College of LAS « Illinois

Alumni Profile

The Michael Vick Case

LAS alum helps rescue dogs from canine fight club.

Stephen Zawistowski and dog Morgan

The dogs were doomed.

Almost everyone expected that the 51 dogs, most of them pit bulls, would be put down. Even the organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, advocated that the dogs be euthanized. After all, these were the dogs discovered in the notorious dog-fighting ring on the property of NFL quarterback Michael Vick. They were beyond redemption.

However, Stephen Zawistowski, an LAS alumnus, thought otherwise. When the public expressed great interest in the fate of Vick’s fighting dogs, a federal attorney turned to Zawistowski, a University of Illinois psychology graduate now serving as executive vice president and science advisor for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

According to Zawistowski, an ASPCA forensic veterinarian had been brought into the Vick case to determine the cause of death for numerous dogs on the property. Dogs that did not make the grade as fighting animals had been electrocuted, shot, drowned, hanged, or slammed on the ground, reported a Sports Illustrated cover story.

But what about the surviving dogs? This ASPCA colleague recommended that Zawistowski be brought in to evaluate the dogs and determine if they might be saved. So Zawistowski, a certified applied animal behaviorist, pulled together a team to do just that.

“We looked at how responsive the dogs were to people and other dogs, and how they reacted to novel situations,” he says. “One of the first things you do is find out if the dogs allow you to touch them. Can you put your hands around their ears, feet, or muzzle? Are they comfortable being handled?”

Working in teams of three, one person would keep the dog on a leash, a second person carefully attempted to interact with the dog, and the third person observed and evaluated.

Zawistowski has investigated many cases of aggressive dogs, and he was surprised to discover that most of Vick’s animals were not as aggressive as expected.

“Our impression,” he says, “was that these were more similar to dogs you would find in hoarding cases,” in which people keep large numbers of animals but give them little care and attention. In the end, only one of the 51 dogs had to be put down for aggression—although a couple of them had to be euthanized for medical reasons.

For Zawistowski, caring for animals has been a lifelong passion. “I was the kid in the neighborhood who brought home all the birds and critters around town, would fix them up, and let them go,” he says. He and his father even bred beagles when he was growing up.

Zawistowski completed his master’s in psychology at U of I in 1979 and his PhD in 1983, focusing on behavior genetics—with an emphasis on animal behavior. He worked with the U of I’s Jerry Hirsch, a pioneer in behavior genetics, and they studied the influences of both learning and genetics on animal behavior. Specifically, they used classical conditioning techniques to change the feeding behavior of blowflies.

After teaching at two universities, Zawistowski found that the ASPCA was looking for someone with a background in animal behavior. He fit the bill, so he joined the ASPCA in 1988 and helped start an animal behavior evaluation program. He also began as director of the education department, which had a staff of only two or three—“me, one guy, and a chicken.” Today, 400 of the ASPCA’s staff of 500 report to him.

Although dog-fighting cases may capture headlines, he says he is most proud for helping to bring scientific management techniques to animal shelters. In fact, he helped to establish a new field known as shelter medicine, which combines the management of large numbers of animals with traditional companion animal medicine.

According to Zawistowski, attitudes on animal welfare are changing, as evidenced by three landmark events, including the Michael Vick case. The other two were the outpouring of concern over animals in Hurricane Katrina and the massive pet food recall in 2007. The Vick case also led to this year’s raid on a dog-fighting ring in five states, in which authorities seized 350 dogs and arrested 30 people.

“They had been working on the case for two years,” he says. “So it shows they’re taking it very seriously.”

Dog fighting is illegal nationwide, but there is a large subculture, complete with glossy magazines and an Internet underground. In certain areas, he says, weekend dog fights are major events that even include rides for children.

Once again, most of the dogs seized in the recent raid were pit bulls, which raises the question of whether pit bulls are aggressive by nature or have it trained into them; and this goes right back to the behavior research that Zawistowski did at the U of I.

He says it’s a combination of breeding and training. “Just as it’s easier to teach a Labrador how to retrieve a ball than a beagle, it’s easier to teach a pit bull how to fight. Pit bulls are natural athletes. But it doesn’t mean every Labrador is going to retrieve and every pit bull is going to be a fighting dog.”

As for Michael Vick’s dogs, he asks, “Will they ever be like a dog that has never been fought? No. They’ll always bear the legacy of both their breeding and training. But it doesn’t mean they are killers for life.”

By Doug Peterson
Fall 2009