Thursday, March 13, 2008

Vick Case Exposes Rift Among Animal-Rights Advocates

Just when I start thinking happy thoughts about PETA, the quotes from Ingrid Newkirk in this New York Times Article send a wirey hair right up my animal-loving arse.

Since I don't know how long the link to the article will be good, here it is in full. I'll post my own reactions to this article tomorrow.

Vick Case Exposes Rift Among Animal-Rights Advocates
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Published: March 12, 2008

The lingering image of Michael Vick’s dogfighting case last summer was the daily courthouse appearance by members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

PETA.

They were noisy and angry in their denunciation, insisting that Vick, the fallen multimillion dollar quarterback, be punished for his role in illegal dogfighting and subsequent cruelty to animals.
He was certainly punished. Vick is serving a 23-month federal sentence for criminal conspiracy resulting from felonious dogfighting.

But there remains a widening divide still simmering within the animal-rights community over the treatment of abused, high-risk animals. The friction boils down to a matter of life and death. PETA generally advocates euthanizing rescued fighting dogs, while other groups lean toward rehabilitation.

The public disagreement is eye-opening for those of us who assumed animal-rights and animal-welfare groups were all on the same page. After talking to both camps, this much is clear:

They all love the animals, but can’t seem to get along with each other.

The divide surfaced in the aftermath of the Vick trial when the judge, Henry Hudson, ordered Vick to pay $928,073 in restitution for the “past, present and long-term care of all the dogs.” The court allocated $5,000 for dogs deemed likely to be adopted, and $18,275 for each of the dogs going into longer-term or lifetime sanctuary care.

PETA argued that dogs trained for fighting should be destroyed because they are unsafe and unserviceable. PETA said the Vick money would have been better spent spaying and neutering, as well as providing care for more suitable and less well-known adoption candidates.

The folks at Best Friends Animal Society argued that the fighting dogs had been forced to lead brutal lives and should not receive death sentences.

The court agreed with Best Friends, and that’s when the sniping really began. Rebecca J. Huss, a professor at the Valparaiso University School of Law, was appointed to represent the interests of the Vick dogs. Under her supervision, 25 of the 47 surviving dogs were classified as sanctuary dogs and placed with seven different shelters. Best Friends received the other 22 dogs, including one that was assessed as being highly adoptable.
Ingrid Newkirk, the founder and chief executive of PETA, called Best Friends “an expensive Camelot.”

“These are celebrity dogs,” she said this week in a telephone interview. “That isn’t a good use of money, it isn’t the best uses of time. The Vick dogs are the least likely candidates for success. It’s just a much more exciting story that comes with money attached to it.”

The founder of Best Friends, Michael Mountain, said PETA, for all its high-profile advocacy, is boxed in by an outdated philosophy.

“I don’t think PETA’s argument is with us, I think it’s with themselves,” he said from Utah in a telephone interview. “It’s really difficult as an animal-rights, animal-protection, animal-whatever-you-want-to-call-it organization to explain away the fact that pretty much all the animals you rescue, you kill. It doesn’t make logical sense; it doesn’t make emotional sense.”
Can these groups ever work together?

Here’s where they agree. They oppose cruelty to animals, advocate for an end to dogfighting and believe in animal population control. PETA believes in the ideal of the no-kill shelter; Best Friends carries it out.

Vick, demonized by PETA for more than a year, could become the bridge in this divide. Newkirk struck up a relationship with Vick beginning last fall when he visited PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Va. Vick impressed her.

“We told him that he had to put away his mobile phone for the day; he couldn’t have his bodyguard with him for the day,” she said. “He came here and he was very respectful. He sat the whole day and we showed him videos about who animals are and how sensitive and emotional they are and how, like a child, you can ruin them by abusing them.”

Newkirk said she and Vick have exchanged letters. He wrote that he missed his children, “and he wants people to know that he does care about what he did and we talk about that.”

She suggested to Vick that he do a television commercial in which he tells dog fighters to get out of the game. He has not responded to that proposal, she said.

Mountain said Best Friends would love to have Vick visit Utah and see how his dogs are being rehabilitated.

Huss isn’t convinced that Vick is rehabilitated. She said, “The perspective of a lot of the animal welfare organizations is that they don’t get a sense that he really understands or cares about what happened to the dogs while the dogs were on his properties or even since they’ve been off.”

I must confess that the dogs were often background music to my perspective on the Vick case. I felt the sentence was unduly harsh. But this is not really a dogfighting issue or an animal-rights issue or an overpopulation issue. This is a caring issue: If we, as a society, cannot treat the defenseless with kindness, how can we ever hope to truly care for one another?

Under Newkirk’s direction, PETA has launched many important initiatives — including shining a light on the brutal dogfighting industry. But she is on the wrong side of this pit-bull issue. If a dog can be rehabilitated, rehabilitate; if a life can be saved, save it.

Even if it’s taking place in Camelot.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

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