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September 30, 2009

The Road Back from Ruin

Convicted dogfighter Michael Vick seeks redemption

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Michael Vick is attempting to make amends for his past abuse of dogs. iStockphoto

by Carrie Allan

Up the street from the Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, DC, a boxer dog tethered in his yard is barking—over and over again, sharp staccato bursts telling everyone that this is his neighborhood, his yard, and they need to stop the fuss at the bottom of his hill. TV and police trucks are parked outside the church. Cameras are set up and ready.

The man the cameras have gathered for has a bad history when it comes to the canine set. Dogs at his BadNewz Kennels who didn't show enough will to fight were drowned, hanged, and bludgeoned.

But is that the same man who's here now?

Two days after returning to the field for the Philadelphia Eagles, four months after his release from prison, Michael Vick is here trying to make amends for his past—by telling the congregation that dogfighting has no future.

Joined by HSUS president Wayne Pacelle and other members of the organization's End Dogfighting campaign, Vick has already spoken at such forums in Atlanta and Philadelphia and Chicago. Audiences have included schoolchildren from some of those cities' poorest communities, many of whom know of dogfighting in their own neighborhoods but may not immediately recognize its brutality or know about the other criminal activities—drugs, gangs, illegal gambling—that tend to surround dogfighting rings.

While there are fewer children at today's talk, it's being held at a church in Ward 8 in the southwest section of the city. Reverend Christine Wiley, the pastor of the church is quick to address the demographics when she stands at the podium. She expresses her gratitude to Vick and The HSUS for visiting her church. "Ward 8," she tells the audience, "is a very special place. Some would characterize it as the poorest in the city. That's what you get from the statistics."

Statistics, though, never tell the full story, and Covenant Baptist doesn't feel poor in spirit. The church is warm and beautiful, its stained glass windows depicting a mix of Christian and civil rights figures. The pastor doesn't shy away from addressing local—or national—problems, though, and she reminds the mostly black crowd of some depressing figures: 43 percent of the inmates now on death row now are African-Americans. "Our kids," she tells the crowd, "are nine times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children."

She doesn't need to mention that she'd like to see that change.

Introducing the guest speakers, pastor Wiley reminds the audience that everyone is human, that everyone makes mistakes. Covenant Baptist Church, she says, has a reentry program for convicted ex-offenders, designed to help them assimilate back into society after they've served their time. Just as the church offers a hand and forgiveness to these people, she says, they welcome Michael Vick back into the community.

Forgive, Don't Forget

It's too soon to tell whether Vick will have a measurable, long-term impact on people's opinions of dogfighting. But Pacelle wants this ex-inmate's second chance to mean something more than the return of a quarterback.

"Mike has already suffered a great deal from his bad choices," Pacelle tells the crowd. "He's made a comeback, but not everyone can."

While he hopes Vick's story will persuade people to stop dogfighting, Pacelle says, it would be even better if he can persuade people never to start. When Pacelle heard Vick's personal story, he says, he thought it had the potential to impact people's lives—and by doing so, ease the suffering of thousands of dogs victimized by the practice.

When Vick himself finally stands at the podium to address the crowd, he describes his past in a soft voice, and talks about the arrogance with which he once operated as a young star pro-football player with seemingly endless money and power. He seldom thought about getting caught, he says, and up to the very end, he figured he would get away with it, since he had a team of good lawyers.

That was his plan, he says, but "my plan failed. God's plan worked."

He was meant to be here today, he says, and he wants kids to hear the message that inflicting suffering on animals is wrong.

Vick had plenty of long hours to reconsider his path while he was doing time in prison, and though he says he regrets his actions, he still can't explain them. "I don't know why I did it," he says. "It was pointless. You'll hear me use that word again and again: pointless."

The congregation gives Vick enthusiastic applause at the end of his talk. After the pastor sends everyone off with a prayer, kids and teenagers and their parents gather around Vick to shake his hand and get his autograph, and then Vick retires to one of the anterooms of the church to talk further with Pacelle.

The room is guarded by several police, but a little boy is undeterred from peeking in. He walks carefully past the officers and then comes back, jubilant about seeing Vick once again. He proudly holds out the sheet of paper the football player signed for him earlier.

"Maybe Mike will stop and throw the ball some before he has to leave," he says wistfully.

Vick has to get back on the road, though. It's going to be a long one, but he’s headed in the right direction.

Carrie Allan is the editor of Animal Sheltering magazine.

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