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Why Vick needs a dog

A pet could teach the former abuser how to be a human being

January 04, 2011|Sandy Banks

I'm a dog lover and a football fan. And it doesn't bother me to cheer for Michael Vick, even though he's probably better known right now for his animal cruelty than for his gridiron heroics.

His conviction for running a dog-fighting ring isn't something he'll soon leave behind, no matter how far his Philadelphia Eagles carry their winning season or how well he plays in the Pro Bowl this month.

President Obama drew fire last week when reports surfaced that he thanked the Eagles' owner, Jeffrey Lurie, for giving Vick a chance to rejoin the game after he served his 19-month prison term. Vick later lit up the blogosphere as well when he told an African American website, thegrio.com, that he would like to own a dog again.

That would be like letting a pedophile be around children, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals fired back.

I guess that depends on how you see Vick: Is he a brutal sociopath, seized by uncontrollable urges? Or is he Ookie from the 'hood, playing dogfight like it was a video game?

Did Michael Vick somehow not understand that his pit bulls were real, not avatars?

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It is easy to be outraged at Vick, whose dog-fighting ring was horrifically cruel. When police raided the farm he owned in rural Virginia in 2007, they discovered a pit, dog-fighting paraphernalia, the bodies of eight dogs and 66 surviving canines, many maimed and ruined.

The "Bad Newz Kennels" it was called. Ookie, as the federal plea agreement calls him, bankrolled the operation and ran it with his three partners, nicknamed T, Q and P-Funk.

There is no excusing the brutality. And there's no overlooking the reality that Vick's operation is only the most extreme manifestation of an attitude that thrives in many communities.

Vick grew up in public housing in a tough pocket of Newport News, Va. He watched dog fights as a little boy. They were so much a part of the culture, he told 60 Minutes, that police patrolling the neighborhood would pull up to the crowds, realize it was only a dog fight, then get back in their cars and drive off.

"We didn't think it was bad at the time," Vick said. "And, you know, that kind of put a stamp on it."

That may be hard for the PETA crowd to swallow, but I understand what he's talking about. I remember similar scenes from my youth, but I knew enough to realize how wrong it was.

In the Cleveland neighborhood where I grew up, dogs were more like scrappy street urchins than pets.

I had to walk the long way home from school because the side streets near us were ruled by packs of hungry stray dogs. I detoured on my bike around certain blocks, where dog fights could spring up any time before impromptu crowds. I learned to tune out the cries of dogs chained up alone in backyards all night.

So I see the depravity of Vick's dog fighting ring not as a result of one man's isolated cruelty but as a reflection of a community inured to brutality.

His ring is the tip of the iceberg, say Humane Society officials, who estimate that there are 40,000 professional dog fighters in this country and as many as 100,000 street fighting rings.

Most of them are in neighborhoods where survival is tied to violence and a brutishly powerful animal becomes a stand-in for masculinity.

We can argue all we want about whether Michael Vick ought to be able to have a dog. He is forbidden from ownership until his probation expires next year.

But after that, he said, he would like "to have a pet in my household and to show people that I genuinely care, and my love and my passion for animals."

Love, passion, genuine care? That sounds like a script written by someone else, spoken by a man who still believes what he did was the equivalent of sending Fido to the corner.

Post-conviction, Vick is doing all the right things to quiet the clamor for his head.

He's working with the Humane Society to discourage dog-fighting, mouthing the right sentiments to impressionable kids. "I want you to love your pets … love that animal dearly and with all your heart," he told children in Atlanta.

He's making the rounds of interview shows, admitting that what he did was horrible and shows a lack of moral character.

But he still can't tell us what he was thinking, when he hauled those dogs up and down the coast, sending them into battles and bringing them home bloodied.

Did he ever look into the eyes of Jane or Big Boy or Tiny or Too Short — the pit bulls who won him money and made his life "exciting." Did he ever toss the ball and let them bring it back or play tug-of-war with a rope toy and a dog who wouldn't get smacked for letting go?

That's why Vick should not only be allowed, but ordered, to get a dog when his probation is up. Not just because his daughters want one, or it will help his rehabilitation progress. And not just so that he will learn what words like 'love' and 'care for' really mean the first time the puppy pee-pees on his very expensive antique rug.

Michael Vick needs to get a dog because he needs a link to tenderness, not just a reminder of his toughness. He needs to understand what it means to earn the trust of an animal, and why his violations hurt us so much.

It's not about showing people you've changed, Michael. It's about actually changing. And after the Pro Bowl has been played and the season is done, watching late night replays with a puppy who is not counting your fumbles and interceptions might feel like a very good thing.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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