Michael Vick:
An American Story

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Michael Vick:
An American Story

By  Ken Shapiro, Ph.D., Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
January 2011

I doubt that he received a psychological evaluation for the problem of animal abuse (although such are available) to determine the most effective type of treatment and the likelihood of its effectiveness in his case.

Our experience with the AniCare approach over the past decade has established that some individuals benefit from treatment, substituting pro-social behaviors for animal abuse.

Discussion of the advisability of allowing Michael Vick to become the guardian of a companion animal in the near term future raises a number of issues about which reasonable people disagree (Wayne Pacelle, HSUS; Michael Mountain, Zoe: It's Our Nature).

One issue is therapeutic: Can a person who abused animals in the egregious way that Vick did be rehabilitated? As readers of this blog are aware, ASI has produced AniCare, the only published psychological intervention for the treatment of animal abusers. Our experience with the AniCare approach over the past decade has established that some individuals benefit from treatment, substituting pro-social behaviors for animal abuse. Treatment effectiveness decreases with many factors, including degree of psychological disturbance, age, severity of the abuse, and sub-cultural sanction of the behavior.

Although some consideration was given to requiring Vick to undergo treatment, I do not know whether that occurred and doubt, if he did receive some treatment, that it was an adequate intervention. As importantly, I doubt that he received a psychological evaluation for the problem of animal abuse (although such are available) to determine the most effective type of treatment and the likelihood of its effectiveness in his case.

In principle, if a person has undergone treatment and follow-up evaluation of his behavior indicates that he is no longer abusing animals, from a therapeutic perspective he could be allowed to be the guardian of a companion animal. In fact, under continued counseling supervision, arguably, it is therapeutic.

So, regarding Vick, if and only if the above conditions were met, we would not object on therapeutic grounds to his being a companion animal guardian.

However, a second issue needs consideration -- movement strategy. In our discussion of therapeutics, we are restricted to a strategic focus on change at the individual level. Indeed, focus on the individual is the more immediate response – give the individual his just deserts, protect animals from further harm from this individual, and, if possible, help the individual to change.

But the high public visibility of Vick (no less than President Obama feels compelled to weigh in), provides a compelling reason to focus on the broader strategy of cultural change. The Humane Society of the US has capitalized on this opportunity, helping to shape the narrative into an “American success story” – arguably, one of the most effective ways to facilitate positive cultural change in this society. In my view, here is the story to date:

Vick’s actions were deplorable and wrong; he was punished for and embarrassed by them; he was rehabilitated; he used his public platform to educate people about the importance of taking animal abuse seriously; and, the final chapter under discussion here, he became a caring guardian of a companion animal.

The Vick case presents the movement with an opportunity to have a major impact on public attitudes toward dog-fighting, animal abuse, and society’s treatment of animals more generally.