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We all need to teach empathy and kindness

In a Feb. 4 News column titled, "PETA goes too far with Vick," Allen Wilson stated that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is "psychotic" for recommending that convicted felon and suspended quarterback Michael Vick "undergo a brain scan to determine if he has changed his ways before the NFL reinstates him."

As an animal welfare advocate, I admit to questioning not PETA's motives, but some of its actions in the past. In this particular situation, however, it's important one has a full understanding of the far-reaching, long-term ramifications of the monstrous violence championed and financially backed by this "role model," who has impacted not just the obscurely stated youth in America, but children right here in Buffalo.

I've been an employee at the SPCA Serving Erie County since 1990. For 11 years, the SPCA has offered an influential humane education program titled "TLC: Teaching Love and Compassion." SPCA teachers emphasize lessons of non-violence, violence prevention, anger management, compassion and empathy to 11- to 13-year olds from Buffalo's School 39. School representatives select and send students they deem most in need of the TLC program.

Sadly, dog fighting is not absent from the Buffalo area, and the intense impact it has on some of these young children is often close to irreversible. In a recent TLC class, nine of the 11 students had witnessed more than one dog fight -- a majority common to almost every TLC session. Some of these are children who are exposed to this barbaric activity, who have been forced to participate in it and who are suffering because of it.

This endorsement of violence is so deeply embedded into their psyche that, if we're able to reach them at all, it's often through the help of professionals and happy four-footed friends.

I'm writing about a small handful of children in a sea of thousands suffering the same experiences in Buffalo alone -- the same children who look up to athletes and are influenced by so-called role models. Some may think all parents are completely in tune with who and what influences their children on a regular basis, and that all parents know who their children's role models are. However, based on many years of research in developing and evaluating humane education programs, this is not always the case.

It's no secret that many children idolize athletes and their actions. Many Sabres and Bills players who do not engage in dog fighting have attended the SPCA's TLC sessions and have spoken with participating children about non-violence. The influence these players have on the children is instantly evident.

Vick, on the other hand, has a less-than-sterling history prior to this exposure of his brutality. I believe it would be negligent to not question his mental state before putting him back on this ridiculous athletic throne once again, to "teach" children watching his every action. I also question the person Vick would be today had someone in some way suspended the role model he had as a child, the "mentor" who may have planted these seeds of rage in Vick that manifested themselves in such a merciless, inhuman way.

Every single one of us has a role to play in teaching children empathy and kindness. We're up against a great deal when Vick's colossal level of violence is met with Ralph Wilson's "he will have paid his debt to society" attitude after Vick served mere months in prison for savage actions that can have lifelong effects on youth.

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