The dog in the room

Everywhere Michael Vick goes, PETA's protests follow. Jay Paul/Bloomberg News/Getty Images

This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

BEFORE DAWN ON JUNE 19, barricades lined the sides of Main Street in Butler, N.J. Michael Vick was on the way. Three dozen officers, plastic handcuffs at the ready, were preparing for the Eagles quarterback's appearance at a local sports memorabilia shop.

By noon, more than 300 fans, thrilled to pay $90 or more for Vick's autograph, crowded the north side of the street. On the south side, past the officers, 60-plus people had also braved the record-breaking heat to condemn the man who spent 18 months in prison for dogfighting.

They held up posters of mauled dogs and
compared Vick and his supporters to Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer.
One side of the street waited for a monster; the other, a football star. "Everybody always told me all I had to do was go play football and be successful on the field and everyone will forget what I've done," says Vick. "I don't find that to be true."

On the eve of the 2011 NFL season, two years after his return to pro football, Vick still stands in the middle of Main Street, neck deep in a morass of societal outrage. And while a large part of the public focuses on Vick's crimes, our reaction to the crimes also speaks volumes about a uniquely American ethos -- one that has transformed dogs into our version of Hindu's sacred cows and one that exposes a deep-seated hypocrisy regarding animal cruelty that is, almost unknowingly, shared by both Vick's supporters and detractors. Says Peter Singer, the Princeton bioethics professor whose 1975 book, Animal Liberation, is considered the founding text of the animal rights movement: "The takeaway, the basic idea from all this, is that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. And a lot of people don't realize they are living in glass houses on this issue."

Over the past century, what started out as the gentrification of pets has evolved into puppy love. In his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, Hal Herzog, a leading expert on the psychology of human-animal relations, traces the rise of this phenomenon back to 19th-century France. When dogs and cats became synonymous with status in the French middle class, the meme was quickly transferred to American culture. Pet ownership spiked again after World War II when the G.I. Bill allowed millions of veterans to buy homes with big yards. Since then, pet ownership has continued to increase at about 2 percent a year -- twice the population of humans.

One theory about the origin of our obsession is that the middle class's flight to the suburbs, in combination with the rise of technology, has isolated people to the point where they've become dependent on their animals for companionship. Never mind that there are no definitive studies for or against the idea that having pets makes for happier people or that many anthrozoologists question whether dogs are capable of feeling or sharing what we cherish the most about them -- unconditional love. Our pooches do make us feel loved, and that easily trumps fact or reason.

Since 1995, the same year Microsoft released Internet Explorer 1.0, spending on the care, feeding and pampering of American pets has gone up 300 percent to $50 billion, or enough to hire 1.5 million elementary school teachers. We have three dog shelters for every one dedicated to battered women. For $150,000 you can buy your pet a diamond dog collar at the Posh Puppy Boutique, or for $5,390 you can purchase a two-story doghouse in the style of a Swiss chalet, while as many as 200,000 veterans sleep on the streets. "It's easy to point out who's a hypocrite when it comes to our pets -- most of us are," says Herzog. "What's more important, and fascinating, is how the vast majority of people are oblivious to the inconsistencies of their views and values."

In One Nation Under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics and Organic Pet Food, author Michael Schaffer tells a story from the days following 9/11. With lower Manhattan closed after the attacks, pet owners became worried their animals were starving in apartments they'd hastily abandoned. On Sept. 14, the bus arranged to take them back to their homes was delayed by the arrival of President George W. Bush, who'd come to tell rescue workers "I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" Informed of the wait, a pet owner responded, "It's not like he has a cat down there or anything."

In the fight for sole possession of the moral high ground, the fierceness of Vick's supporters and foes often leads to a complete dismissal of the opposition's valid points. For some African-Americans, a suspicion that somewhere along the way this increased devotion to animals directly correlates to a decreased respect for humans has hardened into excusing Vick of any wrongdoing altogether. There are cries of racism when perhaps speciesism may be more accurate. At the same time, animal rights activists can seem to be indulging their misanthropic side. Pets are easy to love -- humans, not so much.

This blurring of boundaries between the welfare of humans and animals is at the heart of Vick's pariah status. In this country, almost 40 million dog owners consider their pets to be a part of the family. A 2001 survey of pet owners revealed that 83 percent referred to themselves as their animals' "mommy" or "daddy." That's one reason that when Vick pleaded guilty to managing a dogfighting ring, people responded as if he had serially murdered children. "Vick should never ever, be publicly supported again -- ever," said
Simon Cowell of American Idol fame. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a public letter to the NFL titled "Is Michael Vick a Clinically Diagnosable Psychopath?" White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle admitted in an interview with mlb.com to openly rooting for Vick to get hurt. "Some things are considered sacred in our culture, and they tend to cluster around the defense of the innocent such as animals and children," says veterinarian and USA Today columnist Patty Khuly. "There are a lot of pitfalls in directly comparing animals and babies, but the need to defend them comes from the same place."

In December of last year, just as Vick was making a run for MVP (he lost to Tom Brady), pundit Tucker Carlson appeared on Fox News and declared that the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year "should have been executed" for his crimes. The outrageous statement was denounced so quickly (even by Carlson) that it denied us the chance to examine the hypocrisy and moral paradoxes behind Carlson's -- and our own -- viewpoints on animal cruelty. For starters: Did Carlson also believe his stepmom should be put to death? She is, after all, the heir of Carl A. Swanson, founder of Swanson frozen foods -- a company that in its heyday slaughtered hundreds of millions of chickens. "People should look at what they're eating and what they're spending their dollars on and what kind of animal abuse they themselves are supporting," says Singer. "And if they haven't taken a good look at that, I don't think they have much right to criticize Vick."

The same night Carlson went after Vick, the TV was awash with Old Spice deodorant commercials starring Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. "Women want me, men want to be me," said Lewis. Surreal, considering that less than 10 years ago the pitchman stood in an Atlanta courtroom and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a double stabbing murder following Super Bowl XXXIV. The reason Vick's crimes continue to stay in the spotlight while Lewis' history or Ben Roethlisberger's alleged acts of sexual misconduct don't is that there are at least 40 times as many animal lovers as there are NFL season-ticket holders. And their pets have become the antidotes to something Mother Teresa described as the most terrible poverty of human existence: loneliness. "I don't know if dogs are sacred. But so many people have these personal relationships with them," says Singer. "They are very loyal animals, very uncritical animals. Because of that people can't imagine doing to them the kinds of things that Vick did."

From factory farming to horse racing, a multibillion dollar sport where two-thirds of all washed-up thoroughbreds are either abandoned or slaughtered, our perspective regarding animal cruelty is significantly altered depending on the degree of intimacy involved. We don't have to witness the stomach-turning horrors inside a farm factory in order to get chicken nuggets for lunch. They're handed to us through a drive-through window, wrapped inside a clean, colorful package. Theoretically, our hands remain clean, whereas an exhaustive report by the Department of Agriculture revealed that Vick drowned, electrocuted and hung dogs with his bare hands. "The American population may not be guilty of carrying it out with their own hands as Vick did," says Singer. "But it's certainly guilty of supporting animal cruelty through their purchases. It's not any worse to make a dog suffer than to make a pig or a chicken or a cow suffer. If you look at factory farms and if you support them, you can't say 'Vick made animals suffer and I don't.'"

These contradictions are difficult to reconcile -- and they're everywhere. As a society we euthanize nearly 11,000 dogs and cats a day, and our food industry slaughters a million chickens an hour. Oprah Winfrey, PETA's 2009 Person of the Year, also had a close, longtime business association with a producer heavily involved in horse racing. Buehrle, the White Sox pitcher and animal lover, is an avid hunter of deer and ducks. Meanwhile, Vick's ex-teammate in Philly, linebacker Ernie Sims, is an avowed animal lover with a home zoo to prove it, yet he said he admires Vick as a person.

Rather than deal with our own inconsistencies on animal cruelty, though, we retreat to one of two distinct camps regarding Vick, both claiming the moral high ground. Some wonder, Why does Vick have a job? Others want to know, How can you value animals more than humans?

A month after these two camps butted heads in Butler, Vick testified before Congress on proposed legislation to penalize those who attend dogfights or allow minors to do so. Vick called it one of the "monumental moments of my life." Congressman James Moran, a Democrat who co-chairs the animal rights caucus, hailed Vick as a leader in the fight against animal cruelty. But it won't fix anything. Neither side is budging. In the end, whom we choose to forgive, or not, says much more about us than it ever will about the criminal or his crime. "I've done some things wrong with my life. But I want to force people to open their eyes and maybe think about me differently," Vick says. "I don't know what I can do. It's just something I've got to deal with for the rest of my life."

A lifetime sentence in the court of public opinion. Is that justice for the dogs? Or an indictment of the rest of us?

Guess that depends on which side of the street you are standing.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.