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Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Chance to Change

I spent yesterday at the Liberation Christian Center in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago’s south side, where Michael Vick spoke to at-risk youth and urged them not to get involved in dogfighting. When the Michael Vick case broke two years ago and brought a new level of attention to the cruel and shockingly widespread practice, around the time we worked to pass legislation in Congress establishing felony-level penalties for animal fighting, I wouldn’t have imagined that I’d eventually see Vick share the pulpit with other reformed dogfighters turned HSUS anti-dogfighting advocates, telling kids from personal experience not to go down this dead-end path.

Vick spoke with Chicago’s at-risk youth yesterday to urge them to not get involved in dogfighting.

I typically write on this blog about passing laws to protect animals from cruelty and curb the worst abuses, and that’s been a major focus of HSUS and HSLF when it comes to dogfighting and cockfighting. Backed by our legions of supporters, we’ve engineered most of the state and federal laws on the subject, and have pounded a constant drumbeat to upgrade the penalties and to see these laws enforced. We have encouraged, trained, supported and provided crucial intelligence to law enforcement to bring offenders to justice. We were at it long before the Vick case broke, but the heightened awareness brought by his celebrity helped us pass tougher animal fighting laws in 24 states and in Congress just since Vick’s arrest in 2007.

One of the reasons for stronger laws is to punish the people who refuse to play by society’s rules, and to remove people from society when they pose a larger threat to the community as a whole. It’s especially relevant with animal cruelty, as people who lose their empathy with animals can soon graduate to other violent crimes. Another reason is to have a deterrent effect and prevent people from breaking the law in the first place: The risk of a long incarceration is more likely to sway someone than a misdemeanor fine, especially when thousands of dollars in gambling profits are at stake at an animal fight, and a slap on the wrist is viewed simply as the cost of doing business.

But it’s also a core objective at HSUS and HSLF to give people a chance to change and to cast aside behaviors harmful to animals in favor of more compassion and empathy. Michael Vick served nearly two years in prison, and told the young people at Englewood that he had a lot of time to reflect on the way he had lived his life. He said that he knows what he did to animals was wrong, and that he now wants to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. He said that if he can steer 50, or 100, or 1,000 kids away from dogfighting, then he can help more animals than he harmed.

HSUS and HSLF are in the business of change—changing laws and changing behavior. The law worked when it came to Michael Vick. He did his time, and he’s now doing a type of community service, working with HSUS to make amends for the wrong he did. His example has the potential to change thousands of lives if he sticks with it, sparing dogs the suffering of being torn apart for entertainment, and sparing young men the loss of their freedom and their empathy for other creatures. I was inspired by how many kids in the church were so moved by Vick’s words and his life story—every young man I spoke with yesterday said he has seen dogfights occur in his neighborhood, and that hearing from Michael Vick has shown him a better way.

We need strong laws against cruelty, but the laws can only go so far. We also need community-based outreach programs like the HSUS End Dogfighting campaigns in Chicago and Atlanta, where our anti-dogfighting advocates have street credibility and can reach young men with a message of kindness and compassion. Working with HSUS and members of the clergy, former dogfighters and former gang members talk to at-risk youth on inner-city streets, interrupt dogfights in progress, and show kids that pit bulls are friends, not fighters. Through our pit bull training classes, we tackle the problem at both ends of the leash—working with the dog, but also working with the dog owner. And when those lives are changed for the better—both human and animal—it’s a 100 percent victory for all of us.


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