatherers settle without fear of surprise attack. They may also have been the first major item of inherited wealth, preceding cattle, and so could have laid the foundations for the gradations of wealth and social hierarchy that differentiated settled groups from their hunter-gatherer predecessors."

Certainly, as man rose in the world, dogs came with us, perhaps even aiding the advance. They continued to guard us and help with hunting, but they did more. They marched with armies into war, they worked by our sides, hauling, pulling, herding, retrieving. We manipulated their genetic makeup to suit our purposes, cross breeding types to create animals that could kill the rats infecting our cities or search for those lost in the snow or the woods.

In return we brought them into our homes, made them part of our families. We offered them love and companionship and they returned the gesture.  From the start it was a compact: You do this for us and we'll do that for you.

Our relationship with dogs has always been different than it has been with livestock or wildlife. The only other animal that comes close is the horse, which has undoubtedly been a partner in our evolution and a companion. But a horse can't curl up at the bottom of your bed at night, and it can't come up and lick your face when you're feeling down. Dogs have that ability to sense what we're feeling and commiserate. There's a reason they're called man's best friend.

As for why our bond with them matters, there are reasons for that, too. If you hang around animal activists for a while you'll inevitably hear repeated a famous Gandhi quote: "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." The idea being that in order to lift the whole of society, you must first prop up the lowest among its many parts. If you show good will and kindness toward those who cannot stand up for themselves, you set a tone of compassion and good will that permeates all.

To this day, I believe Donna Reynolds, one of the founders of Bad Rap, a rescue organization at the center of the Vick case, said it best. "Vick showed the worst of us, our bloodlust, but this showed the best. I don't think any of us thought it was possible — the government, the rescuers, the people involved. We like to think we have life figured out, and it's nice that it can still surprise us, that sometimes we can accomplish things we had only dreamed of. We've moved our evolution forward. Just a little bit, but we have, and I'm happy to have been a part of that."

I'm happy to have witnessed the effort and told the story.

Excerpted from The Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant. Copyright 2010 by Jim Gorant. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption

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