Michael Vick, Dog Fighting and Race

As a strong advocate of animal welfare, I despise dog fighting. I have worked in dog rescue for many years, and know first-hand that pitbulls are among the sweetest, most devoted animals on earth. The pitbulls used in the dog-fighting ring operated from property owned by Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick deserved a far better life.

Yet I find what's happening with Vick, who pleaded guilty Monday to a felony charge, alarming.

How can I say that, as a Duke University professor who teaches courses dealing with animal rights, and who rescues homeless animals in my free time?

We need to face the fact that dog fighting is not the only "sport" that abuses animals. Cruelty also occurs in rodeos, horse and dog racing (all of which mistreat animals and often kill them when no longer useful). There are also millions of dogs and cats we put to death in "shelters" across the country because they lack a home, and billions of creatures we torture in factory farms for our food.

Vick treated his dogs very cruelly; there is no question about that. But I see one important difference between these more socially acceptable mistreatments and the anger focused on Vick: Vick is black, and most of the folks in charge of the other activities are white.

Some might argue that the difference between dog fighting and these other forms of animal abuse is that dog fighting is illegal. That's true, but the fact that dog fighting is illegal while other institutions remain acceptable is because dog fighting no longer a sport of the middle and upper class. Dog fighting (and cock fighting) used to be "sports" enjoyed by the upper classes in the U.S. and were, then, perfectly legal. In the last 50 years, however, they have become the domain mostly of blacks, Latinos and poor whites -- and were ruled illegal. Now, while white middle and upper classes continue to watch horses run to the point of exhaustion and risk breaking their legs, they regard dog fighting as something that only low-class "thugs and drug dealers" find entertaining. Indeed, a reading of many of the Vick news stories indicts him and his friends as much for being involved in hip-hop subculture as for fighting dogs.

Again, let me be clear: I think that forcing dogs to fight each other is intolerable. But so is the way we treat many animals, as other animal welfare advocates have also pointed out. Several proponents of animal rights have used the Vick case to draw attention to the widespread abuse of animals, but they are primarily trying to persuade people to become vegans. According to them, people who find dog fighting intolerable should also find meat eating intolerable.

I look at this another way: If we find dog fighting unacceptable but we can live with other forms of animal abuse, what is the underlying distinction? Could it have more to do with the culture surrounding the human beings involved and less to do with the animals?

I am not saying dog fighting is acceptable, but rather that Vick should be publicly criticized for that activity, not for his participation in hip-hop subculture. Whether or not dogs are fought more by minorities than white people is actually unknown, but the media representations of the last several weeks make it appear that black culture and dog fighting are inextricably intertwined. We need to find ways to condemn dog fighting without denigrating black culture with it.

I would like to believe that in 25 years we're going to look back on our current treatment of many animals as cruel and intolerable, and I do believe that the welfare of animals is coming into focus as the next great social movement in this country. Civil rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, and the Latino movement have transformed American life for the better. I think that can -- and should -- happen for animals.

However, I've been involved in animal rights and animal welfare both intellectually and personally for many years now, and in my experience animal advocacy is predominantly, if not exclusively, a white movement. Unfortunately, the way animal advocates are jumping on the bandwagon against Vick contributes to this phenomenon. Animal advocates must start building coalitions with other social movements and non-white minorities if we hope to bring about widespread change for animals. If we want to build a better world for animals, the animal rights movement must examine its own racial politics and figure out ways to put minority concerns on its agenda.