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Vick case dials up rhetoric against dog fighting

Article

Some responses were strident, others more straightforward - and a few pushed the decibel meter to the max.

Some responses were strident, others more straightforward — and a few pushed the decibel meter to the max.

But the message was the same from all sides: official, public condemnation of what the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) calls the "blood sport" of dog fighting.

The AVMA, animal-welfare organizations, professional football and at least one well-known member of Congress had something to say for the record, after Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick decided to plead guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to engage in dog fighting.

The high-profile case became the crucible for focusing intense public scrutiny on dog fighting — a violent, often clandestine, activity that is reported to be on the increase nationwide, particularly in urban areas. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) estimates there are 40,000 "professional" dog fighters across the nation, and at least 100,000 "street" fighters in major cities.

On July 25, just days after the arrests of Vick and three co-defendants, the AVMA issued a statement saying it "condemns dog fighting and any event involving animals in which injury or death are intended, and supports the enforcement of laws against dog fighting and related activities."

The group said its encourages its members "to collaborate with law enforcement with respect to recognition, enforcement and education" on dog-fighting issues, directing them to its official policy statement that was posted earlier this year on the AVMA Web site.

It drew attention to the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, passed by Congress in March and signed into law in May, that raises penalties for dog fighting, but acknowledged that "the brutal contests seem to be increasing, especially in the South and large urban centers."

The AVMA concluded by calling dog fighting a "blood sport" that originated in ancient times, when dogs were used in war, but evolved into what it is today.

"Dogs bred and trained for fighting are aggressive, often dangerous, and unsafe to introduce into society as pets; therefore, the majority of animals seized are euthanized."

Vick formally entered a guilty plea in Richmond, Va., on Aug. 27, after which U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson set sentencing for Dec. 10, telling Vick that he is not bound by the sentence of 12 to 18 months recommended by prosecutors and the defense, but could impose any term up to five years.

Later, at a Richmond hotel, Vick apologized, said he takes responsibility for his actions and that "dog fighting is a terrible crime."

He said he took the opportunity "just to speak from the heart," admitting he had not been forthright earlier with the NFL or his team. "I totally ask for forgiveness and understanding as I move forward to bettering Michael Vick the person, not the football player," he said.

By the time Vick decided to admit to the charges on Aug. 20, his three co-defendants already had pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against him, leaving the star NFL passer with little room to maneuver in or out of the pocket.

His predicament worsened when it was reported that a federal grand jury in Richmond, Va., was about to bring additional charges, but his guilty plea now makes that unlikely.

Co-defendants Quanis Phillips of Atlanta and Purnell Peace of Virginia Beach told authorities that Vick, 27, took part in killing at least eight dogs that hadn't performed well in fights, using means such as electrocution, drowning and hanging.

They and the third defendant, Tony Taylor, said Vick was the chief financial backer for "Bad Newz Kennels," a dog-fighting, gambling venture that operated out of Vick's property in rural Surry County, Va. Vick earlier denied any knowledge of the operation, saying he rarely visited the home occupied by a cousin.

The charges against Vick carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $250,000 fine, but prosecutors asked for 12 to 18 months, somewhat more than usually recommended for first-time offenders under sentencing guidelines, because of the nature of the crime.

The high-profile case puts Vick's NFL career in jeopardy. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who earlier banned Vick from the Falcons' training camp, ordered him suspended indefinitely when Vick agreed to plead guilty.

The AVMA's official statement on dog fighting, along with that of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), were perhaps the most straightforward of several public responses growing out of the Vick case.

The ASPCA, the nation's oldest animal-welfare group, applauded the action against Vick and his co-defendants. The group announced Aug. 23 that it is assisting federal authorities in examining the dogs seized in the raid on the Vick property, but said it could provide no further details.

"It is gratifying to see federal authorities taking an active role in investigating dog fighting ... something we in the animal-welfare world take extremely seriously," said ASPCA President and CEO Ed Sayres. "Federal charges in dog fighting are extremely rare, and we applaud the authorities for giving this crime the attention it deserves."

Urging ASPCA members and others to observe how the case develops before taking any other steps, the group's senior vice-president, Dr. Randall Lockwood, said "the violent actions described in the indictment are extremely disturbing, but it is important for the criminal-justice system to be allowed to take its course."

Other groups called for various actions to be taken and some were more strident in their responses. Here is what some of them had to say:

  • The HSUS, whose representatives have been present at numerous raids on alleged dog-fighting venues around the country, said it encourages its supporters to "write letters to the media to increase public awareness ... of dog fighting, and to law-enforcement officials or prosecutors and judges, to urge them to take the issue seriously. If you suspect that dog fighting is going on in your neighborhood, alert your local law-enforcement agency."

The HSUS also urged residents of the only two states where dog fighting is still treated as a misdemeanor, Idaho and Wyoming, to "write to your state legislators and urge them to make it a felony."

  • Dialing the rhetoric still higher, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urged visitors to its Web page "to urge the NFL to suspend Michael Vick without pay." It provided a link for sending such a message to NFL President Goodell.

PETA members held a demonstration outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Richmond, Va., on July 17, and on July 20 held a "Sack Vick" protest outside NFL headquarters in New York City, and at the Falcons' training came near Atlanta. But it called off a planned "national day of action" against Vick sponsor Nike after the sports-equipment maker agreed to suspend Vick's contract until the case was decided. It ended its deal with Vick with his guilty plea.

PETA also wrote a letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gill, asking that he include a provision in any plea agreement with Vick that would prohibit the NFL star from owning or harboring any animal in the future. "It's absolutely vital," it said, "that criminals who are convicted in animal-cruelty cases be permanently barred from owning animals, since the likelihood for repeat offenses is extremely high with this kind of crime. This is especially true of dog fighting."

  • The American Humane Association (AHA) sent a letter July 25 to associations of pro-football players' wives, mothers and fathers and other supporters to join it in demanding the NFL make a strong public statement against dog fighting. "Help us raise the bar for the NFL by showing that the league and the overwhelming majority of its players are kind and caring people who value the important role animals play in our lives. Join us in encouraging the league to show leadership by acknowledging the severity of this issue," the letter said in part.

It concluded by "imploring that ... the NFL take a stance that shows it is worthy of the reverence and income it receives from the public — a public which has vocally expressed its disgust for dog fighting and strongly indicated the importance it places on the human-animal bond."

Perhaps the strongest public response to the Vick case came July 19 from the floor of the U.S. Senate, where its oldest member, 89-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., said he's seen one execution and wouldn't mind seeing another "if it involves this cruel, sadistic, cannibalistic business of training innocent, vulnerable creatures to kill."

Byrd, a longtime animal-welfare advocate, said his words weren't intended to judge anyone before their day in court, but pumped his fist and called the activities described in the Vick case "sadistic" and "barbaric."

"May God help those poor souls who'd be so cruel. Barbaric! Hear me! Barbaric!" he shouted.

"One is left wondering, who are the real animals; the creatures inside or outside the (dog fighting) ring?" Byrd asked rhetorically.

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