Michael Vick, Animal Cruelty, and Misplaced Perceptions

Like most of you I’ve been following the Michael Vick story and like most of you I am utterly disgusted by the stories that are now surfacing about the details surrounding his involvement in dogfighting.  I hope the judge “throws the book” at Vick and lands him in jail for at least a couple of years if not the maximum sentence of five years.  Needless to say, it looks like his professional football career is over along with any chances of redemption in the public mind.  Perhaps I am mistaken on this last point, but this story seems to have hit a nerve with the general public.  Animal cruelty – especially the abuse of dogs – is unacceptable.  I am having difficulty coming to terms with some of the details of torture that involve the drowning and hanging of animals that underperformed.  At times I think this should be the standard for Vick on the playing field.  And yet I am concerned that our perceptions of Vick are misplaced.

Most of the media attention and the discussions that I’ve taken part in have been about our expectations of Vick, the surprise and confusion involved in someone of his stature engaged in such behavior, and the consequences of that behavior.  I’ve heard little about the behavior itself or the broader issue of animal cruelty and the practice of dogfighting.  Last night my wife and I talked over dinner about why we are so obsessed or troubled that it is Michael Vick rather than some nameless “Joe”.  The problem, it seems to me, is with our expectations of Vick.  For most people Vick’s failure seems to be that he failed to engage in the kind of behavior fitting for a “public role-model.”  This misses the point entirely.  Questions about whether Vick can rehabilitate his career or salvage some of his reputation are all geared to our society’s need to see sports figures and other public personalities as role-models.  This story has nothing to do with that.  If this was a story about Vick using inappropriate language or striking someone in public than we could have the silly discussion about pubic responsibility.

This story goes beyond that.  Suggesting that Vick failed his fans or engaged in behavior inappropriate for someone in his position fails to acknowledge that we are talking about a disturbed individual.  Our tendency to inquire about how a wealthy, talented, and successful athlete could take part in all of this suggests that we are not addressing the psychological deficiencies that characterize people who carry out this type of violence.  In other words, there is no reason to be more upset or troubled by the fact that the perpetrator of these heinous acts is a celebrity rather than…[complete sentence with image of typical dogfighter].

One of the most important things we learn at an early age is the ability to empathize or sympathize with others.  This involves imagining the thoughts and feelings of others as if they are your own.  Such a skill is important in the moral development of the child.   Most people learn to extend this act of psychological identification beyond our own species to include culturally sanctioned species such as dogs, cats, etc.  While that extension is culturally relative it is present in most societies.  Regardless of the specifics, the species in question that are usually included exhibit traits that humans identify with, including the ability to experience pain.  Our outrage over the Vick story is in part a function of our ability to imagine what those animals went through and the apparent indifference of the perpetrators involved.  I like to think that our moral character can be quickly checked by the way we treat the most dependent within our communities, including our domesticated friends.  Apparently Michael Vick never learned how to empathize and that is unfortunate.

Ultimately this story’s moral import has nothing to do with Vick’s celebrity stature though the public awareness of dogfighting and related crimes is clearly dependent on it.  While I am not a member of PETA or any other animal rights organization they do spend a great deal of time addressing these issues.  Unfortunately, it takes a high-profile personality to bring it to the attention of most of us.

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12 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Aug 28, 2007 @ 7:59

    Chaplain Cronk, — Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and I couldn’t agree more. The comparisons that you point out are clearly a way to dodge the real issue, which is the act of causing undue harm to innocent animals. Yesterday Vick asked us to focus on his own regret, which has absolutely nothing to do with his crime. Not once did he talk about the act of brutally killing helpless dogs. That Vick couches all of this in terms of immaturity is an absolute joke. As I stated in this post the problem is deeper. Please don’t ask me to care one bit about his future until the heinous nature of these crimes is addressed.

    Thanks again.

  • Animal Chaplain Nancy Cronk Aug 28, 2007 @ 1:05

    If there is anything good about the Michael Vick story, it is that there is an emerging increased awareness about animal cruelty and animal fighting. However…

    I think it is a sad commentary that we, as a culture, are using the Vick story to compare “What’s worse?” “What’s worse”, we ask, “carelessly fathering illegitimate children, or dogfighting?”. “Dogfighting or gambling?” “Dogfighting or rape?” “Dogfighting or racism?” “Dogfighting or hateful nationalism?” “Dogfighting or (fill in the blank)….?” The comparisons to dogfighting have been endless.

    Dogfighting is one more piece of evidence our country is in need of a spiritual transformation (please note I said spiritual and not necessarily religious). Animals are sentient beings – they feel pain, and they suffer, just like we do. They are not more important, or less important than human beings, but like human beings, they are important, too.

    Every major faith teaches its followers to be responsible stewards of animals and the Earth. Please help us get the word out that caring for animals, just like caring for people, is an important part of just being a decent person and citizen. If we make this a priority, there will be no more dogfighting horror stories, and no more pointless comparisons of evils. Let us all rise, together, to be better people than we are today, shall we?

    Chaplain Nancy Cronk
    Founder, http://www.AnimalChaplains.com

  • Tim Lacy Aug 22, 2007 @ 11:33

    Not to carry on this conversation interminably, but here is an interesting article from today’s Chicago Tribune. – TL

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2007 @ 15:42

    I absolutely do believe that Vick can be rehabilitated. My point was that I don’t think it is a simple as flipping a switch, which was what I thought you were suggesting. Thanks for the follow-up.

  • Tim Lacy Aug 21, 2007 @ 15:37

    Kevin: I hope I’m not misinterpreting your 12:59 comment, but do you think that Mr. Vick is ~completely~ lost? I don’t disagree that animals feel pain (only extremists don’t?), I’m just not convinced that Mr. Vick can’t be rehabilitated.

  • Sean Dail Aug 21, 2007 @ 15:36


    Michael Vick doesn’t live in a country where dogs are considered food – he lives here in the United States. And the kind of torture we’re talking about is a far cry from even some of the less humane practices that go on in slaughterhouses. Frankly, I think his actions show the same sort of moral bankruptcy as those of someone who would torture another human – it’s all about wielding power over a helpless creature that has done you no harm and has little to no ability to fight back…

  • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2007 @ 12:59

    Charles, — I think you make a good point regarding the diverse culinary practices found around the world, but that misses the point entirely when it comes to how we treat animals. This is not about what we eat, but how we treat other species that feel pain and have an interest in not being harmed.

    Tim, — Thanks for the comment. I disagree that this case can be characterized as “adolescent idiocy” or that Vick’s rehabilitation will involve “switching” back. As I stated in my post I interpret this extremely cruel behavior as reflective of a failure to empathize with animals that have an interest in not being harmed. That interest, I believe, can be understood as an extension of a complex central nervous system that makes it possible for them to feel pain in pretty much the same way that we do.

  • Tim Lacy Aug 21, 2007 @ 12:41

    Although I’m disgusted by Mr. Vick’s behavior, I can’t help but think of my own adolescent idiocy with regard to pets, as well as those instances I’ve observed in others. How many teens are reprimanded for the useless shooting of rabbits and squirrels (with no intention to eat them)?

    Of course Vick is no adolescent, but my effort to empathize with him, as well as the armchair psychologist within me, says that this is some sort of weird prolonged adolesence. He can recover, and might even completely switch to the other side in terms of pet/animal treatment. As long as throwing the book at him doesn’t result in throwing away a potentially useful human life, then go ahead. He needs to serve some time, think about it all, and then come back a renewed man. – TL

  • Charles Liu Aug 21, 2007 @ 12:31

    Ummm, it’s a dog. Dogs are food animal in many cultures. Bullfighting is okay but this isn’t?

    That’s fine, put him in jail for gambling ring if that’s illegal, but our irrational attachment to dogs shouldn’t come in play.

    Imagine some judge in India throw us all in jail for eating their God.

  • Anonymous Aug 21, 2007 @ 11:44

    I’m right there with Ken on this. Mike Vick will always be associated with Virginia Tech, and he let down the entire Hokie community. I know it doesn’t make sense if you analyze it logically, but there it is. If what we’re hearing about the plea agreement will turn out to be true, then he’s not going to get the book thrown at him; however, the NFL could still ban him for life.


  • LarryC Aug 21, 2007 @ 11:10

    We reserve our disgust (and prosecution) for those who practice animal cruelty on a small scale, ala Vick. Open a confined animal feeding operation, stick pigs in a concrete cage too small for them to turn around, debeak a couple of million chickens, and you are a Captain of Industry.

  • Ken Noe Aug 21, 2007 @ 9:36

    I must agree that my anger is weirdly misplaced, but as a Hokie I still admit to feeling betrayed. Which is ridiculous of course–Mike Vick doesn’t know me from Adam, nor does his obvious lack of empathy suggest that he would care–but it brings unwanted attention and shame to my school at the worst absolute time. Like it or not, he did become a symbol of the place, and now he’s justly off to prison in the same year that “Virginia Tech” has become a reporter’s synonym for “massacre.”

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