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May 21, 2009

More Thoughts on Michael Vick

Our society has had a consensus view on dogfighting for a long time, with the first laws against the activity dating back to the mid-19th century. Civilized people have long despised dogfighting because they knew it was morally wrong to place animals in a pit to fight to the death for gambling and the thrill of the bloodletting.

But the case against Michael Vick dragged some other horrible dogfighting practices, like the violent culling of poor-performing dogs, into the light of day. These shocking practices fanned the ire of the public about what Vick and the other ringleaders at Bad Newz Kennels did. It almost made me sick to read the first-hand accounts and confessions of defendants and others after they told prosecutors what really happened in Surry County, Virginia.

But as I said yesterday, the end-game was never permanent exile for Michael Vick. It was successful prosecution and the imposition of appropriate penalties for a group of men who did terrible things. Our larger goal then and now was the eradication of dogfighting in America and throughout the world.

Happy pit bull face
© The HSUS
Our grassroots efforts are changing attitudes.

We can all be forever mad and angry at Michael Vick for what he did. But if that’s not channeled usefully and productively, then it does no good for animals. During the last two years, The Humane Society of the United States channeled the anger about Vick into 21 new strengthened state and federal laws against animal fighting, along with a host of other actions to combat cruelty. Last year, we were involved in a record-breaking 250 busts of animal fighting operations. That’s productive action for animals, taking a terrible case of cruelty and using it as momentum toward broader reform.

When it comes to dogfighting, a straight law enforcement approach is never going to solve the problem. The growth in dogfighting is occurring in inner cities, and it’s predominantly with young African American boys and men. That’s a fact, and we have to do something to arrest these social trends.

When Michael Vick asked to help, I was as skeptical as anyone. And then I put my strategist hat on, and tried to imagine what a guy like Vick could do to help us combat the problem. We used his case to strengthen the laws in America, and now we can use his celebrity and the story of his fall as a parable to reach kids in the cities who will pay attention to him.

In talking to Michael Vick, I also kept in the forefront of my mind our larger goal at The HSUS: protection of animals, by helping encourage individual people and institutions to change for the better in all of their dealings with animals.

I am not convinced yet. If this is simply a self-interested ploy to rehabilitate his image or return to football, we will find out soon enough, and we will repudiate it. But if Michael Vick is sincere, then we can, we must, use his story to advance our broader mission—saving lives and ending dogfighting.

Very few of us had it all together at a young age. We all have traveled a path and it’s been a process of awakening, awareness, and behavior modification. It took me a while before I made a commitment to change my diet and stop causing harm to animals through my purchasing practices, after I learned about factory farming abuses. And now today, The HSUS has within its ranks ex-trophy hunters, ex-trappers, and lots of folks who did pretty bad stuff at earlier points in life. We gave them a chance to help end some of the suffering they once caused, and they took it. In our innovative grassroots outreach programs we work with ex-dogfighters who are now ambassadors for The HSUS and show at-risk youth that change is possible. They are all welcome in our tent because The HSUS is about helping push people to do better for animals by changing their ways. You are welcome here if you are moving in the right direction. We don’t require you to be perfect.

Yes, Michael Vick has a long road to travel, since he did such terrible things to animals. But if we are to change society, we need to help people travel paths that now may look like an impossible climb. If we stick just with the easy cases, or if we work with folks that just have similar experiences to ours, or are in total agreement with our perspectives, then we’ll never get where we must go as a society.

When people travel a long, hard, and seemingly impossible path, that’s when we know we are winning.

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