The most notorious animal abuser of our time was just given what he wanted most by being reinstated in the National Football League. I have to wonder how much he pleaded for mercy and empathy, even as the dogs he abused and killed received none from him. But most of all, I have to wonder how much Michael Vick played up his association with Wayne Pacelle and the Humane Society of the United States in his meetings with the Commissioner and others who held his fate in their hands. How he is now an HSUS spokesman. How the nation’s largest animal protection organization is now in his corner. How they forgave him, so why shouldn’t the NFL?
I’ll say it again:
Over the years, Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, has shown how little he appears to care for animals. Time and time again, he has taken positions that are the antithesis of what you would expect from the head of the nation’s largest animal protection organization. Time and time again, he has sided with regressive and even cruel animal shelter directors, championed the killing of dogs and cats, and worked to hinder the progress of the No Kill movement.
From Tangipahoa Parish, LA where he legitimized the unnecessary mass slaughter of shelter animals to Wilkes County, NC where he embraced the mass slaughter of dogs. From San Francisco, CA where he fought shelter reform legislation which would have saved lives to the post-Katrina Gulf Coast, where he claimed “Mission Accomplished” and left with tens of millions in HSUS bank accounts which belonged to the animals who continued to suffer. From legitimizing a round up and kill campaign for cats in Randolph, IA to fear mongering over the bird flu by telling people not to help, feed, or touch stray cats but to call animal control when they see them, agencies with a history of mass slaughter, even as the World Health Organization was telling people cats posed no risk. From New Orleans, LA after Hurricane Gustav where he fundraised off the largest evacuation of animals in U.S. history conducted by a rescue group by falsely claiming it was an HSUS effort, to Virginia where he demanded that the Vick dogs be killed only to fundraise off of them by telling donors that they were caring for them, when they were not.
Given a history of anti-animal positions he has taken, it would seem unlikely that Pacelle could choose to do anything that would still have the power to shock us. But I must admit that Pacelle stunned me with how truly low and vile he has sunk with his latest scandal: helping Michael Vick—the most notorious animal abuser of our time—reform his image.
On hearing the news of Pacelle’s embrace of Vick, Bad Rap, one of the groups who helped care for Vick’s victims, responded:
I just can’t get myself away from the swimming pool in Vick’s yard. I first learned about it while riding in the back seat of a federal agent’s car that sweltering Tuesday back in Sept 07. The agent was assigned with escorting us to the various Virginia shelters so we could evaluate “the evidence” otherwise known as 49 pit bulls – now known as cherished family pets: Hector, Uba, Jhumpa, Georgia, Sweet Jasmine and the rest. I’m not sure if sharing insider information with us was kosher, but you know how driving down long country roads can get you talking. I imagine she just needed to get some things off her chest. She said she was having trouble sleeping since the day they exhumed the bodies on the Moonlight Road property. She said that when she watched the investigators uncover the shallow graves, she was compelled to want to climb in and pick up the decomposing dogs and comfort and cradle them. She knew that was crazy talk, and she was grappling with trying to understand such a surprising impulse.
Her candor set the tone for this entire saga. Everyone we worked with was deeply affected by the case. The details that got to me then and stay with me today involve the swimming pool that was used to kill some of the dogs. Jumper cables were clipped onto the ears of underperforming dogs, then, just like with a car, the cables were connected to the terminals of car batteries before lifting and tossing the shamed dogs into the water. Most of Vick’s dogs were small – 40lbs or so – so tossing them in would’ve been fast and easy work for thick athlete arms. We don’t know how many suffered this premeditated murder, but the damage to the pool walls tells a story. It seems that while they were scrambling to escape, they scratched and clawed at the pool liner and bit at the dented aluminum sides like a hungry dog on a tin can.
I wear some pretty thick skin during our work with dogs, but I can’t shake my minds-eye image of a little black dog splashing frantically in bloody water … screaming in pain and terror … brown eyes saucer wide and tiny black white-toed feet clawing at anything, desperate to get a hold. This death did not come quickly. The rescuer in me keeps trying to think of a way to go back in time and somehow stop this torture and pull the little dog to safety. I think I’ll be looking for ways to pull that dog out for the rest of my life.
So that’s where I’m at. A second chance for Vick? An HSUS sponsored spokesman for ending torture? In my mind’s eye Vick is still in the shadows at the side of that pool. As many times as this scene plays out my head, he hasn’t yet moved towards that dog to pull him out. Not there yet.
Even PETA, a butcher of a different sort, finally got it right:
To clarify misleading stories regarding PETA and Michael Vick, PETA withdrew its offer to do a TV spot with Michael Vick last winter when a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on Vick’s dog fighting activities revealed that he enjoyed placing family pets in the ring with fighting pit bulls and that he laughed as dogs ripped each other apart. PETA believes that this revelation, along with other factors in the report, fit the established profile for anti-social personality disorder (APD), and we called on Vick to have a brain scan to help confirm this. People diagnosed with APD are commonly referred to as “psychopaths.” They are usually male, prone to lying and manipulation, often take pleasure in cruelty, and cannot feel genuine remorse, which frequently leads to recidivism. PETA had previously been in talks with Vick’s management, public relations, and legal teams about shooting a public service announcement to help combat dog fighting, upon Vick’s release from prison. In December, after consulting with psychiatrists, PETA withdrew the offer for the TV spot, and in January, we called on NFL Commissioner Goodell to require that Vick undergo a brain scan and full psychological evaluation before any decisions were made about the future of his football career.
Everything to Lose
When the Vick case occurred, the entire nation was horrified. The public’s outrage was unequivocal. This was the correct response, and a symbol of just how much people love dogs. But Pacelle, the leader of the nation’s largest animal protection group, is asking people to question that outrage and response. His actions threaten to paint a sympathetic portrait of Vick, despite Vick’s true one-dimensional nature as a sadist who takes pleasure in torturing and killing dogs.
Ultimately, the lesson this embrace of Vick imparts is that the brutal abuse, torture, and killing of dogs is forgivable. That they are only dogs. That the public’s response to the Vick horror was misplaced and overblown. In the end, Pacelle is helping Vick create a false image of himself as “reformed” so he can play in the National Football League again; to avoid the consequences of his actions by getting back the most important thing he cares about—even as he took away from many dogs the thing that mattered most to them: their very lives.
After the depths of Vick’s depravity were fully revealed, the punishment was swift and severe, as it should have been. He was banned from the NFL. He was convicted by the federal courts. He was sent to prison. He was bankrupted. He was despised by the American public. Now, Wayne Pacelle is asking us to sacrifice this precedent. After all, if the head of HSUS is willing to forgive, why shouldn’t the public and the NFL?
Are we really willing to lower the bar on how our society should react to such blatant animal cruelty in order to help a vicious animal killer? What could we possibly stand to gain that would be worth undoing that? Are we really that gullible that we believe Vick can actually influence people not to fight dogs? Are we really going to believe that a PSA or neighborhood talk is going to make people who enjoy watching dogs tear each other apart suddenly have a change of heart? Even if there were a small chance that this was so, without integrity, the “lesson” he is supposed to impart will fail. And it is no surprise that Pacelle can’t anticipate this because he himself appears to lack sincerity for the cause.
So we are left with the question of whether we are really going to accept a few meaningless PSAs and public appearances for an end to the permanent, righteous consequences that Vick must endure by remaining reviled as a monster; by never being reinstated in the NFL; by remaining bankrupt so he cannot afford to rebuild the “Bad Newz Kennels.”
Working to dissipate the righteous anger, working to remove the consequences of Vick’s actions, Pacelle is opening a new chapter to a story that already had the best of possible endings our movement could have hoped for: When Vick was caught torturing innocent animals for sadistic enjoyment, he received a permanent and lasting punishment. He lost his freedom, he lost his career, he lost his money, he lost his reputation, he lost virtually everything. That is exactly how the story should stay ended. And Pacelle’s actions threaten to undo it all.
Nothing to Gain
In the process, Pacelle is helping undermine that which we achieved—showing dog fighters the high cost of punishment; sending the message that dog fighting is unforgiveable and will be met with swift, complete, and permanent recrimination.
To embrace Pacelle’s position, we have to believe that Vick has become a repentant animal abuser who now wants to help dogs. To justify all that we stand to lose as a movement—all the dogs stand to lose—we have to believe that Vick holds the key to ending the scourge of dog fighting. It would be foolish and naïve to do so.
Vick could not care less about stopping or preventing dog fighting. Vick did not have a cathartic realization he was wrong. This isn’t some soul searching effort to make amends. He got caught, pure and simple. Even his guilty plea was not a sincere admission of guilt but a strategic decision (given the overwhelming evidence and a certain conviction) to avoid federal sentencing guidelines which would have locked him away for far longer if he did not plead guilty. And even while he was pleading guilty, he denied killing dogs. Had he not been caught, Vick would be torturing and killing dogs, and taking great amusement in it, to this very day. Our work is about protecting animals, not embracing their abusers. And because our movement stands to gain nothing by this association, Pacelle is asking us to sacrifice the former for the latter. And in so doing, he is undermining our movement. Tragically, it is not the first time.
Finding Our Voice
Through HSUS, Pacelle has:
- Participated in the slaughter of some 150 dogs, including puppies, in Wilkes County;
- Lobbied to stop No Kill legislation in San Francisco;
- Lobbied to stop No Kill legislation in King County, WA;
- Supported breed discriminatory legislation in Indianapolis, IN;
- Told USA Today and Newsweek that killing in shelters is acceptable and that No Kill was warehousing;
- Misled the public about an epidemic of dog bites to convey the view that trying to save Pit Bulls was irresponsible and put children at risk;
- Told the court to kill Vick’s victims even as he was asking people to give HSUS money so he could “care” for them;
- Left New Orleans with tens of millions given to HSUS for the victims of Hurricane Katrina even while those animals were still suffering;
- Legitimized the slaughter of virtually every animal at Tangipahoa Parish animal control;
- Told people not to adopt animals during the holidays, effectively accepting the deaths of 1,000,000 animals as the alternative;
- Told the Randolph, IA community that he did not have a problem killing stray cats.
And now this. This unconscionable, abhorrent, and vile embrace of a sadist who takes pleasure in the torture and killing of dogs.
This movement has been too forgiving of Pacelle. Time and time again he has acted in a way that is the antithesis of what the leader of an animal protection movement is supposed to do. Still, activists in this movement fail to condemn him, even as he now asks us to embrace the most notorious animal abuser of our time. To be equally forgiving of that monster, as we have been of him.
Can anyone imagine the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence embracing wife killer O.J. Simpson as a spokesman? Can anyone imagine the National Organization to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children embracing pedophile John Geoghan as a spokesman? Can anyone imagine the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network embracing rapist Josef Fritzl as a spokesman? It is unthinkable. And yet we in the animal movement, under Pacelle’s direction, are threatening to do this very thing, to having our movement embrace our version of Simpson, Geoghan, and Fritzl as a spokesman. It is beyond obscene. It is unthinkable.
When someone tells and shows us over and over who they are and what they stand for, we should believe them. No one can doubt that Vick is a monster. But sadly, despite the heartfelt pain expressed so eloquently about the dogs drowning in Vick’s backyard while he sadistically enjoyed himself, even Bad Rap, who deserves nothing less than unbridled accolades over their role in saving some of those poor dogs, refuses to see and condemn Pacelle for who and what he is. That is our movement’s own myopia. Just because Pacelle claims to value animals and he works for an organization with “humane” in its name doesn’t mean either is true. His actions time and again belie both claims. Which is why Bad Rap’s conclusion about Pacelle’s decision to embrace Vick as a spokesman that they are “not there yet” is not enough. None of us should ever be there. Ever.
If the dogs Vick tortured and Pacelle lobbied to have killed by the court could speak on their own behalf, their condemnation would be unequivocal. As they cannot, it is our solemn duty to do it on their behalf. And it is a trust we must not betray in deference to the power and position of those in our movement who abuse that power and betray our cause. As with any social justice movement, progress requires us to courageously defend what is right, even when doing so places us at odds with those in positions of power. We must put our allegiances to our ideals above allegiance to personalities and institutions. And this compels us to expose, reject, and condemn those in our midst who masquerade as leaders, such as Wayne Pacelle, but who use that power to willfully undermine our goals.
It is time for Pacelle to resign. It is time for him to leave us, and the animals, alone.