The HSUS is all about getting results for animals, and a story in today’s New York Times demonstrates how the value of our work unfolds over time, and often with great force. Last year, The HSUS and other humane organizations—with a major boost from Gov. Ed Rendell—worked to enact legislation in Pennsylvania to crack down on puppy mills. Jon Hurdle of The Times reports that this legislation is already driving illegal puppy mills out of business. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture enlisted The HSUS on a raid of a notorious mill in Lehigh County, Pa., in June—ironically named Almost Heaven Kennels—and we rescued and then placed 200 dogs who had been living in squalid, overcrowded conditions in an unlicensed facility.
Stopping cruelty and delivering animals into safer environments is what we’re all about at The HSUS. That goes for puppy mills, as well as our work on dogfighting and other forms of staged fighting.
The HSUS is the only organization with a unit devoted exclusively to eradicating animal fighting—and our investments on this front are paying incredible dividends for animals. We have upgraded just about every law in the nation, and dogfighting is now a felony in all 50 states. There’s typically not a week that passes without our participating at some level in raiding illegal animal fighting operations and bringing these perpetrators to justice.
Michael Vick has become the personification of dogfighting and its cruelty. Oddly enough, after serving his sentence for illegal dogfighting activities, that’s one reason why we think that he can be a valuable messenger about what not to do with animals.
There’s anger about what Vick did. And that anger is understandable, given the severity of his crime. But if you step back and take stock of the entire drama, this is a textbook case of how you want such a case to play out. A person who committed an awful crime against animals is found out. Prosecutors take the case seriously, and the perpetrator eventually pleads guilty. The judge, given the sentencing guidelines, metes out a stern penalty, sentencing the defendant to two years in federal prison. Meanwhile, as the case proceeds, there is an upswell of social disapproval about the illegal conduct. The HSUS then broadens the discussion to show how widespread the practice of dogfighting is. In response, there are new laws adopted throughout the country to combat the problem and law enforcement has a new commitment to enforcing these laws. And then after the perpetrator is released, he comes knocking on the door of the largest animal protection group and says he is a changed person and wants to do community service to help attack the larger social problem of animal cruelty.
In just the last two days, the fresh attention to our community-based End Dogfighting programs has prompted inquiries from citizens in more than 100 communities who want our help in reaching out to their at-risk youth—including a compelling commentary from Karel Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County in Pennsylvania. This excitement and interest in new programs gives us 100 new pathways to attack the scourge of dogfighting.
It’s my hope that the Vick case also prompts soul-searching about the responsibilities each one of us has to animals. Both actor Alec Baldwin and philosopher Peter Singer are broadening the discussion, rightly noting that the well-justified righteous anger about Vick’s conduct should also apply to a wide range of other abuses, including factory farming, the fur trade, and other forms of exploitation of animals. We at The HSUS work on all of these problems, and we ask all responsible people to live by the principles of mercy and compassion toward all creatures.
We’ll also continue to zero in on the larger social problem of dogfighting. With more than 100,000 active dogfighters, and with the practice metastasizing in urban centers, our focus must be on halting people from abusing dogs, but also preventing them from recruiting others into their sordid hobby and business. Vick’s behavior was terribly cruel, but it was not isolated—with dogfighting not uncommon in some communities and tens of thousands of young men and boys getting sucked into the quicksand, we have to be creative to turn the situation around.
Vick is an unlikely ambassador for an anti-dogfighting campaign. And I can understand the skepticism about him and his “conversion” to an animal protection advocate. But turning away Vick’s offer to help won’t result in the saving of a single animal. By engaging with him, and putting him to work in a community service program (like many ex-convicts participate in), we may sway countless kids who would be involved in dogfighting, and that means dogs will be protected. And, as I’ve said before, it’s always good to turn an adversary into an ally and advocate.
Sometimes, the change we seek comes down strange and never-traveled pathways. And sometimes, it comes through the unlikeliest of people. The crisis that animals face compels us to be open to all of these unlikely possibilities.