Michael Vick Is No Lone Ranger
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By STEPHEN NOHLGREN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 26, 2007 St. Pete Times
There are ample reasons to view Michael Vick with disgust. Beyond the inherent cruelty of pitting one dog against another, the way in which Vick and his cohorts drowned, electrocuted and bashed in non-performers simply sickens the heart.
His sadism deserves punishment and scorn.
But branding Vick as subhuman, as some have done, is all too easy. Reveling in violence for the sake of “sport” and exploiting animals for pleasure is nothing if not human.
We hunt for horned trophies to hang on our walls. We traumatize fish for the pure joy of stalking and dominating them. We sip mint juleps and celebrate the “sport of kings,” but tsk, tsk look the other way when thin thoroughbred legs snap under pressure.
There is more of Michael Vick in all of us than we care to admit.
So while we cry for his head, as well we should, now is also a good time to evaluate our own behavior.
For instance, is the distinction between dog fighting and dog racing really a bright line? Or is gambling on animal sports more of a gray continuum?
Why does violence against animals cause such revulsion among sports fans whose blood stirs when human bodies collide?
Are our views about right or wrong lodged in cold logic? Or are they largely determined by our life experiences?
Even Beth Lockwood, an expert on animal abuse, struggles to maintain personal consistency when it comes to using animals for sport.
As executive director of SPCA of Tampa Bay, Lockwood is empowered to investigate dog fighting and other abuses. Hunting for meat is A-okay, she says. As a consumer of burgers and wings, she could hardly maintain the opposite.
But personally, “I could never hunt,” she says. “I cannot kill an animal.”
Still, she sometimes fishes and eats her catch. Does Nemo count less than Bambi?
“Well … I guess it is cold-blooded,” she chuckles. “I guess it’s okay.”
Catch-and-release anglers sometimes tout their practice as morally superior to catch and eat (also known among wags as “fillet and release”).
But if no eating is involved, then all those tarpon, marlin and brook trout undergo trauma and sometimes die for no other purpose than to satisfy human pleasure. A nice day on the water or walk in the woods need not include lines and hooks.
And what about boxing?
It became more “civilized” a century ago when bare knuckles acquired padding and devotees adopted rules laid out by a patrician English pugilist called the Marques of Queens berry.
But no amount of etiquette, athletic skill or any other spin can gild the fact that large audiences enjoy watching human beings pound each other senseless. And by the way, Queens berry reportedly had a terrible temper and beat his wife.
Professional boxers choose their lots and earn livings by satisfying our baser instincts.
Pit bulls have no such say. When money changes hands, only gamblers benefit. The dogs simply do what we breed and train them to do.
So do greyhounds.
Enlightened elements of the racing industry have taken steps over the years to add air conditioning and human interaction to formerly hot, cramped kennels. According to the Greyhound Racing Association of American, only 10 percent of retired racers are euthanized.
Lockwood sees the underside: kennels closing in the face of lotteries and casino gambling. Abandoned dogs. Injured dogs. Not enough adoptions.
“A lot of these dogs are in deplorable condition,” Lockwood says, “and unless people have a lot of time and money to rehabilitate them, they aren’t going to make it.”
Barbaro’s heartbreaking injury during the 2006 Preakness highlighted the dangers of selectively breeding race horses. Too much muscle, too little leg.
Neither dog racing nor horse racing carries the deliberately brutish stigma of dog-fighting, but there is no doubt that our penchant for gambling and spectacle creates a flotsam and jetsam of animal suffering.
Most people who lay down bets from air-conditioned viewing stands probably have little idea how prevalent – and even acceptable â€“ dog-fighting has become in some Tampa Bay quarters, Lockwood says.
The SPCA, one of several bay-area shelters, takes in wounded combatants about every other week, she says. These are not the high-stakes fighters of Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels. They are minor leaguers who fight in back yards, alleys and abandoned houses.
Humans usually take off before investigators can catch them, Lockwood says. But walls smeared with blood and chewed-up, abandoned losers leave no doubt what transpired.
Owners are almost always boys or young men, sometimes influenced by hip-hop lyrics that portray dog fighting as cool.
“It’s about drugs, money and peer pressure,” Lockwood says. “Whoever has the top dog is the toughest person.”
Until recently, Lockwood lectured at a camp for juvenile offenders. Almost every teenager in the camp had been to a dogfight or knew of them. They did not view fighting as wrong. The dogs liked to fight, they said.
Dog fighting is common in the rural South, Lockwood says. Tampa Bay SPCA workers have traveled to Alabama three times this year to help make busts. It’s often hard to catch participants, she says, because sympathetic locals tip them off.
“Mississippi and Louisiana just banned cockfighting. A lot of political figures do it,” she said. “Louisiana is also heavy into dog fighting.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals estimates that 40,000 Americans are involved in some kind of dog fighting, spokesman Dan Shannon says.
Vick’s case “was one of the worst we have seen and we have seen a lot of major cases,” Shannon says. “The size of the operation, the number of dogs subjected to abuse, the level of cruelty.”
Public outrage stems from Vick’s celebrity status, he says, and because so many dog owners relate to the abuse on a personal level.
“You think about your dogs at home. All they want is a scratch on the head and a treat and they give you all this unconditional support. The thought of using that good nature against them sickens people.”
PETA, whose Web site hits have grown 30 percent since Vick was indicted, may have shed some of its wacko fringe image by championing aggressive sanctions against Vick.
PETA members don’t eat meat; don’t wear leather and object to rodeos and circus acts that include animals. If nothing else, you have to acknowledge the consistency of their beliefs – compared to the rest of us who misuse animals just a little bit.
Just some of the time.
And maybe just the cold-blooded ones.
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