For its 11 million members, as well as millions more nonmembers that sport fur, feathers or scales, the Humane Society of the United States' public relations and legislative coups in the last few years have been cause for celebration.
Its undercover video of cows too sick to walk at a meatpacking plant in Chino led to a federal ban on the slaughter of "downer" cows for human consumption. It sponsored Proposition 2 in California, a successful ballot initiative mandating more humane treatment for chickens and other farm animals. And most notably, in 2007, it championed the prosecution of former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick for running a dogfighting operation in Virginia. The Vick case raised the organization's profile and that of its president, Wayne Pacelle, as he called for the Falcons to drop Vick, for Nike to sever ties with him and for passage of new state laws against animal fighting. Since then, 21 states have complied.
But after Vick served his 23-month sentence and the two men had lengthy conversations, Pacelle made a controversial decision: He decided to join forces with the football player and bring him on board as part of the Humane Society's anti-dogfighting program; Vick, now a player for the Philadelphia Eagles, spends some of his free time lecturing schoolchildren about animal cruelty. The move shocked and angered many society members who feel Vick deserves no quarter -- no matter how willing he is to atone. The images of dogs mauled and maimed are unforgettable, and the public was rightly horrified at Vick's callousness. And it is reasonable to question whether he is truly repentant or is simply using the organization to rehabilitate his image.
This page doesn't always agree with Humane Society initiatives, but the organization's partnership with Vick is a smart move. A pattern of cruelty to animals often starts at a young age -- Vick himself was exposed to dogfighting at age 8. The Humane Society, whose members tend to be white and middle class, doesn't have a lot of influence with inner-city kids, but in Vick it has found someone uniquely suited to educate them. There's little doubt that Vick needs the image boost this public-service stint can provide, but the society needs him just as much.
Pacelle, appearing tonight at a town hall meeting in L.A.'s Windsor Square neighborhood, probably will be confronted with questions about Vick, among other controversial topics; in California, the Humane Society is working to ban the hunting of mourning doves, much to the ire of hunters. It also wants to make cockfighting a felony and to crack down on puppy mills. The organization will be more successful in all of these ventures if it focuses on widening its public appeal -- and on trying to be at least as humane toward humans as it is toward animals. Vick has done his time and is in a position to do himself and fighting canines a lot of good. Society members should throw him, and Pacelle, a bone.