Dog Lovers and Dog Fighting

I was pleased to see that Michael Vick was sentenced earlier this week to 23 months in prison for dogfighting charges. His sentence was at the high end of the 18-24 month guideline. He will likely be out in 18 months because of laws requiring a certain percentage of the time sentenced to be served.

Add to those 18 months the facts that he’s lost his endorsements and his job with the Falcons (perhaps his entire career), and that the damage to his reputation has caused business ventures to go belly-up, leaving him with millions in business debt. He’s not much overstating it when he writes, in his letter to the judge asking for leniency in sentencing, that he’s lost everything. I’m striking a more sympathetic note now than I was when the story broke. Despite myself, I’m moved—if not necessarily to sympathy, then to deep thought—by the five-page handwritten letter.

In it, he talks about being a lifelong animal lover. He owns aquariums full of fish, parrots, lizards, and Paso Fino horses. There’s something sort of touching about naming his menagerie down to the last lizard. In pitch-perfect remorse, he tells the judge that this has been an invaluable learning experience for him. He had grown up around dog-fighting and never seen it punished the way drugs and gun-crimes are. He apologizes for the suffering that he has now learned that he has caused.

Then things start to go off key. At the bottom of page three, he argues that the dogs in his possession were “in good health” and well cared-for. (I presume that this excludes the dogs that he helped kill, and those suffering from wounds incurred in fights, which of course would have gone without veterinary attention due to the illegal manner in which they were injured.) This last statement may be the sort of misstep that caused the judge to state that he believes that Vick has yet to really accept full responsibility for his actions. Raising physically healthy dogs, corrupting their minds until they are nothing but attack machines, and then letting them maul each other is not keeping them in good health or care.

But all of this leads me to wonder: How can a person be an animal-lover, and attend dog fights, and not recognize (until he is busted for dog-fighting) that the dogs involved are suffering?

It’s so incomprehensible that I’m actually tempted to write Vick in prison and ask him. It would be easiest to dismiss Vick’s whole letter as a bumbling, bullshitting attempt to spend a little less time behind bars. If he’s a monster, then we don’t have to contemplate how someone with feelings, someone who loves animals, might commit these horrible crimes.

Short of asking the man himself, here is my musing. I own a pretty tough, macho sort of dog. When we had him in to the vet this October for odd stomach upset or back injury, we met a vet tech who raised pitbulls. As she examined our dog, though he had some nonspecific symptoms, she wasn’t able to see him react to pain anywhere on his back or abdomen.

She compared Caboo to her male pit, who once ate a six-foot nylon leash (first chomping it into six inch segments). She monitored the situation, and he passed several pieces of the leash, but eventually it became obvious that the rest of it wasn’t coming out. Though the dog seemed happy and entirely himself, she ran him in for an x-ray. Turns out that a piece of the leash was lodged in his stomach, the nylon had begun to unravel, and that as his intestines continued to attempt to pull the leash through, the intestines were climbing up the long threads and into his stomach. An emergency surgery to remove both the leash and parts of his intestine saved his life. A few more hours and he’d have been dead, and though he must have been in some acute level of discomfort as sections of his intestine actually started to die, he gave no sign of it.

Is it possible to attend a dog fight and not see the suffering? Pitbulls are brave, brave dogs. I can imagine how their bred-in, training-fired aggression might look like eagerness to fight.

Like a good English teacher, I have a book for everything. In Jack London’s White Fang, the dog is put to use in every conceivable contest. He hunts and pulls a sled. He bests other dogs in pulling contests. He beats other dogs in fights; they run out of dogs whose owners are willing to face him, and begin matching him with wolves and even a lynx. At last, he looses a fight to a bulldog. The fight is long since over, and the bulldog is slowly strangling White Fang when a bystander breaks the rules to step in, prise the bulldog’s jaws off, and buy the almost-dead dog from his uncaring owner.

As a child reader (before I knew that our cities housed underground dog-fighting rings) I could cheer on White Fang in every fight, until the last one. Then it wasn’t a game any more; the cruelty and waste became apparent. But my point is that I read that book, and for a few pages, I was a dog-fighting fan. And I still understand the desire to have the dog who’s the best at something. I don’t want to over-simplify the problem of dog-fighting. It’s bound up with all sorts of other criminal activity, from gambling to drug dealing. It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg problem. Do we have illegal dogfighting because of the crime networks it’s interwoven with, or do we have it because people in cities are desperate for some deep and meaningful and affirming connection with their animals?

I keep hoping that weight pulls organized by groups like Lug Nuts may be part of the answer to the particular social problem of urban dog fighting. In weight pull competitions, a harness is provided that allows the dogs to safely pull sleds or wheeled carts with up to several hundred pounds of weight on them. Set-ups where the sled is on rails can see weights reaching over 5000 pounds. Winners are determined by the weight pulled relative to the dog’s body weight. The compact size and natural athleticism and competitiveness of pitbulls often makes them even better at weight pulling than traditional sled-dog breeds. These contests can provide a place for pits to win prize money legally, by proving themselves able to drag more weight than the next dog. It’s a totally intense sport, as watching these dogs, crouched close to the ground, muscles bulging everywhere, will show. Best of all, the dogs get to go home in one piece. It’s a sport that would seem to appeal to the tough-guy image, the competitive impulse, and the love of animals all at once. If Michael Vick keeps his promise to the judge that he will work with PETA to help stop dog-fighting, and if he’s still rich at the end of all this, perhaps he can see to it that weight-pull suddenly gets a lot more popular and lucrative.