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May 22, 2009

Talk Back: Michael Vick As Messenger

I remember the first time I read the eyewitness accounts and confessions of what took place at Michael Vick's house in Surry County, Virginia, and, like many of you, I remember how furious I was that anyone could commit such unconscionable acts against animals.

I wanted to be sure that he and the others involved in Bad Newz Kennels were held legally and morally responsible for their crimes, and that's exactly what we did. We worked with investigators, the NFL, corporate sponsors, and political leaders to demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy for dogfighting and to mete out stern punishment for those involved. We also channeled our anger into resolve in our broader campaign against animal fighting, and we worked methodically in the states to strengthen laws and to build an array of on-the-ground programs to attack the problem at its root. Our supporters at The HSUS were with us every step of the way, and last year alone, we had a role in more than 250 busts of animal fighting operations, after strengthening the laws in more than 20 states.

We are confronted with a new challenge now that Vick has served nearly two years of time in a federal penitentiary and seen his personal assets liquidated. He’s served his sentence, and now he’s made a personal appeal to The HSUS to involve him in anti-dogfighting and anti-cruelty efforts. Will we continue to flog Michael Vick indefinitely, or will we take advantage of his expressed desire to do better, to be an agent of change for animals?

Word cloud of blog reader reaction to Michael Vick
© Wordle
This word cloud visually represents blog readers' feedback on
Michael Vick, with a weight assigned to each word based
on frequency. Click the image to see a full-size version.

I knew it would be controversial, but I decided it was the right thing to engage with Michael and give him a chance to participate in our anti-dogfighting efforts. We at The HSUS are about change, even the hard cases. Sitting with Michael at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, I saw a man who, if he had the resolve, could do powerful and persuasive outreach to at-risk youth and steer them away from dogfighting. He told me he saw dogfighting when we he was a boy, and from there, he came to accept the activity and to get involved. Nobody was there to step in and pull him out of that morass, and he obviously didn’t have the strength to get away from it himself.

Intervening with young kids involved in dogfighting is not a new idea for The HSUS, because we've been doing it for some time. Ex-dogfighters and ex-gang members are some of our ambassadors in our community-based programs, and they reach kids who are drawn into the world of dogfighting and show them there are alternatives, such as training and agility classes for pit bulls. Street fighting in urban centers is the one growth area for dogfighting, and maybe Vick can get us closer to our goal of eradicating dogfighting in every dark corner where it festers.

Only time will tell if he lives up to his word to me, that he’s sincere about actively helping to suppress dog fighting. But if he fails in this next test in his life, he will have squandered an opportunity to help himself and to help others.

Well you’ve heard my feelings about the issue for three straight days. And I’ve been grateful for your outpouring of thoughts and observations. Below is a sampling of reader comments.

I applaud the president of the HSUS for giving Michael Vick a second chance and I hope that Michael is sincere in wanting to give back to the animals that he so brutally abused. I work with at-risk students in a local school district and have seen students make a change when introduced to a better way of life. I pray that Michael Vick will do the same and learn to love and respect dogs. I myself am an owner of a pit bull and must admit that I was reluctant to adopt the dog who has now become my best friend. I am amazed at the unconditional love that I receive from Bennie each day. I will continue to follow Michael Vick's story as I am an NFL season ticket holder and an avid member of the HSUS. I pray that Michael is sincere. —Robyn Stultz

I despise Michael Vick—and I wholeheartedly support his involvement in the End Dogfighting campaign. This kind of pragmatic move is what makes the HSUS so effective. In Oakland, Calif., where I live, dogfighting is indeed epidemic, and the sad signs of it are obvious, if you know where to look. I don't know whether Michael Vick is sincere or not, but if he can help turn some boys away from dogfighting it will be his chance to redeem himself. Thank you so much for all you do. —Tai

If Michael Vick can convince young people to view dogfighting as a cruel and inhumane sport, I'm in favor of him speaking for HSUS. We need to make this the most uncool thing ever and if that resonates with kids, Michael Vick will have gone a small distance in making up for the misery he's caused. —Jodie Carey

You are a stronger person than I am. My anger and outrage towards Michael Vick would never have let me see how he could help end the cycle of violence towards animals. However, after reading your thoughts above, I agree with you completely. I believe that this could be an excellent opportunity to reach children who might not have otherwise been taught to respect and love animals. As you stated, we will just have to see if his desire to help is truly genuine. I have my doubts, but no harm can come from trying. If even one child learns from his actions and one animal is spared the horrific life that those dogs endured, then it's all worth it. —Carrie

I am very surprised with this and not sure how I feel about it. What he did is terrible; are you sure he is not using you as an opportunity to gain publicity to clean his cruel act and come back to make millions? What he did to the poor dogs will always be there, no matter how sorry he "thinks" he is. Sorry, it is really hard for me to understand this. —Vanina Doce-Mood

I am a faithful supporter of the HSUS and can't believe that you would welcome Michael Vick into the ranks. NO ONE can change what is at their very core, in just 23 months. Many people can't even bear to look at the man knowing what he did to innocent animals. I am hugely disappointed and saddened by this possibility. Unfortunately, if Michael Vick is invited into the HSUS, I will no longer support the organization that I have held dear to my heart for so long. —Debbie

As a longtime supporter of the HSUS, I applaud this decision to give Mr. Vick a chance to make a difference in the community of dogfighting. People engaging in these activities are so much more likely to listen to someone like Vick than to any other authority figure or animal rights group. You will never know his heart or his intentions if you don't give him a chance. If he is sincere, you'll know it, and if he's not, it will be quickly apparent. I am a huge believer that when people take their punishment for bad deeds, they should be given the chance to change. And I hope he will take this chance and really make a difference in a world where he caused so much pain and suffering. Any positive action on his part will not erase the bad deeds, but it will allow all of us who love and respect animals to forgive him and trust that it is possible to change. I will be wishing only positive things for this HSUS endeavor. —Kelli Smith

While I agree that Michael Vick should be involved in an intervention program for youth I question his motives and sincerity. I do not believe that Michael Vick does anything that is not self-serving. Someone that lost it all has nothing to lose by being associated with The Humane Society of the United States. He indeed has all to gain. I would much rather not see The HSUS associated with his name in any way or form. There are those that have struggled and fought for animals their whole life; the unsung heroes that would be much more worthy, although their story much less dramatic and tragic. —Linda

Michael Vick is one person who would be able to reach the people who participate in this horrible crime. People involved in dogfighting aren't going to listen to you or to me. They need to hear from someone they admire, who did it for years, and now realizes it's WRONG! Michael Vick can reach these people and we need his voice. I'm all for it. I don't think it would serve any purpose to analyze his sincerity. Take advantage of the opportunity to reach the criminals who commit this terrible crime. —Barbara Gendron

In the spirit of forgiveness and for the potential positive effect this may yield, I believe that this is the only position to hold. I realize that Mr. Vick has a huge financial motivation to "appear" to be contrite, but that does not outweigh the opportunity to reach those people who may be tempted to engage in this type of reprehensible conduct. As both a believer in the mission of the HSUS and a 25-year season ticket holder of an NFL team, I think that this is an example of making the best of a tragic occurrence. Nothing can be done about the damage already done, but perhaps by using Mr. Vick as a spokesman on this issue, other dogs may be spared the fate of those he exploited. —Richard Warren

I understand your thinking that Michael Vick might be able to reach people growing up like he did and steer them away from dogfighting. However, I personally would do NOTHING to help him clear his name and improve his standing with the NFL. I hope he fades into oblivion and never steps on a football field again. I don't care how you grow up; you HAVE to know that drowning, torturing, electrocuting, and beating dogs is wrong. Playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right, and one that he permanently lost in my opinion. —Teresa Skaggs

I applaud your efforts to involve Michael Vick in educating a new generation of children. He can be a voice to many youth who admire and respect him based upon his athletic abilities and financial success—children that others may not have the capacity to reach. Many of the dogs he fought have found second chances and second lives—certainly Michael Vick deserves no less. May we all live in peace. —Linda Hardy

If Mr. Vick is sincere, then this is a remarkable development. Angry as I was when it first happened, I am willing to forgive, if he is truly ready to change. I believe he'll discover that the animal community is willing to give him the second chance those poor dogs never had. Dog people are good people. We do what we do because we care. It's fitting now to turn our caring toward another human being, and the potential lives he could save by reaching out to others. Good luck and God bless the Humane Society for what you do. —The Truth

As a guardian of two adopted pit bulls, I find it really hard to forgive Michael Vick for what he had personally done to the dogs.  He made a conscious decision to abuse, torture and kill the helpless animals. I do not believe he had served enough time for his deeds. I also will not believe he is truly "reformed" until he has put in years of service to end dogfighting and animal cruelty. —Camille White

I have to admit, your idea makes sense. Dogs are such forgiving animals; I guess we can do no less. I hope he turns out to be an impassioned spokesman against the horror and cruelty of animal fighting. I think we all deserve a second chance ... just not a third or fourth or fifth. I hope he doesn't play us all for fools. —Cynthia Morrison

At first I did not want to give Vick another chance.  I wanted him to suffer, stay in prison, and be hated. But then if the dogs he brutalized could be changed through patience, instruction and someone believing in them, well, maybe Vick could also. Maybe, just maybe, he could come to really love a dog for the first time, and feel remorse for what he did. Maybe he could change others who thought as he did. It is worth a chance, and certainly those working close to him will be able to see into his heart if he really is changing, or just going through the motions. HSUS is wise to use him to turn the whole horrible situation into something positive. —Carolyn Gray

I know I'm not alone in hating Michael Vick for what he did and wanting him to be punished forever. However, you've made me realize that he can be a part of the solution and can earn back our respect by helping to put an end to these acts for good. We'll never forget what he did, but I think we can forgive if he honestly wants to help stop dogfighting—not to get his NFL career back, not to replenish his bank account—but truly learning from his devastating and cruel actions and helping others to realize that dogs should never have to suffer in those horrible ways ever again. I am hoping. —Tyffani

Congratulations on having the courage to take the risk of engaging Michael Vick to speak against dogfighting. Even if he does not begin this endeavor with total sincerity, he may be converted by the time he finishes working with urban youth and the dogs enslaved in fighting. Let's give Vick a chance to evolve and bring others with him. We'll be following. —Jennifer

As an old woman, I don't think I've ever read a more sensitive and sensible approach to solving a major problem. Peaceful confrontation brings peace—to all. I'm trusting that Michael Vick will use this opportunity of reconciliation to reconcile the differences between his past as a dog abuser to his future as an impressive advocate for the underdog; the animals that can be trained to be gentle or aggressive. Who can be a more forceful or inspiring model than one who has been enlightened? —Marcia Kreider

Don't know about this use of Vick in ANY way. I am finding it hard to believe his remorse is genuine. He was a grown man hopefully knowing right from wrong, seeing the terrible pain he was inflicting on these helpless animals. I don't know what could convince me to change my mind about this awful man, but it has not happened so far and even the huge football fans in my household and family of which there are many, despise this man. If he could truly do some good to stop others from engaging in this rotten way of income and entertainment, then … but, even as I try to see some good from his involvement with you in this effort, I would rather leave him out of it. There have to be other men (and women) who could speak better and be more believable than Michael Vick. If I had a vote right at this very moment on this, I would vote NO! —Shelby Staples

You hit it right on the head that it is not about Michael Vick but about helping as many dogs as possible. Since the day this happened and changed my life, making me an advocate for dogs, I have thought that he had the potential to help more dogs than he harmed, but only with sincere remorse and the desire to work hard to right his past wrongs. For me to be convinced, Michael Vick will have to dedicate his life to this and show results. What I wouldn't give to have the chance to teach him about dogs; that they are needy creatures who give up most of their instincts to be man’s best friend; how to be a friend to a dog, and how to see the beauty in them that makes them such amazing human companions. I'm not sure I will ever forgive him, but I would sincerely appreciate all the help he can give to stop another fighting dog from living a life filled with torture. Thank you, Wayne, for taking on this challenge. Best wishes. —Annah Perch

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