As Michael Vick plummets from celebrity to our national symbol of animal cruelty, there is an unsettling question unanswered in all of the press coverage. Was he uniquely brutal or merely a spectacular outlier for canine atrocities we allow every day?
This is not an apology for Mr. Vick and his accomplices in his dogfighting ring. The act of hanging, drowning, electrocuting, and shooting pit bulls, just because they did not win, easily calls for prison, penance, and other impoverishment, not to mention many therapists.
But the national outrage rings a bit hollow. It feels a bit too easy to condemn only this fool sick enough to throw away a 10-year, $130 million football contract with the Atlanta Falcons and his residual millions in endorsements for his mad dashes as quarterback.
It feels a bit easy because I am a former owner of a rescued greyhound.
You can go down last month's 18-page federal indictment against Vick and his codefendants and see plenty of snippets such as these: "train and breed . . . for. . . competitions"; "destroying or otherwise disposing of dogs not selected to stay"; "executed at least one dog that did not perform well"; "executed at least two dogs that did not perform well"; "Vick possessed. . . approximately 54 American Pit Bull Terriers, some of which had scars and injuries."
Of course, you can apply the same phrases or similar ones to greyhound racing. Yet dog tracks operate in about a quarter of our states, including Massachusetts. In 2000, animal rights activists were able to place a ballot question before the Commonwealth's voters to ban greyhound racing. Supporters of racing outspent the activists by nearly 4 to 1 and barely beat back the proposed ban, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Activists this month submitted an initiative petition to Attorney General Martha Coakley to put a ban back on a statewide ballot, reasserting that "commercial dog racing is cruel and inhumane." How cruel and inhumane is a bitter debate.
The California-based Greyhound Protection League estimates that in the two decades from 1986-2005, 606,633 dogs from the industry were killed: 184,604 puppies judged to be inferior for racing and 421,129 after their "careers" ended, usually by 4 years old.
Things are nowhere as bad as they once were. In its worst years, critics said greyhound racing was death row for dogs. The website of the Greyhound Racing Association of America says that the peak year for the sport was 1992, when $3.5 billion was bet at more than 50 tracks. That year happened to come right at the end of a frenzied era in which, according to the Greyhound Protection League, between 42,000 and 58,000 dogs were killed in the search for winners.
The Greyhound Racing Association says that dog betting, which is being supplanted by other forms of legalized gambling, is down to about $2 billion at about 40 tracks. Hammered by bad publicity from animal rights groups, the killing of dogs has dropped dramatically, down to 12,000 in 2005, according to the Greyhound Protection League.
The Greyhound Racing Association and industry defenders deny there was ever any mass abuse. They say that 90 percent of greyhounds are either adopted or kept alive for breeding. But over the years, there have been dreadful stories, such as the man in Alabama who was arrested in 2002 for slaughtering up to 3,000 used-up or losing dogs from the Florida tracks over a 10-year span.
Throughout the 1990s, there were several news reports of mass killings, dog abandonments, and squalid kennel conditions. One trainer said that alleged dog electrocutions at one Idaho track were akin to Auschwitz.
Those reports include the 1,200 over-the-hill greyhounds that were dumped on a Pittsfield shelter from 1986 to 1991. In 2000, the Globe quoted John Perrault, the shelter manager for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, on the conditions at Pittsfield. "I saw wounds, gashes, infections, broken legs that were left untreated. I saw dehydration, starvation, infestation of parasites," Perrault said. ". . . Owners made it clear they wanted the dogs killed."
There is no difference between this and what Vick did, other than that dogfighting is illegal and greyhound racing remains legal in many states. For his depraved hobby, Vick will be shamed with prison stripes. Greyhound racing, despite its primitive exploitation of dogs, remains a $2 billion business even today.
Derrick Z. Jackson's column appears regularly in the Globe.