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December 16, 2010

Michael Vick and Having a Pet

It’s too soon for Michael Vick to have a dog. Pet-keeping is a privilege and he lost that privilege when he committed atrocious acts of cruelty in the months and years before his arrest in 2007. As part of his federal sentencing, the court rightly determined that he should not be allowed to have a dog until his probation ends. It’s too early in terms of his own rehabilitation, and that’s the principle behind the restriction on pet-keeping in the Vick household that the court meted out.

All of that said, I do think that if his rehabilitation progresses and he handles the probation period flawlessly, it could be a good thing for Michael Vick’s family to have a pet at the end of that process. To adopt a pet is the most cherished desire of countless millions of children everywhere, including Michael Vick’s two little girls, London and Jada. It’s the most natural thing in the world for a parent to want to grant that wish.

Michael Vick speaks to D.C. youth
Michelle Riley/The HSUS
Michael Vick speaks to D.C. youth.

At many of the more than two dozen public appearances at schools to speak against dogfighting and all animal cruelty—typically, with hundreds of kids at each gathering—Michael Vick has also mentioned how difficult it has been to explain to his children that they cannot have a pet because of the terrible things he’s done. This is a burden he brought upon himself, and he has to face up to that.

It’s now a well-established principle within our movement that those convicted of malicious cruelty should not be permitted to have pets, at least for a number of years after a cruelty conviction, and sometimes even for life. It’s a precautionary policy, grounded on the notion that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior and that it’s just very hard to know if someone has been rehabilitated. Together as a society, we are responsible for placing animals in homes where they are loved, and where they are safe.

That’s my policy for Vick, too. I agreed with the judge’s ruling that he should not have a dog for at least a three year period after his incarceration. But the court did not decide to impose a lifetime ban, and based on the work for animals he has undertaken since his release from prison, I don’t  believe he should be forever banned from adopting a dog for his two daughters.

Vick has been undergoing weekly psychological counseling for the last 18 months. He’s also been speaking out against dogfighting, and in his public appearances alone he’s reaching thousands of young people with a cautionary tale about dogfighting and animal cruelty. He and I recently did a program in late November in New Haven, and together we spoke to 2,000 at-risk kids. They heard a powerful message, and one they probably would never have heard if Michael Vick had not been convicted for illegal dogfighting. In the past two weeks, he’s conducted two more programs in Philadelphia in concert with The HSUS and the Philadelphia Eagles, with 600 more kids. While the most important aspect of this work is the education it provides for these kids, it is also part of Michael Vick’s own rehabilitation and his process of relocating his reservoir of empathy, and exercising it and building it up.

It would be a natural next step for him to interact positively with animals in a public setting. It’s my hope that eventually he’ll spend regular time at our End Dogfighting training programs and meet with the kids and the animals active in our program. These are kids who have pit bulls and are either involved in dogfighting or at risk of involvement. The program is designed to turn them around, and to give them a new way of valuing the physicality and majesty of their dogs—through gentle training of the animals, under the watch of a professional behaviorist. In this process, he’ll feel the unconditional love that animals offer. I hope in the process that it also further builds that reservoir of empathy.

If at some point in the future—after his probation ends, with his counseling continuing, and with him having demonstrated an ability to interact in a positive way with animals in a supervised setting—then it would be time to confront the question of Vick being allowed to bring a dog back to his family. It’s too soon now, and that’s the way I’ve felt all along, even though my position in one news story posted online yesterday was boiled down to the simple “yes-no” question about whether he should have a dog.

I have a better window to see Vick’s rehabilitation unfold than just about anyone. I’ve been watching it carefully, and I’ll continue to do so. It’s a lot more complex than a yes-no question. It’s a progression, and he’s under a microscope at every turn, and rightfully so. If a perpetrator serves time and gets counseling, and if they show they can be an upstanding member of society, then maybe, under the right circumstances and after several years of not being allowed to have a pet, then they could have their pet-keeping privileges reinstated. Where the human-animal bond has been broken, we want it to be restored.

So far, Vick has made the most of the second chance life has given him, on the field, where he has been successful, and off the field, where he has invested himself in speaking to young people about the dead-end of dogfighting. He has found new meaning and purpose, and come to terms with the awful things he did to animals.

There may be some who would forever deny Michael Vick the opportunity to have a pet. I understand that sentiment. But there is a larger principle at stake here. We at The HSUS are about the business of change—personal and societal change. Our work with Michael Vick is helping to change the view of pit bulls in urban communities from fighters to friends. We must be open to the possibility that rehabilitation is possible, and faithful to our hope that people can change. When that rehabilitation succeeds, it’s to the good for all involved—people and animals alike.

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