Thursday, January 08, 2009
Second Chances in the Penny Press!
The cover story of last week's Sports Illustrated goes some way toward undoing the damage done by Sports Illustrated in 1987 when they ran their now-infamous cover showing a pit bull and bannered with "Beware of This Dog." I wrote them a nasty letter in response to that earlier cover (I was one of thousands who did), taking them to task for perpetuating the evil myth that some dogs - pit bulls in particular - are inherently dangerous, naturally prone to violence. I pointed out that, all other factors being equal, there's no more reason their readers should 'beware' of a pit bull than they should any dog big enough harm a human; the only reason a pit bull on the cover would resonate with their readers was because pit bulls are more often than other dogs warped by the bad handling of humans. The cover should have had a picture of one of those humans with a banner saying "Beware of This Asshole."
Of course, that was back in 1987, when that asshole didn't have a public, recognizable face. Now he does: Michael Vick, former Atlanta Falcons quarterback and convicted dog fighter, abuser, and murderer. In 2007, law enforcement officials broke up Bad News Kennels, a dog-fighting operation Vick had run for years on a property he owned in Virginia, and Vick was sent to jail - and also ordered to pay nearly a million dollars in what the presiding judge all but explicitly characterized as restitution. To say the least, the decision will be a crucial landmark in future prosecutions for cruelty to animals, and I recognize the good in that. The good in the fact that Vick himself will be free in three or four years to pursue a fourth-tier football career in Italy or Portugal ... well, I see less good in that. He confessed to personally beating, stabbing, dragging, and even electrocuting dogs whose only fault was that they weren't vicious enough - there should be no paychecks after that, no endorsement contracts, no freedom, no sunlight. I think it's generous just to let such a person keep living, when so many of his victims are dead.
So many, but not all - and that's the bright little miracle at the heart of this current SI article: 47 of the 51 dogs taken from Bad Newz were ultimately saved. Many animal welfare groups - including PETA - advocated that all the dogs be killed, not only to end their own suffering but to prevent them from hurting other dogs or humans. Back in 2007, I advocated that myself. The trauma done to these poor dogs was so deep and systematic (several of the animals were born into Vick's operation and knew no other life), I thought, that you could never know with complete certainty that someday one of your other pets or one of your children wouldn't trigger something - resulting in yet another headline-grabbing mauling or fatality, which would only further hurt the image of the breed in general. Short of adopting all of Vick's dogs myself and carefully restoring them, I said at the time, the only humane thing to do is put them all to death.
Turns out I was wrong, and good thing too: Hundreds of concerned, passionate, patient people came forward in the course of Vick's arrest and trial, volunteering their time and money in an attempt to save these dogs. Pit bull advocacy groups, animal welfare groups, dog-rehabilitation groups of all kinds offered their services, and as a result, this SI article was able to accompany its text with some of the most heart-glowingly wonderful photos the magazine has ever published. This story, written by Jim Gorant and titled "Happy New Year," is a testament not only to the hope of the humans involved but also to the incredible, dopey recuperative powers most dogs enjoy as a matter of course.
Not all the dogs recovered fully. About half of them were too emotionally damaged by what Vick and his asshole cronies did to them to ever regain emotional stability (the ones born into the operation very likely never had it in the first place) - these are in permanent foster care situations and rehab facilities where a trained staff can love and monitor them, safeguard them from all further trauma, and try to give them some measure of happiness for the rest of their lives.
But the half that recovered did so with a vivacity and thoroughness - with an innocence, really - that not only makes me smile but also, paradoxically, increases my desire to see Vick publicly racked, electrocuted, and then beaten to death. Pit bulls have an enormous generosity of spirit, even by the yardstick of dogs, who are a generous species to begin with; thinking about that spirit being chained and warped into mindless vicious aggression for the sport of spectators is blood-curdlingly infuriating. The canker is salved only by the happy endings that very generosity of spirit makes possible - other breeds (the more froward working dogs, for instance, and certainly the more, shall we say, idiosyncratic hounds) might not have bounced back so well, or at all - "goofy" is a word used by more than one of these dogs' new families. Goofy is a thing all dogs should get to be in their lives - and before Vick's arrest, when Bad Newz was a going concern, it was as far away from dogs there as Heaven is to a Unitarian.
So despite the tens of thousands of other dogs languishing in shelters all across the country, this particular issue of Sports Illustrated tells of happy tidings for one small group of dogs who had almost no hope. I was happy to read it, and that happiness was dimmed by only two things: first, like I said, you just know Michael Vick himself is going to land on his feet next year, or the year after that, and second, a point not mentioned in Gorant's upbeat article: Bad Newz was a strictly small-time operation. It was the dog-fighting equivalent of a mom-and-pop store. What the article doesn't mention - what most American pet-owners don't want to think about - is that there are Wal-Marts out there, operating in virtually every major city and hundreds of rural locations throughout the country. Agents for these operations regularly patrol suburban neighborhoods in innocuous-looking vans, snatching up strolling or sleeping pet dogs from their streets or yards. These hapless dogs, totally confused and miserable, are used as "bait dogs" for the fighting animals to practice on, or as warm-up events to get the basement betting crowd in the mood. And that betting brings in lots of money - dog-fighting is big business in America and around the world.
Still, Vick was convicted and heavily fined, despite his celebrity (and despite noxious attempts by his lawyers to portray dog-fighting as some sort of "cultural" legacy - a tactic that just flat-out appalled me, since it was attempted in a Virginia courthouse and concerned a good-looking well-built young black man who, a hundred and fifty years ago, would himself have been part of a not-all-that-different "cultural" legacy), and the stigma of what he did is likely to stick with him forever, and many of the dogs his tortures would otherwise have condemned are now clowning around and sleeping and face-slurping in the middle of loving families.
So it's a small miracle, and that will have to be enough for now.