A Hero

First in a two-part series…

Tommorrow will be three years since the guilty verdict was handed in the Michael Vick dog fighting case. LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote an excellent article about Mel, one of the dogs rescued from Bad Newz kennels, Vick’s professional fighting operation. Mel, thought to have been used as a bait dog, suffers from extreme fear of everything and everyone, except his patient owner Richard Hunter. Hunter is working with Mel to help him move on, but as anyone who has suffered even mild panic attacks or phobias knows, it’s not something that can be reasoned away. It takes a long, long time.

But not all of the dogs rescued from Vick’s estate are in such a bad way. Of the 51 dogs, about 25 have been adopted or are in foster homes and living relatively normal dog lives. (As per court order, these dogs must be fostered for 6 months before officially adopted.) Many more are just a few training sessions away from earning their Canine Good Citizen status. (Another court ordered requirement.) This is, to most trainers, behaviorists, and animal welfare advocates, a huge deal.

Why? When news of the case broke, most assumed all of the dogs would be retained at local shelters as “evidence” and then be euthanized immediately following the verdict. In fact even big time groups like the Humane Society and PETA encouraged the judge to do just that, saying that dogs from dog fighting compounds are notoriously “unpredictable,” “aggressive” and “violent.” But the dogs were, for the first time in history, treated as victims of the crime rather than conspirators. Each dog was evaluated on a case by case basis by some very dedicated and amazing folks – like Dr. Z at the ASPCA and the rescuers at Bad Rap. (See a short video about how they evaluated the dogs here.) They thought if they could save 5% of the dogs, all of the effort would have been worth it. As it turned out they identified 49 to be rescued.  (Two later died from illness, bringing the number to 47.) Other groundbreaking precedents of this case were the $1 million Vick had to pay for the lifetime care of the dogs (though I believe some of this remains unpaid) and his 19 months spent in prison.

That’s all background, but the thrust of Plaschke’s article was Vick’s recent triumphs on the football field. If he keeps his current performance, he is set to become the NFL MVP this year and maybe even take his team (Philadelphia Eagles) to the Super Bowl. Thousands of people cheer his name, apparently (or conveniently) forgetting the dogs that he, with his own hands, electrocuted, punched, slammed to the ground, hung, and shot.

Maya was a former Vick dog.

I believe in the power of redemption, the power of forgiveness, the right to a second chance. But when does one give up that right? Even though Vick has “served his debt to society,”  at what point does he use up all of his mulligans? One of the characters in my novel asks if everyone deserves a second chance. “Of course,” says Rose, the main character, thinking only about all of her own misdeeds. Is it Vick’s fault that we have such short attention spans that we have already elevated him to god-like status? I’m not the only one who asks such questions. Russ Vaughn posting at American Thinker has had similar thoughts. For him there is little debate about what kind of homage to pay Vick. The same holds true for Chris Chase posting at Yahoo Sports, except Chase’s opinion lies at the other end of the spectrum. In an article about Vick’s debt woes, including filing bankruptcy in 2008, Chase writes, “After serving his time, though, he’s dedicated himself to making up for his past misdeeds. It’s not heroic, per se, but it’s admirable. He could have run away like he does so often on the field. Instead, he appears to be trying to make it right.” Let’s not give credit where none is due. Vick has no other option but to make it right. His debt repayment schedule is court ordered. Given the option, would he be so eager to “make it right?” Besides how is he making it right to the victims of his premeditated crime?

No doubt Vick is a talented athlete. As Plaschke writes, “Do you cheer the player and boo the man? Can you cheer the comeback while loathing the actions that necessitated the comeback? And how can you do any of this while not knowing if Vick has truly discovered morality or simply rediscovered the pocket?” In essence, is he truly sorry, or just sorry he got caught?

Lest you think I’m a bleeding heart, overly sensitive to the dogs’ plight, let’s put that aside for a moment.  Now the question becomes: what is a hero? Years ago, before I knew what Bad Newz Kennels was, I wrote in an article that a hero was someone who inspired us all to be more than we ever imagined. I stand by that definition. But instead of dubious sports stars and fly-by-night celebrities, I’d rather call my heroes people like Dr. Catherine Hamlin who founded the first fistula hospital in Africa, and Greg Mortenson who helps build schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Jane Goodall whose pioneering field resarch on chimpanzees changed the very definition of primate, and Tim Racer and Donna Reynolds at Bad Rap who work tirelessly for very little money to help save these dogs. No one cheers their names, but they deserve it all the more.

>For more information about the dogs, read Jim Gorant’s new book The Lost Dogs. And here is a great follow-up story about Maya, one of the dogs rescued from Bad Newz Kennels

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