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May 20, 2009

What’s Next for Michael Vick?

There was nobody tougher on Michael Vick than The Humane Society of the United States. After sufficient facts came to light about the happenings at Bad Newz Kennels in Surry County, Virginia—the sometime residence of Vick that had morphed into a dogfighting staging ground—The HSUS urged state and federal authorities to prosecute him and we made a key confidential informant available to federal authorities, which proved vital to the case.

We also campaigned, along with others, to urge the Atlanta Falcons to drop Vick, the NFL to suspend him, and his corporate sponsors (such as Nike) to sever their ties. All of that happened, and the fuel that drove all of these actions was the rage and disgust that so many millions of Americans felt once the details came out.

Vick and the other three individuals at the vortex of the criminal network at Bad Newz should have been prosecuted and punished, and they were. They did horrible things.

Long before the Vick case, it was The HSUS, working with our allies in Congress led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Elton Gallegly, that drove the enactment of strong federal laws to crack down on animal fighting—banning any interstate or foreign transport of animals for fighting and upgrading penalties with amendments to the Animal Welfare Act in 2002. We worked on a further upgrade of the law in 2007 to make it a federal felony to move dogs across state lines. For years, we had been working with the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture—the Office of Inspector General—sharing intelligence on animal fighting crimes, emphasizing the corrosive impact of animal fighting on our communities, and urging them to be more aggressive in investigating cases. When the Vick case came to light, these federal authorities grabbed the torch, especially after they saw the Surry County prosecutor failing to take action. For their leadership, we honored federal prosecutors and investigators in 2007 at our annual Law Enforcement Awards ceremony.

Young boy holding pit bull
© The HSUS
The HSUS End Dogfighting program mobilizes community members.

For The HSUS, dogfighting had long been a priority concern, and we knew it was an epidemic problem, especially in urban communities. But most people considered it a relic issue—a settled matter and a rare occurrence. The Vick case synced public sentiment with the scale of the problem, and dogfighting rightly reoccupied a priority slot on the animal protection agenda in America.

The HSUS tried to channel this energy in the aftermath of the Vick case, and we helped to pass a remarkable 21 new laws against animal fighting, including a third upgrade of the federal law. Thanks to our supporters, we amped up our rewards program and worked with state Attorneys General and other law enforcement agencies to advertise the program. We set up tip lines so we could gather other information. We established community-based programs to do outreach to young people at risk of getting enmeshed in the world of dogfighting. We expanded our training of law enforcement agents in investigation and prosecution of animal fighting crimes.

Last year, we were involved in more than 250 busts of animal fighting operations, both dogfighting and cockfighting.

So with this record of action, I think I’d be the least likely guy to end up sitting at a small table and talking calmly with Michael Vick about his interest in working with us.

But when you step back and ponder it, we are actually the most logical place for him to go. We have the most developed programs on the issue, so if he’s sincere about making a difference, there’s no better place to land.

I sat with the man, but I still don’t know what’s in his heart. He told me he did terrible things to dogs. He said he grew up with dogfighting as a boy, and that he never sufficiently questioned it as he grew into manhood.

He said this experience has been a trauma and he’s changed forever. And he said he wants to show the American public that he is committed to helping combat this problem. He asked for an opportunity to help. I want to give him that opportunity. If he makes the most of it, and demonstrates a sincere, long-term commitment to the task, then it may prove to be a tipping point in our campaign to eradicate dogfighting. If he demonstrates a fleeting or superficial interest, then it will be his own failing, not ours. Our campaign will march forward regardless. It’s up to him, and we at The HSUS reserve judgment until he demonstrates that he’s part of the solution rather than a further part of the problem.

Maybe if there had been an intervention program in Newport News 15 years ago, a young Michael Vick would have grown to love and respect pit bulls, and he would not have done these terrible things to dogs. For me, it’s not about Michael Vick and providing endless punitive treatment. It’s about stopping other young people from going down the road Vick took. It’s about having kids today put down their break sticks and destroy their pit bull treadmills.

We’ve done a lot with the law, and with law enforcement, and that work continues. But the most urgent challenge we face is interrupting the cycle of violence that leads kids down this dead end path, one that’s paved with animal misery. They need to see that dogfighters never succeed. They are criminals, and there’s no good outcome. Michael Vick’s story is a narrative they need to hear.

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