Twenty-two dogs rescued from Michael Vick's dogfighting operation were brought to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary last year. They arrived at our Utah facility in various states of trauma. While we've had many breakthroughs with the dogs, some have yet to recover. And some may never recover from the abuse and neglect they suffered in Vick's care.
To our knowledge, neither Vick, his handlers, nor the NFL has called to ask how the dogs are doing. And these very real, living victims of the crime are nowhere to be found in the continuing debate about Vick's rehabilitation.
Vick's handlers had shopped him around to various national animal organizations, including Best Friends Animal Society, while he was still in prison. We were interested, but we did not want to involve Vick in our work and effectively give him our endorsement unless he actually demonstrated his remorse by taking on some unheralded volunteer work. Perhaps it would be spending six months or a year doing helpful chores at some animal shelter, or visiting community centers to talk to kids without any fanfare or expectation of personal gain.
When Vick was busted for dogfighting, the publicity generated a wave of discussion and public examination of the horrors of this awful sport. The public outrage surrounding his arrest and conviction were probably the most effective measures against animal fighting since they closed the Roman Coliseum.
Now Vick has returned to football in an Eagles uniform, playing in his first game since his conviction this week. Reports from the locker room say teammates are supportive, relying on the argument that he has paid his debt to society. But Philly fandom is clearly divided, with detractors saying the Eagles and the NFL have shown that all their talk about character and role models is just that - talk.
Vick is also working with the Humane Society of the United States. Unfortunately, the Humane Society's well-meaning involvement is taken as a character reference and apology for a man who killed dogs with his bare hands in unbelievably cruel ways.
The Eagles are complicit in that they brought Vick on board before he had taken even the slightest redemptive measures for animals. The team satisfied his handlers' agenda by facilitating his immediate return to the privileged confines of the NFL, with nothing more to go on than the word of a known liar and animal abuser.
Vick may have paid his legal debt to society, but how does one begin to assess his heart and mind when he has done little more than say what he had to say to get his job back?
More than anything, this episode demonstrates what little regard our society has for nonhuman life. We compartmentalize violent, antisocial behavior according to the species of the victim.
Vick personally drowned, electrocuted with jumper cables, and body-slammed dogs to death, when he could have paid a veterinarian to put them down with lethal injections. After all, he paid someone to meticulously remove the teeth - roots and all - of Georgia, one of the dogs now at Best Friends, so she could be bred without endangering her male partner.
Would someone who expressed that level of aggression and violence against another person, even without a death involved, ever be considered for immediate readmission to professional sports?
This isn't just a sentimental animal lover's assessment. Animal cruelty is a proven gateway for violent criminals ranging from the Columbine kids to your run-of-the-mill wife-beater.
Imagine if the bodies of those animals had turned up at random in Philadelphia neighborhoods over the course of several months. Would the good people of the city want the person responsible playing quarterback for their beloved team?
As it stands, Vick is well on his way to regaining his former status, thanks in large part to the Eagles and the Humane Society. I hope the Humane Society's gamble pays off for the animals.
Vick certainly appeared concerned about returning to football as soon as possible. We would like to be more convinced of his concern for animals, if only he could humble himself by changing water, scooping poop, or sweeping floors at a local shelter - where dogs slated for deaths more merciful than those Vick meted out wait hopefully for simple acts of human kindness.
Francis Battista is a cofounder of Best Friends Animal Society, which has cared for some of the most traumatized dogs rescued from Vick's dogfighting operation. For more information, see www.bestfriends.org.