Monday, August 27, 2007

The Michael Vick thing

At this point in time, there are maybe seven or eight people who know this blog exists, myself included. There's been an insane amount of commentary on the Vick story, mainly from people who know very little about dogs--myself, I know almost nothing about football--Michael Who? Any relation to the Nyquil Vicks?

The hell of it is, the super-abundance of commentary on hotbutton issues in our media-driven society actually tends to obscure vital information--bury it under a sea of pointless speculations and smug bloviations, until nobody even remembers what is actually being talked about. So even though hardly anyone is reading this blog yet, I feel it's worth commenting on. Not because I think we need to debate whether Vick's behavior was bad or not--if you're reading this blog, I don't think you need any help reaching a conclusion about that. But there are things that need clarifying.

Michael Vick used his own money to start a business run on his own property, that systematically bred pit bulls for the purpose of setting them on each other, to fight viciously and without restraint for the entertainment of onlookers, who would place wagers on which dog would prove the 'winner'. The fights would typically end in serious injury, mutilation, or death for one or both antagonists.

The goal of this enterprise was to create pit bulls who were hyper-aggressive, and lacking in any of the natural inhibitions towards using deadly force that are present in nearly all dogs. For this purpose, female pit bulls were tied to 'rape-racks', so that they would not be able to reject the males chosen to impregnate them--males chosen for maximum aggression and minimum socialization, who in many cases would have otherwise been rejected as mates by a female given the option to resist. The notion that a bitch in heat will accept any male offered her is clearly rebutted by the very existence of these devices. They don't need to be in love, but that doesn't mean they don't have standards.

In spite of these selective breeding practices, a large number of the puppies born to these females were deemed insufficiently hostile as they grew up--in fact, we can safely assume a goodly percentage of them were not only friendly and submissive towards people, but also reluctant to fight their own kind for no reason. They required too much urging, and even if successfully goaded into fighting, gave up too easily. Some probably wouldn't fight at all.

If you've spent much time at dog runs, you probably know and love this type of 'pit'--only interested in play, friendly to a fault, and often found engaging in a type of mock submission during wrestling matches--rolling over and letting the smaller weaker dog stand over him or her, while only gently play-biting in response, eyes glowing with untold mirth. These individuals are quite often unwilling, perhaps even psychologically incapable, of responding with genuine violence towards other dogs, even when attacked. Perfect companions for anyone who has the time to give them the love and exercise they need. Prized instigators of fun and games at any dog run.

And exactly what Vick and his colleagues didn't want, so they were killed--not by painless injection, which he could have easily afforded, but by strangling, drowning, and electrocution. Thrown out of the gene pool for being nice.

The picks of the litters--that is to say, the dogs who were most inclined to be aggressive with other dogs--were still probably not inclined enough towards canicide--so they were abused, screamed at, beaten, had other dogs set upon them as puppies to make them mean, force them to see other all other dogs as potential threats. Animals like cats may have been used as 'bait', to harden them to killing. And if that wasn't enough, there were always the chemical performance enhancers, such as gunpowder, cocaine, or jalapeno peppers mixed into their food, to upset their digestive systems, hype them up, leave them in constant pain, and make them more inclined to lash out at any animal put in front of them, as any abused dog in constant torment might do--plenty of people as well.

Reportedly anabolic steroids are sometimes used as well, but perhaps a professional athlete wouldn't see any harm in that. Of course, human athletes get to choose their own poisons. And they can stop anytime they want. And they get to reap a big chunk of the profits of their labors. And their team owners can't have them put down for not performing well. And from what I've read recently about his lifetime career stats, Michael Vick should be extremely grateful for that.

This BBC article covers the ugly facts quite admirably.

I know that none of us can claim total innocence with regard to the suffering of animals (or other humans, let's face it). We all engage in selective compassion. This animal here is to be loved, this other animal there is to be eaten. I'm a vegetarian--that doesn't stop me from feeding Max a high-protein food derived heavily from chickens and turkeys, and I'm guessing they didn't die of old age. Max has eaten plenty of other animals as well--does it matter that neither he nor I actually killed them? And anyway, we both eat eggs.

People wouldn't have dogs at all, in their present forms, if our ancestors hadn't engaged in a lot of selective breeding, and generally disposed of the dogs who didn't perform well enough--or who attacked the wrong animals--or the wrong humans. We have shaped the aggressive capacities of dogs, and put them to work, in an endless variety of ways, for thousands of years, and we still do, and we will go on doing so for the forseeable future. We expect them to protect us and our possessions, and we also expect them to quell their aggression around our neighbors and all children, and it's a testament to their remarkable social intelligence and desire to get along that they screw up so rarely--and nearly always because we screwed up first.

There are people trying to argue what Vick was involved with is a sport--which I suppose it has historically been considered to be, but then again, so was throwing religious dissidents to lions, or making people fight each other to the death with swords and tridents. Vick made a fortune through legalized athletics, and he knew perfectly well the penalty for engaging in the illegal kind.

There are people trying to argue that he couldn't have known it was wrong, because of his 'culture', as if people of certain races, or certain classes, or from certain places don't love their dogs as much as middle class white people do. Screw political correctness--statements like this piss me off because they are so mindbogglingly wrong . Mistreatment of animals can be found everywhere, sadism can be found just about anywhere, but it's nobody's culture to torture animals for entertainment. I suppose an exception could be made for Spain and bullfighting, but at least there the human participants are exposing themselves to harm as well. Dogfighting, by comparison, is a rather cowardly spectator 'sport'--a pathetic exhibition of macho-by-proxy, which is one reason there'll probably never be any operas written about it.

Most serial killers are white--does that mean slaughtering coeds was part of Ted Bundy's culture? Though actually, to look at what passes for horror movies these days--well, that's for a different type of blog to chew over.

And just for the record, organized dogfighting was imported to our fair Colonies from Europe--along with the dogs. Lest we forget.

No, this is just another spoiled rich guy who thought he could do whatever he wanted to amuse himself--a delusion that knows no class or ethnicity. If he'd been born rich, he probably wouldn't have been caught, that's all. He didn't need the money--it's going to cost him hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to this article he was fascinated by the sight of dogs attacking other animals as a kid, and would deliberately try to set stray dogs on stray cats, just to see what happened. Childish curiosity can lead to cruelty quite often--I used to put insects into spiderwebs as a boy, and put one species of ant into another species' colony--just to see what happened. Like it wasn't obvious what would happen. So I understand the impulse. And I know where it can lead, if you don't learn to respect life, and its fragility, as you grow older.

Apparently he just never had anyone tell him this was wrong. It's saddening to hear he had a pit bull in college. I can't know if he loved his dog. But I find it impossible to believe that he did. Just a status symbol, a fashion accessory--like Paris Hilton's chihuahua--and just as ignored most of the time, I'll bet. But at this point, I guess it doesn't matter.

A lot of animal rights people are screaming for Vick to get all kinds of extreme punishments, and I can't really find any enthusiasm in myself for that--don't respond to brutality by demanding more brutality in response. It's self-defeating. He did something wrong, he's going to jail (maybe not for as long as he should, but he's going), he's suffering major professional and financial consequences, and the law can't treat cruelty to animals the same way it treats cruelty to humans--or else who among us would escape punishment? Because I tend to see all dogs as individuals, I may see what he did as a form of murder, but I won't ask the law to treat it as murder--merely as illegal antisocial behavior. He crossed a line, and he has to pay for it. We can keep moving the line forward, but we better understand what moving that line forward entails.

In all probability, your personal physician, while still in medical school, dissected a living dog put under heavy anesthesia before he or she ever saw it--so heavy the dog could never wake up. Medical Schools follow this practice so their students, charged with preserving life, aren't faced with ethical quandaries. Research scientists, trying to learn the workings of the body, don't always have that luxury. But we can redefine what is acceptable in animal research, as Jane Goodall is trying to do, without denying the need to expand human knowledge. OR the need to keep moving that line forward.

And in the meantime, could we at least agree that petfood companies shouldn't be killing dogs and cats to find out if their food is okay? That's just too painful an irony for me to embrace. I mean, Gerber and Beechnut seem to manage fine without killing babies. I think.

However compromised our own animal ethics may be, we as a society can still put anyone who systematically breeds dogs to fight each other to the death in jail. And we should. Because that doesn't expand anyone's knowledge of anything, except how to make more dangerous dogs. And more jaded desensitized humans. Haven't we got enough of both already?

And that's quite enough about Michael Vick. This blog is devoted to dogs who are happy and loved--even though they live in what is generally referred to as 'the inner city'. I will recommend this post and discussion thread at The Daily Kos, the author of which does a great job exposing some of the idiocies that various pundits have been propagating about this story. I think he hits the nail right on the head. Cruelty is nothing to laugh at--neither is compassion.

Maybe we're so angry at Vick because he made us think about all the inconsistencies in our own treatment of dogs and other animals. And we really don't want to go there. At all. Anyway, enjoy football season. Can't wait for The Puppy Bowl.

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