It’s hard to exaggerate the viciousness of what Michael Vick did. While playing for the Atlanta Falcons, the star quarterback financed a dogfighting operation, provided a site for fights on land he owned, and took part in training dogs to fight. Arrested in 2007, he admitted involvement in the strangling and beating deaths of dogs — and to personally drowning them.
Vick’s crimes earned him a suspension from the NFL, a federal felony conviction and 18 months in prison, as well as the loss of millions of dollars in salary and endorsements. Now, the NFL is under fire for naming Vick, who retired from football in 2017 after a post-prison comeback, an honorary co-captain for the Pro Bowl. Some 740,000 people have signed petitions objecting.
Justice requires that we remember. Justice required that Vick pay a heavy price. But there is a case to be made for a measure of mercy. Stepping forward to make it is Wayne Pacelle, who served 14 years as president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States and is now head of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy.
Pacelle is one of the most important champions of animal welfare in modern American history. Under his leadership, the HSUS helped enact dozens of laws to protect animals, including banning cockfights.
It also got laws and corporate practices changed to improve conditions for pigs, chickens, cattle and other livestock. It’s partly to his credit that scientists in the U.S. no longer subject chimpanzees to invasive experiments and that SeaWorld no longer breeds captive orca whales.
While the football player was serving time, an intermediary called Pacelle to tell him Vick would like to help the animal welfare cause. Pacelle declined. His immediate thought, he told me, was: “Gimme a break. That’s the last guy I’d want.” But on reflection, it occurred to him: “We work with people doing the wrong thing and get them moving in the right direction.”
The executive director of Pacelle’s Animal Wellness Action, after all, is Marty Irby, a former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, which promotes a sport that has often relied on injuring horses’ legs and hooves to induce a distinctive gait. Irby has lobbied for a federal bill prohibiting these practices — which the House passed in July.
Pacelle, it should be noted, resigned from his HSUS post in 2018 amid accusations of sexual harassment. He denied them, and the HSUS board had voted to keep him. I don’t know if he was guilty of such misconduct. But even if he was, it would not diminish his immense contributions to animal welfare.
When he got the call about Vick in 2009, the HSUS was trying to heighten the awareness of the evils of dogfighting and motivate law enforcement to make use of the new federal law against it.
As he recounted in his 2011 book, “The Bond: Our Kinship With Animals, Our Call to Protect Them,” Pacelle called back and told Vick’s representative that he’d be willing to talk if Vick was willing to travel to inform kids about the need to protect animals.
He agreed, though he had no community service obligation. Pacelle visited him in prison and decided to give Vick a chance, in the hope that he’d win kids to the cause. “I didn’t see how shunning him would save a single dog,” he wrote. After his release, Pacelle says, the two of them “did dozens of events and spoke to 20,000 or 30,000 kids.”
Is that enough to warrant a modicum of forgiveness to Vick? Should he be commended for making a serious effort at atonement? Does it make sense to set aside his ugly past for a moment to honor his exploits as a player?
My feeling — as someone who has had three dogs, each of them rescued — is that the answer is yes. Part of the task of alleviating the needless suffering of animals is punishing cruelty. Part of it is encouraging those who have been responsible for such abuse to confront what they did and change their ways — and recognizing those who accept that obligation.
I can’t fault those who think nothing Vick could do would make up for the agony of the dogs he abused. But redemption is something to celebrate. And the only people who can be redeemed are those who have done wrong.