It is hard for those of us whose jobs have long been to pick up the remains of abused animals—beaten, burned, raped, chained to the point of madness—to think kindly of Michael Vick.
We think of his now well-publicized role in the crude electrocution of trusting dogs, and it is difficult for us to think of a way to work side-by-side with him. We have to ask ourselves, however, what good can come of simply dwelling on horrors that we have no power to go back in time to stop. There has to be a way forward.
One answer can be found in the South African Truth and Reconciliation trials, one of the most forward-thinking exercises of all times. People who had beaten and tortured other human beings were permitted to enter a room and answer questions about their deadly deeds and murderous acts, withholding nothing in describing how low they had sunk and how blind they had been to the suffering of their victims. From mighty politicians and community leaders to lowly police officers and common “snitches,” all faced their accusers and told their stories and provided times and dates and details that no one wished to hear but that needed to be recorded. The appearances have been described as cleansing and finalizing, as redemptive and historical. Is there anything to be learned from that system that could be applied to the Vick case?
I don’t expect Michael Vick to completely bare his soul, although he will have to admit to certain criminal acts of cruelty, but in a world plagued with violence, we need reconciliation. It can come in the form of words of advice from Vick to all those who have looked up to him and to all those who are closely following his trajectory through the legal system because they, too, have blood on their hands.
He needs to speak out forcefully against dogfighting, and there is a way that he can do so earnestly and honestly. He does not have to say that he has suddenly realized that dogs are not machines, that they are flesh and blood and that he has suddenly changed from a person who saw dollar signs and rejoiced in the howls and gurgling last breaths of dogs as they killed each other into a person who gets teary-eyed when he hears of a dog’s wounds. Few people would believe him if he did. He can say what we know is true: “Fight dogs, and you may lose your livelihood and your friends and hurt not only yourself but all those precious to you.” He needs to say, “If you are in dogfighting, look at me. Look how far I have fallen. Get out!”
The hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who is a spiritual person, thinks Vick will become enlightened because of this experience. Others who advise and guide Vick say that he is a person who has shown love for animals but who somehow compartmentalized his feelings for animals into those he cares for at home and those he uses and abuses in his gambling enterprise. Before we cast the first stone of skepticism, we should remember that all of us are capable of compartmentalizing our thinking in order to excuse bad behavior.
If we truly acted as if we believed what we are now shouting from the rooftops—that cruelty to animals is just plain wrong—we would all think of what goes on in slaughterhouses and become vegetarians. We would race home at lunchtime or pay someone to be there for us to make sure our dogs didn’t have to sit with their legs crossed, waiting to relieve themselves. We would turn away in disgust from animal circuses because in our hearts we know that elephants want to be with their families in the wild, not forced, through the use of bullhooks, to stand on their hind legs while wearing a silly costume.
But Vick’s failure to recognize animals as sentient individuals who were harmed needlessly is the issue currently in the spotlight. Now that he has admitted his guilt, he needs to speak out against dogfighting, if only to stop youngsters from thinking that their football hero’s only “crime” was that he got caught.
Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.