Gregg Easterbrook on Michael Vick and Animal Cruelty

Two weeks ago, former Atlanta Falcon's superstar Michael Vick appeared on 60 Minutes to give his first interview after his release from jail. For those of you living under rocks and sustaining yourselves on grubs and nightcrawlers, Vick was charged in December 2007 with running an illegal dogfighting operation out of a Virginia property where, in addition to staging bloody fights between dogs, he and his cohorts killed dogs through electrocution, shooting, drowning, and hanging. During the interview, Michael Vick told interviewer James Brown that what he did was wrong -- that he's indescribably sorry for the pain he caused through the mistreatment of animals, and is doing everything he can to amend for it, even partnering with the Humane Society.

What Vick did was disgusting, there's no doubt about it. Cruelty toward animals should not be tolerated at all in our society. Which is why, after the interview was over, I felt ashamed that here we were, making an example out of this football star, when the much more grave injustices toward animals that occur every day are not even being talked about. Hundreds of thousands more animals suffer at factory farms, where they spend their meager existences in constant pain. We pump our farmed animals full of antibiotics so they can survive the squalor of their wretched living conditions. And then we kill them, in many of the same ways that Vick killed his dogs, and process their bodies to ship into our grocery stores at low, low prices.

Yet, because Vick killed some dogs (again, a serious offense), everyone is in an uproar. The Humane Society, with the help of Vick, is spending an inordinate amount of resources to combat dogfighting in America. A noble cause, no doubt, but wouldn't their resources be better-served fighting for stronger legislation against animal cruelty in our food system?

Well, ESPN columnist Gregg Easterbrook agrees. He had this to say about Vick and his predicament in his weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback column:

TMQ is on record as thinking Michael Vick's punishment was "out of proportion to his actions and his status as a first-time offender," especially since thousands of animals are killed in the United States every day without the killers so much as being criticized, let alone imprisoned. Federal regulations classify shooting and electrocution -- what Vick did to his dogs -- as humane methods of cattle slaughter. How many people bit into a cheeseburger while denouncing Vick? I eat cheeseburgers and also own dogs, but am disgusted that federal law does not do more to decrease the suffering of animals used as food. Every once in a while, society ritually denounces someone who's done at a home or while hunting what is perfectly legal when done at a slaughterhouse, then goes back to chowing down on burgers and pot roast -- and the prices better be low! Vick broke the law and compounded his offense by lying in public. But there was no proportionality in his punishment, which was way too severe.

I'm not 100 percent sure I agree that Vick's punishment was too severe. But the fact that Vick has become a whipping boy for animal cruelty astonishes me. At no point in the interview did James Brown or 60 Minutes step back and examine what other sorts of questions this very specific case of animal cruelty raises about America and our consumption of animals for all purposes. Then again, people don't want to implicate themselves in anything, let alone their involvement in a system that's rife with cruelty, abuse, and waste. I also think it's important we don't focus just on the slaughter of livestock for food but also on the quality of lives they live before that happens. In the end, whether you are raising an animal for meat or for fighting, you're using that creature for a selfish purpose. You could argue that one activity is for survival, while the other is purely sport. But there are many other alternatives to eating factory-farmed meat. Paying a little more for meat raised humanely is a small step toward combating animal cruelty on a much bigger scale than Michael Vick ever participated in.

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