I am a sports fan. I know enough about sports to understand that excelling as a quarterback in the NFL takes more than talent and hard work, it takes intelligence -- the intellectual ability to analyze complex situations and make decisions. I know enough about football to know that Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons quarterback facing felony charges of dog fighting, is an intelligent man.
What I don't understand is why men, even intelligent men, enjoy being deliberately cruel to animals.
Science has proved that animals feel and respond to pain, stress and fear similarly to humans. A dog in distress will exhibit near identical physiological responses to that of a human in distress. The central nervous system of a canine, just like that of a human, is truly something at which to marvel.
We also know that dogs are intelligent and emotional creatures. Dogs (and other animals) that are abused feel both the physical and emotional pain of the abuse, and again, like humans, attempt to alleviate that pain by fight or flight. Dogs trained to fight do so only to secure food, shelter and affection; or sadly, to attempt to avoid emotional and/or physical pain.
In today's dog-eat-dog world, the question is no longer whether the abused (even animals) can feel pain, but how society can encourage the powerful to feel empathy for the vulnerable. Whether through physical or economic strength, now more than ever the world has a pecking order with the rich and physically powerful on top, then the mere middle-class mortals, the elderly, the children, the disabled and last (but not least) the nonhuman animals.
The measure of a man -- even a staggeringly talented professional athlete like Vick -- should not be his professional abilities, but his ability to feel compassion for, not harm, those more vulnerable than himself. Humans (even star athletes) who exploit and harm the vulnerable, whether people or animals, are cowards.
It is probable that Vick is now intimately familiar with the feeling of fear; fear of losing his career, his fortune, his freedom, and yes, his place atop the vulnerability pecking order. Ironically, he may feel like a pit bull fighting for his very life as spectators observe, amused, betting on the outcome.
There is little argument that professional athletes the stature of Michael Vick have been programmed to be aggressive. We as fans want tough, but this is nothing new; Hank Aaron, Magic Johnson and Muhammad Ali were (and are) tough, but it is impossible to picture a scenario where they take joy in harming the vulnerable, person or animal.
Men who support partners battling breast cancer are tough; men who raise disabled children are tough; men who work to protect the vulnerable are tough; men who stand up for what they believe in are tough. Men who fight dogs, regardless of their talent, wealth or profession, are not tough. Game over.
Kelly Overton is executive director of People Protecting Animals & Their Habitats.