During the Katrina crisis two years ago, I expected to hear more of this: why are you helping the animals when there are people suffering? Fortunately, that false-choice manner of thought was reserved for only the strident opponents of animal protection or the most cynical and morally selfish of our lot. Most people recognized that the animals deserved rescue and relief, just as the people did. And a tremendous number of folks recognized how the fate of people and animals were intertwined in the Gulf Coast.
In the Vick case, I was confident that the public would respond with disgust to the allegations of cruelty, and also that the press and the public would recognize that this sort of violence toward animals cannot easily be contained—it is the sort of numbness to suffering that cannot help but spill over into the larger society. At The Humane Society of the United States, we've long said that animal cruelty is an antecedent to violence toward people. And sometimes, it's not a sequential circumstance, but side-by-side. Violence toward others—whether human or animal—springs from the same dark place in the human spirit, and its victims may vary from day to day.
Overall, the public and press response has been sharp and strong, recognizing that the allegations laid out against Vick and his co-defendants are reprehensible. Most are demanding a stern penalty. Sports columnists in particular have carried the flag and condemned this cruelty—simply horrified by the chilling details set forth in the 19-page federal indictment and the statements of fact by Vick's co-defendants. Yesterday, Selena Roberts of The New York Times called on the NFL to take the matter of animal cruelty and dogfighting more seriously, since it appears that Vick is not the only dogfighting enthusiast within the ranks of the NFL.
Out of every 10 columnists on the subject, there is one who says it's much ado about nothing or an overreaction. Long-time Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy had a particularly weak column yesterday, invoking the banner of moral consistency. His writing reflected a man who has not spent much time thinking about our responsibilities to animals.
"While eating a porterhouse the other night, I began to see the steak for what it was: a hunk of meat, blood and bone," wrote Milloy. "I managed to disgust myself even more by imagining that a charbroiled piece of pit bull would not have looked much different from the gristle of beef on my fork." Dismissively, he added, "Then I came back to my senses and continued to enjoy my meal."
He then meandered over the terrain of our societal inconsistency over its treatment of animals and concluded by saying that the feds had more important things to worry about, like illegal guns.
On the latter point, let's concede that there is always a more important moral issue to confront in society. But our wellspring of compassion is not finite, and we as individuals and as a society can think about and confront more than one injustice at a time. All forms of injustice and unfairness need attention, including animal cruelty.
And, on his point of moral consistency, this is a convenient escape chute for those who do not want to confront these issues. Yes, there are a variety of forms of animal exploitation in society, but dogfighting is a crime, and a felony at that. The presence of laws against this action reflects our society's considered moral judgment for this conduct. We cannot and must not disregard this cruelty when we see it just because Mr. Milloy and others have made the lazy observation there are there other forms of animal mistreatment in our society.