Michael Vick Makes Me Sick. Why Does He Make HSUS Smirk?

We have absolutely had it up to here (*hand motion at the forehead*) with the Humane Society of the United States promoting Michael Vick.

What is it with these people? Why is HSUS Chief Operating Officer Michael Markarian escorting him to an NFL awards dinner on Tuesday night?

HSUS spends tens of millions of dollars every year making the case that animals deserve the exact same level of legal and conscientious protection as people. Now imagine if a child-services advocate tried to arrange a death-row video hookup so that Richard Allen Davis (remember Polly Klaas?) could make a series of remorseful "don't do what I did" speeches. We think you get the picture. It's the hypocrisy that gets to us.

While we're on the subject, why did the NFL allow Michael Vick to win a "courage" award in the first place? And why is BET giving him a reality show?

We have the distinct feeling that if HSUS hadn't made the Faustian bargain to get out in front of this sick publicity tour, Wayne Pacelle would be putting rhetorical body-slams on any other animal rights group that chose to take the lead.

Our heartfelt apologies to Philadelphia Eagles fans, but when the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, that was something to be proud of. Michael Vick isn't. Rather, it's what Advertising Age called "a comprehensive public-relations scheme to rehabilitate his image." And HSUS is at the center of it.

We can think of only four reasons why HSUS has embraced this convicted dogfighter and started him on a slide toward (*shudder*) respectability:

  1. HSUS's fundraising arm believes exploiting Americans' love of dogs is good for business; or
  2. HSUS's public-relations department believes the resulting media coverage will be positive for HSUS; or
  3. HSUS's policymakers genuinely believe a contrite and thoughtful Michael Vick can persuade the next generation of thugs to stop beating up on their pit bulls (and perhaps only kick the crap out of each other); or
  4. Someone from the Philadelphia Eagles hurt Wayne Pacelle's feelings as a child, and now he's trying to get even by making the team universally reviled by sports fans with functioning consciences.

Are we missing anything?

Let's throw out number four, just for starters. (Too obvious.) But a little historical recap is in order if we're going to make sense of what happened. Bear with us, as some of this may be new to you.

Michael Vick was indicted for his dogfighting operation on July 17, 2008. By the very next day, HSUS was making an online fundraising pitch, asking Americans to:

… make a special gift to help The Humane Society of the United States care for the dogs seized in the Michael Vick case … your gift will be put to use right away to care for these dogs.

Two weeks later, The New York Times reported that HSUS wasn't “caring for” those dogs at all. HSUS didn't know where they were, and had no intention whatsoever of seeing them rehabilitated:

Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said in a telephone interview Tuesday [that] … "The fate of these dogs will be up to the government, but we have recommended to them, and believe, they will be eventually put down."

Pacelle said the Humane Society normally advocated that fighting dogs be put down shortly after being seized.

“Four months is a long time, a long time to be warehoused,” he said. “They may be walked only once a day, if that. We don’t know how well they are being kept. They are likely being held in cages for months on end.”

But Pacelle said his organization supported the government’s efforts. “It is lose-lose for the dogs,” he said. “They either die a gruesome death as a dogfighter in action, or they will be killed because they are not adoptable.” (emphasis added)

Several animal rescue groups disagree. While it's clearly an expensive and time-consuming challenge to rehabilitate fighting dogs, many believe it can be done. (Click here and here for examples of two organizations that are re-socializing Vick's dogs today.) We're made to understand, for instance, that the Best Friends Animal Society sued both HSUS and PETA in order to keep Vick's dogs alive.

At any rate, "Operation Hug Michael Vick" doesn't seem to be much of a cash cow for HSUS—other than the $50,000 the group got from the Philadelphia Eagles.

What about the publicity angle? It's true that HSUS has been on CNN talking about rehabilitating Michael Vick (instead of his dogs—how's that for irony?). But the usual strategy in these things is for HSUS to cast itself as the champion of Good, aligned against some easily targeted Horrible Villain. Like a Canadian seal hunter or a fur farmer.

In this case, HSUS is siding with the villain. That can't be good for anyone's image, no matter how heartfelt his apologies may be.

And how does HSUS square its support for a convicted dogfighting kingpin with its financial support for something called "The Committee to Protect Dogs"? Yesirree—HSUS spent over $500,000 to ban greyhound racing in Massachusetts. But Michael Vick's dogs are different. They deserved to die. And their tormenter is apparently not such a bad guy. The mind boggles.

Then there's door number three, which a less cynical blogger would have been rooting for all along: Was HSUS's heart in the right place, even though the rare human beneficiary of its compassion (in this case, Michael Vick) didn't deserve it? Did Michael Markarian, Wayne Pacelle, J.P. Goodwin et al honestly think they could leverage the Vick case into a societal good?

Here's what HSUS writes on the subject:

Vick was a role model for many young people, and he lost everything because of what he did to dogs. His story is the strongest possible example of why dogfighting is a dead end. Just as former drug addicts are able to reach people struggling with addiction, former dogfighters are some of the most effective voices against this crime. We realized the potential that Vick has to reach at-risk youth and pull them out of the quicksand of animal fighting.

… or perhaps to suck them in faster.

The Philadelphia SPCA reported on Friday that dogfighting investigations increased more than threefold between 2008 and 2009. There's clearly a Michael Vick factor here, and it's the direct opposite of what HSUS wanted to see. KYW News reports:

The number of animal fighting investigations, the vast majority of them dogfighting, has gone up from 237 in 2008 to over 800 last year – three to four times more.  George Bengal, director of investigations for the SPCA, says some of the owner offenders have been drawn to the sport by an idol.

"Michael Vick in my view definitely enters into the equation. A lot of the younger generation looks up to him as an idol and they idolize him and try to mimic the things he had done, which is not good."

If there were only a slight uptick in investigations, we'd consider the possibility that Michael Vick's presence in the City of Brotherly Love has made people angry enough to report every dogfighter in their neighborhoods. But this is a gargantuan increase.

So the way we see it, there's absolutely no redeeming value in HSUS's partnership with Michael Vick. None. Zilch. HSUS has clearly bet the farm on the wrong team this time, and the "courage award" escort looks like HSUS is doubling down with bad cards.

But Vick will get his award, HSUS will declare victory, and maybe Nike will re-sign him for an endorsement next year. Which is too bad.

Yes, Michael Vick has apologized. Yes, he paid the legal penalty for what he did. Yes, he admitted to lots of crying on 60 Minutes. But recognizing your character defects doesn't mean you've suddenly transformed from a violent felon into a "courageous" guy who's worthy of hero worship.

Becoming self-aware enough to deal honestly with your flaws is merely a sign of exiting adolescence.

And Michael Markarian is his prom date. That's a paparazzi photo we might actually buy.