Michael Vick’s return to wealth and prosperity continued earlier this month with a new $20 million NFL contract — while one of his former dogs is suffering another setback.
Vick, who served 21 months in prison for running a dog-fighting ring, signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles after leading the team to a 10-6 record last year. The 30-year-old quarterback’s financial comeback comes less than three years after he filed for bankruptcy following his conviction. However, one of the best stories to come out of the Michael Vick scandal — the rehabilitation of a small black-and-white pit bull named Jonny Justice — may not have such a happy ending.
After he was rescued, Jonny’s unrelenting enthusiasm won him a new home with Cris Cohen, a volunteer for the pit bull rescue organization BAD RAP. Upon arriving at Cohen’s San Francisco home in December 2007, Jonny responded well to the attention and training he received from Cohen and his fiancee Jen Long. He passed his Canine Good Citizen test (an American Kennel Club standard that probes 10 aspects of a dog’s temperament), and was certified as a therapy dog. He went to work in a program called Paws for Tales, in which kids read to dogs at libraries, helping to build their confidence and passion for reading.
|Michael Vick was convicted of operating an illegal dog-fighting facility in Virginia in 2007. [Photo: Getty]|
Jonny worked for more than 18 months in libraries all over San Mateo County. He appeared on CNN, CBS and in countless newspapers and magazines, including starring roles in a cover story I wrote for Parade last summer (Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?) and a subsequent book (The Lost Dogs). Jonny wasn’t simply helping kids read, he was teaching us all about the unfair bias against pit bulls — and the power of redemption.
Then it all came to a halt.
Last summer, Patricia Harding, a librarian in Burlingame, Calif., banned pit bulls from the Paws for Tales program in her facility. Neither Cohen nor Jonny had ever worked at Harding’s library, but another volunteer and her pit bull were suddenly no longer welcome. Cohen, an advocate for the breed, was offended by the ban.
He approached the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, which oversees 60 human-canine Paws for Tales teams in 20 cities. He wanted the Humane Society to pull the program from Burlingame in protest. “We asked [the library] to reconsider. They said they liked the program but didn’t want pit bulls,” says Scott Delucchi, of Peninsula Humane Society. “We were disappointed, but thought, ‘If we pull the program who loses? The kids.’ So we decided to continue.”
In January, Cohen and Jonny resigned from Paws for Tales in protest. He teamed with lawyers associated with BAD RAP and checked the state’s laws. According to California’s Food and Agricultural Code (Section 31681-31683), it is illegal to act against any animal based on breed except in the case of instituting mandatory spay and neuter programs. Cohen wrote a letter pointing this out to the librarian and Burlingame city leaders, including the mayor Terry Nagel, vice mayor Jerry Deal, and Jim Nantell, the city manager.
Two weeks ago, he finally heard back. City attorney Gus Guinan acknowledged that in accordance with the code, the ban would be lifted. Good news, right? Well, not quite. The letter also noted that the library decided to withdraw from the Paws for Tales program completely.
Where are Michael Vick’s
Although all dogs are tested extensively before joining the program, and they carry $2 million in liability insurance, Harding cited “safety and liability issues” for pulling the program. “For the amount of concerns we had we weren’t reaching enough kids,” she added.
She could not remember a specific reason for the initial ban, but noted, “Parents had concerns about dogs in the library, and since we need to allow all dogs we decided the program didn’t fit our needs.”
The library’s position seems justifiable on the surface. The Peninsula Humane Society sounds reasonable when it argues that even without pit bulls the program produces positive results. But what if the situation involved people instead of dogs? If one entire group—Native Americans, Mormons, lefthanders, etc.—were eliminated from a program because of a preconceived bias against it, would the local citizens stand for that?
“Some may see it as a loss to the children of the community. But I don’t,” says Cohen. “A library is a source of information and learning. If the person in charge is participating in discrimination, children should not be anywhere near that facility. There is too much hate in this world already, children do not need to learn it at the library.”