Wayne Pacelle doesn’t mind a good fight. He’s used to them.
In 15 years with the Humane Society of the United States, the last five as its chief executive, Pacelle has taken on many animal rights issues, including the brutalization of seals, slaughter plants in California and the proliferation of puppy mills.
None of the battles have been more intense than this new one, in which he recently broke ranks with much of the animal rights community and forged a partnership with Michael Vick, the fallen N.F.L. quarterback.
In 2007, Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting operation. He was released this week and is serving the rest of his sentence in home confinement. The airwaves have crackled with speculation over where he will land.
Few expected that he would land with the Humane Society. Pacelle announced on Tuesday that the Humane Society and Vick would work together to eradicate dogfighting among youths.
While debates on sports talk radio programs continue to focus on the narrow issue of whether Vick deserves a second chance to play football, the larger, wiser issue is Vick’s personal rehabilitation and the role he can play in discouraging animal abuse.
The Humane Society’s position has nothing to do with endorsing Vick’s return to football but rather with finding a way to use his visibility to fight the scourge of dogfighting, which Pacelle said is gaining popularity with African-American and Hispanic teenagers in urban areas. The Humane Society has begun anti-dogfighting initiatives in those areas, he said.
“He’s got celebrity, he’s got a story and he can make some difference on this issue.”
'I want to end dogfighting'
The Humane Society’s announcement about its partnership with Vick, and the reaction to it, underline complexities that lie between raw outrage over the mistreatment of animals and the rehabilitation of the humans who commit the crimes. While all animal rights groups are committed to protecting animals, their tactics and philosophies differ. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals advocates euthanizing rescued fighting dogs, for example, while a group like Best Friends advocates their rehabilitation.
Many see Vick as a pariah to be avoided under any circumstance. In a phone interview this week, Dan Shannon of PETA said, “We don’t think that it’s the animal protection community’s place to facilitate a convicted dogfighter’s comeback, which would be the case if one were to work with him.”
But Pacelle sees Vick as a potentially valuable ally in the fight against dogfighting.
“I understand that there are people who don’t want to work with Michael Vick,” he said. “I want to end dogfighting. And he may be a very important role player in that process.”
Pacelle added: “If he’s sincere, and if he’s committed in the long run to this goal for whatever reasons, he can be an agent of change, he can steer young kids in urban communities’ vile activity toward more productive interactions with dogs.
“Our goal is not endless punitive treatment of Michael Vick. Our goal is to eradicate dogfighting in America.”
Asked how he felt about winding up in a face-to-face meeting with Vick in prison, Pacelle said: “It was a place that two years ago I would have never thought I would have been. We said some really tough stuff about Michael Vick.”
'I’m not convinced that Mike is completely turned around'
Is there justification for being skeptical of Vick’s motives? Of course. Vick is eager — desperate — to remake his image.
And even though he announced the partnership Tuesday, Pacelle said he was not completely sold. “I’m not convinced that Mike is completely turned around,” he said, “and I’m not convinced that he’s going to make the most of this opportunity. But I do think he should have a chance to demonstrate that he is changed and that he can be part of the solution. Call me a participating skeptic.”
Regardless of how you feel about Vick, the morality of the issue he represents — cruelty to animals — is not cut and dried, black and white.
The Humane Society has introduced a large patch of gray.
Take a look back at Michael Vick's rise to NFL superstardom, his fall following his involvement in dogfighting and his comeback attempt.
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