Three months ago I was sitting with my cousin Len in Nevada, while I was out there for a week of family related events, and we were out having a drink and catching up. He has a two year old, had gotten married three years ago, and I had not been out with just him in years. We discussed many things, and somehow made it on to the subject of Michael Vick and the potential of his being reinstated in the National Football League. I was incredulous at the idea of it; Len said to be ready because it was bound to happen.
A short time ago I began volunteering at a local animal shelter. For years I had dropped off certain items there; linens, dog food, pillows, and anything I thought they could use. I trained myself to not look at the dogs because I would go home with images of them in my head and be sad I couldn't take another one home. More on my beginning to volunteer at a shelter here (http://shelter-tails.blogspot.com/2009/07/volunteering-at-yonkers-animal-shelter.html)
I was afraid as the next person of pit bulls, which make up the majority of dogs at many shelters, and mine was no exception. But I have learned over time that this breed, which certainly has vicious dogs that probably, after much abuse, cannot be rehabilitated, and some that can, most have been painted with the same brush as fighting dogs, when all they really are is homeless. On top of not having a home, they have the distinction of being dubbed "a mean breed" by a sensationalist media.
I am no expert in pit bulls and I am certainly still learning. Here is what I know: without being abused, they are trainable, friendly, happy-go-lucky dogs, that like to play, are affectionate, and have personalities the same as other dogs I've adopted. They are extremely loyal. What happens after they've been neglected or abused? They are skittish, have trouble bonding, and can be other-dog aggressive. Are they all that way? No. Are some? Honestly, yes. And you hear first hand from people at shelters - who have no interest in someone adopting a dog they cannot handle - what that dog's issues are. They'd rather be honest than have you leave the dog somewhere or waste their time and precious resources with an unsuccessful adoption.
I feel badly that these dogs remain at the shelter while people move past their pens. They want so much to be loved and given a chance; you can see it. Were it not for all the volunteers who walk and nurture those dogs, many would end up not being adoptable. But that's not what is happening; they are getting adopted, albeit slowly and with much effort. Over the last two weeks, eight dogs I know of found a permanent spot. Almost all were adopted outright by owners, and two went to breed-specific rescues (a whole other part of animal rescue that exists and which has its own multitude of commited volunteers).
That's pretty good, and it happened with a multi-pronged approach:
1) Properly caring for them at the shelter;
2) Allowing for a good volunteer program with a lot of training so the dogs can be socialized (making them better, adoptable pets);
3) Having a trainer on hand to work with any dogs who have issues as well as working with those people adopting them to find a good match
4) And finally, doing follow up.
I continue to be impressed by the ingenuity and commitment of the numerous volunteers, people who do even more than walk the dogs. One example: dogs continue to appear in Pet of the Week stories in local papers and sure enough, once people get to know them, inquiries begin coming in, and the task of matching the dog to their eventual owner begins in earnest. There is a lot of back room work that happens to pull the whole pet-adoption world together.
Back to Michael Vick. I, like everyone, abhor what he did. More so now that I participate in certain rescue-driven dog discussion boards and occasionally see pictures of dogs terribly maimed by dog fighting (and were what is known as "bait dogs" - enough said,) but who have been adopted by some loving soul who is taking up a collection for an operation, finding a foster home, or reporting in on a dog they adopted and who now makes a great rescue story. I'm talking dogs who needed breathing apparatus installed where their mouths used to be, all due to dog fighting. So back to our friend.
I happen to know Michael Vick is forgiven by The Only One Who Can Do It Right. I am somewhat surprised by Vick's lack of messing up this re-entry into polite society. He's either very sincere or has been coached well. I know a lot of us are upset at him and will remain so, especially because we see the aftermath of stories like his, where dogs end up in shelters who shouldn't be there, and who undergo treatment that should never have happened, or in most cases, are shunned by a public that is so petrified of them, they languish and are difficult to adopt out. Mind you, I'm not suggesting if you have young kids you should go and adopt a full grown pit bull with an unknown history. I'm saying some people are in a position to do this, some are not. But all of them, when un-abused, really and honestly make fine pets. Michael Vick being reinstated says to everyone "you can do whatever you want and you can be PR'ed out of trouble." There are firms who specialize in rehabilitating people who fell off the good-citizen wagon. I'm not opposed to people fixing their image, which will only stick if they are sincere. I'm opposed to the lack of consequences in our society where if you have enough money, whatever you do is "forgiven." Why can't he ask for public forgiveness and not play pro-football again? Because there is money to be made, and like a lot of things that can be both good and bad, greed in this case won the day. By Vick being reinstated into the NFL, courtesy of an extensive PR campaign, this whole incident ended up being nothing more than a challenge for a newly borne cottage industry. I offer an example of what I think should have happened in a comment I made at Philanthropy Today, an industry magazine (and its online link below) that comes through my office daily. I should have spent more time saying that I applaud his wanting to move on with his life, but I don't think a person ought to re-enter their old life with such aplomb after such a fall from Grace, and I don't think organizations such as the NFL should welcome them back. At a certain point, the whole slippery slope gets worse and worse. Where does it end? Do we next deal with an example of this level of abuse happening to people and we excuse that, too? We're on our way if the ad people have anything to do with it.
In this case, and in what is by now a well known fact, the Humane Society of the United States has constructed an anti-dog fighting campaign around their interaction with and participation in the rehabilitation of Michael Vick, orchestrated by his PR firm. For a while I was ambivalent about this. I thought perhaps there was value in an animal protection organization making lemonade out of lemons, especially if it resulted in honest curtailing of dog fighting. But the truth is, when looked at in the bigger picture, what has really been reinforced to young people or anyone participating in dog-fighting? If you are famous and made an egregious mistake (or in this case, a series of them very deliberately), does the 18 months one did in prison exonerate a person from the criminal behavior they exhibited? Does having served their time completely remove all stain of the terrible crimes he committed? Does it alleviate the issue of thousands of dogs in shelters who make up the remnants of actions such as his, even indirectly? And are we reinforcing a negative image by yet another person in the NFL (or in society in general, for that matter) being let off the hook in a well publicized campaign designed to get maximum coverage for the parties involved?
Okay, here is the article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Click the link for the comments I and others made, which put at least one person out. I felt I owed a statement of sorts, saying that just because someone has a nice shiny PR campaign, and though I do think they ought to be forgiven, I do not think that means they ought to be reinstated into a job that is highly visible, sets an example, and reinforces, yet again, that if you're rich and well liked, you can do what ever you want and someone will bail you out. Not everyone thinks this campaign was a great idea and several of us are annoyed at the Humane Society for participating. Was I hot-headed in saying I won't support them anytime soon? A little. They're a good group (notice their link on this blog) but I'm put out by this and that's my two cents. In my comment I offer what I think they should have done. I'd be interested in knowing what you think and I have an open comments thread attached to this post. Thanks.
August 17, 2009
Give and Take: Humane Society's President Talks About Michael Vick
The president of the Humane Society of the United States shares his thoughts on “A Humane Nation” about the return of Michael Vick, the National Football League player who was convicted of dog fighting, notes Give and Take, the Chronicle’s roundup of the best blog posts about the nonprofit world.
Monday August 17, 2009 Permalink