What’s next for Michael Vick?

October 31, 2007

In just a few weeks, Judge Henry Hudson will determine what’s next for the former Atlanta Falcons star who has been indicted on charges of allowing dogfighting at his Bad Newz Kennels.

As disgusted as I am at his role in this horrible blood sport, I can’t help but wonder if some of the same humane training approaches that are currently recognized best practices for animals might also be effective at re-shaping Vick’s behavior and life.

Might there be hope for a silver lining? Is it not conceivable he could un-learn negative attitudes and behaviors and replace them with positive actions?

PETA has publicized Vick’s “participation” in a one-day “course” it presented on humane treatment of animals, with Vick as the sole “student.” That’s hardly enough to bring about a genuine sense of contrition and reform. I argue for a far more comprehensive kind of training, to be shepherded every step of the way by an experienced and sensitive counselor.

Some may think I’m naive, but stop and think about it: Just how different is his situation from the very dogs who suffered abuse as a result of his actions? If some of the dogs can be re-trained by using positive methods, surely a human being is also capable of responding well to positive methods.
Michael Vick

Here is the body of a letter I sent to Judge Hudson in September (no response yet…and I suppose there probably won’t be one, although here in the blogosphere things might be different):

Note: The views expressed herein are solely my own.

Like most of us, I’ve been troubled and sickened by the whole Michael Vick brouhaha. But rather than focus only on the negative aspects, it occurs to me there’s a “third side” when it comes time for sentencing, one of a healing approach: Recast his life from arrogant sports superstar to sensitive humane educator, an ambassador on behalf of the very animals he and his co-defendants previously harmed.

Jail time and fines alone aren’t sufficient. That Vick permitted dogfighting and cruelty to take place on his property, regardless of the degree of his direct personal involvement, is crime enough to hold him fully responsible for his irresponsible behavior.

But… it’s still not too late in his life for him to learn empathy. “Third siders” seek “to transform conflict from destructive fighting into constructive change.” With proper guidance from a skilled counselor, Vick could yet turn from the callousness he grew up around to become a person who demonstrates responsibility in the sense of maturity.

While many people in the animal care world would love nothing more than for him to be barred forever from both a football future and from being near animals in any way whatsoever, that is a short-sighted approach. If we are ever to become a truly humane society, we must take steps to educate people at all stages of their lives about kindness to all living beings. The presumed excitement surrounding blood sports and violence – whether toward humankind or toward animals – just doesn’t cut it. It is our culture that needs reforming, in addition to particular individuals. In the words of Immanuel Kant, “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”

While I don’t feel much sympathy, if any, for what Vick did himself and/or allowed to happen, an eye for an eye doesn’t always serve justice well. Along with an appropriate stern punishment he so clearly does deserve, why not give him – in addition – a chance to begin transforming his life, while he is in prison, into one of integrity with a positive, life-affirming perspective?

Note that people who exhibit cruel behavior toward animals can be treated. The California Penal Code Section 597, for one, provides for mandatory counseling and treatment of people convicted of hurting animals, and is in addition to – not instead of – incarceration and fines.Successful correctional education addresses the whole person, complete with his or her human needs, emotions and attitudes. And for someone whom the media portray to be motivated by toughness, “winning,” greed and manipulation, the needs clearly are many.

The link between cruelty toward animals, especially intentional abuse, and violence toward humans is well-documented. According to some studies, as many as three-quarters of inmates convicted of violent crimes had an early history of cruelty toward animals. Family violence, including child abuse, is frequently preceded by physical abuse of animals.

Several correctional facilities also work with animal shelters and rescue groups both to help inmates reform and to prepare dogs for careers as service animals or companion animals to be placed in permanent loving homes. If hardened criminals convicted of rape and murder can overcome some of their failings, then why not Michael Vick? It appears that his upbringing failed to give him an inclusive sense of empathy toward animals. But a skilled counselor or supervisor could model closely the empathy Vick never internalized as a youngster and work with him to develop sensitivity to an animal’s experience of pain vs. comfort. Through introspection about his life ethic and religious values, it is conceivable he could change.

In time, perhaps, he could even become an ambassador for humane education with a new mission – showing respect for all life. He would need long-term therapy and a thorough grounding in humane principles to make up for gaps in his cultural upbringing. His time in jail even could be spent beginning to prepare for a new career, in humane education. Several prominent national organizations already offer distance learning courses, certificate study programs, and other resources Vick could tap into. Among these are The Humane Society of the United States through its “First Strike” program and its educational affiliate, Humane Society University; the American Humane Association; the Institute for Humane Education; the Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education; the National Humane Education Society; and the Association of Professional Humane Educators.

As disgusted as most of us are at Vick’s culpability in this ugly business, it’s nevertheless a significant opportunity for rehab. I vote for tempering justice with mercy. While I believe he should have no more future in football, this reprehensible episode still could provide an incentive for him to reform. Such an undertaking could give him a chance to put into practice what he absorbs from study, online or otherwise. And in atoning for his sordid past, he, society and the animal world all would benefit.


See accompanying list of selected resources


Disclosure:  I’ve recently become a staff member at the Montgomery County Humane Society.  My responsibilities include, among others, humane education, and I’ve written about empathy for an upcoming issue of the MCHS quarterly magazine, Animail.  The views expressed above are strictly my own and do not necessarily represent a position of MCHS.


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