(Sorry dog advocates, the general public has already 'forgiven' vickster and moved on, his jersey is selling like hotcakes)
Michael Vick's unpaid dues: Why dog advocates aren't moving on
When football player Michael Vick made his first post-prison appearance in a Philadelphia Eagles uniform, he got a standing ovation from the hometown crowd. His recent reception in the Bay Area was far cooler -- at last month's game between the Eagles and the Oakland Raiders, he was greeted with protestors, picket signs and a plane flying over the stadium with a banner reading "Dogfighter Go Home!"
But even in the dog-loving Bay Area, Vick had plenty of defenders. "Sooner or later you're going to have to forgive the guy anyway," Charles Wright, a 44-year-old Oakland tow truck driver, told protestors after the game. "You may as well get it out of your system."
Another fan yelled, "Come on, the dude paid his debt to society."
In other words, "move on." But however many times dog lovers hear such advice, they're not getting any closer to taking it. That's because not only has Vick not served one minute in prison for animal cruelty, he was far more cruel to his dogs than most of his defenders seem to realize.
Most people are aware that Michael Vick was "convicted of dog fighting." They know he went to prison, and they've also probably seen the news stories, including a moving Sports Illustrated cover story, about the Vick dogs that were rescued and rehabilitated after being seized from his Bad Newz Kennels.
But that's only part of the story.
"What Michael Vick did was not just dog fighting," said Marthina McClay of Our Pack, a pit bull rescue group in Santa Clara, and the owner of one of the Vick dogs, Leo. "It went so far beyond that, and most people who defend him are uninformed. They don't really realize what Michael Vick did."
If you're one of the people McClay is talking about, let me invite you into Donna Reynolds' nightmare.
Reynolds is the co-founder of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls (BAD RAP), an East Bay organization with a national reputation for rescuing and rehabilitating pit bulls. They rehabbed and cared for many of the dogs seized from Vick's Bad Newz Kennels after his arrest in April of 2007.
She's definitely not what you'd call a fragile flower, and she's been working with ex-fighting pits for longer than a lot of the people reading this have been out of kindergarten. It's fair to say she's seen the worst things that people can do to dogs, but there's still a story she can't get out of her mind.
It was a sweltering day in September of 2007, and Reynolds was in Virginia to evaluate the 49 pit bulls found alive on Vicks' property. A federal agent who had been at the scene when the property was searched was driving her to the various facilities holding the dogs, and they got to talking about what the investigation had turned up.
"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," Reynolds wrote on her blog. "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."
She continued, "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."
Vick did all that and more to his dogs, and even threw family pets into the pit with fighters and laughed while they were mauled, according to a witness who testified to federal investigators.
That's what sends dog lovers out to football games with protest signs: knowing that Michael Vick tortured and killed innocent dogs. That he has never paid for that abuse or even apologized for it.
Because the nation's most notorious dogfighter pled "not guilty" to animal cruelty charges -- charges that were eventually dropped in a plea bargain -- and he was convicted only of bankrolling a dogfighting conspiracy, for which he served 18 months in prison before being welcomed back to the public spotlight.
Even worse, he's shown no sign of understanding of, or regret over, the fate of his dogs.
"Vick has never expressed one word of remorse for what he did to those dogs," said McClay. "Not in any of his public statements, and not in his appearance on '60 Minutes.' Vick said he 'let it happen.' He slammed and beat and hung dogs to death. It's like Ted Bundy saying, 'I let someone murder this girl.' He doesn't take any responsibility for it."
Reynolds doesn't think it's an accident that most of Vick's supporters are so in the dark about his crimes against dogs.
"It worked out nicely for Vick that he never faced his animal abuse charges in court," she told me. "That meant football fans were spared the most disturbing details of his tortures and could go back to their Sunday night ritual with barely a hiccup."
Those who weren't spared those disturbing details, like Reynolds and McClay, aren't finding it easy, or even possible, to move on.
"I look at Leo's big, fat head and wonderful, loving heart," McClay said, "and wonder, how can you kill something like that? And now that's okay because Vick did his time, and we should just move on? How do you move on from that?"
Well, you might say, that's our criminal justice system, and that's professional sports. And you'd be right, as far as it goes.
But before it goes too far -- before you, too, become one of the people saying Vick's done his time and deserves to get on with his life -- consider something other than the heartwarming stories about ex-Vick dogs making visits to cancer wards and schools for troubled kids.
Think about the ones who were buried in the dirt of Bad Newz Kennels, who aren't getting much attention outside the dog world.
The horrific fate of those dogs is why Reynolds is actually glad about the continued debate between Vick's defenders and pit bull advocates -- it makes it harder for what he did to be buried along with the dogs he killed.
"Much of the public still sees pit bulls as willing gladiators rather than the victims that they are," she told me. "We have a long way to go before open debate on the topic of animal abuse is welcome in most living rooms, so the outrage about Vick's tortures is rightfully keeping the subject alive." I suppose that's the silver lining. I just wish I could get the image of those frightened, drowning dogs out of my head. And I wish I believed they were haunting Michael Vick, too.