Pro football superstar Michael Vick has pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges. He faces a jail term and an arduous path to restoring his reputation and career. This sad case should be used to shed light on all forms of animal abuse.
Of course, a danger remains that the immense public attention Mr. Vick and his Bad Newz Kennels have received will only win new converts to this sordid and largely hidden illegal "sport."
But the push for more humane treatment of animals could also be helped by Vick's very notoriety. Sports agent Leigh Steinberg has called Vick's case "the most dramatic and rapid fall from grace that I've seen any athlete experience in contemporary American sports."
The athlete's seemingly sincere and unscripted statement of regret – and his admission that he'd let down the young fans who idolize him – should be just the first step to using his fame as a platform for teaching the truth about animal abuse.
The linking of a superstar athlete with the torture and killing of animals like those lovingly kept as pets in millions of homes has brought deep emotions into play. That family pets are sometimes stolen to provide "practice" bouts for these trained killer dogs only adds to public revulsion.
Vick's statement Monday must be only a beginning. In coming years he must continue to speak out. Telling how he became attracted to dogfighting, and how he learned why it is wrong, will help others.
In recent years state and federal laws have toughened in an effort to curb this barbaric practice. Forty-eight states make dogfighting a felony (in two, Idaho and Wyoming, it's still a misdemeanor). In May, following bipartisan support in Congress, President Bush signed a federal law that provides stiff penalties for transporting fighting animals or animal-fighting equipment across state or US borders.
Estimates of the number of Americans involved in dogfighting range into the tens of thousands, mostly in rural areas or the inner city. Gambling stakes at a fight can range up to $500,000, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
While laws are on the books, enforcement can be lax unless other crimes, such as drugs or gambling, are involved. The Vick case should help to focus new federal and state attention on the problem.
The Humane Society of the United States recently announced it would offer up to $5,000 to citizens who provide information that results in the arrest and conviction of those involved in animal fighting.
Now is the moment to expose other forms of animal abuse as well. Every state except Louisiana bans cockfighting, but that blood sport remains popular.
So-called "hog-dog" fighting, in which a dog attacks a trapped feral pig, remains a popular "entertainment" in some regions, the Humane Society says. So far Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina have made it illegal.
Studies have shown that convicted murderers often prey on animals as youths before they turn to human victims. To suppose that animal abuse must be tolerated as a necessary part of some urban or rural subculture is unacceptable. Animal abuse not only harms other living beings – it damages our own humanity.