By ROBIN STARR
In my decade in animal welfare, I have heard many lame excuses offered for cruel and abusive treatment of animals by humans. There was the man who slammed his girlfriend's cat into the wall because he was trying to "teach the cat to use the litter box." The cat ended up with irreversible brain damage and the boyfriend served time in the state penitentiary as a result of his "house training" technique. But of all the lame excuses, the one that is the most offensive to me is the one that proposes that certain forms of cruelty should be overlooked because they are "just part of a culture."
This reasoning is now being used in an attempt to justify the alleged dogfighting activities of Michael Vick and his dwindling group of codefendants. Now that co-defendant Tony Taylor is pleading guilty and has admitted the allegations in the federal indictment, and Vick sounds vaguely apologetic in his interviews, excuses are being made. The excuse that is most frequently offered argues this is all just part of a "culture" and that Vick is a hero in that culture.
To condone the depraved behaviors described in the federal indictment as just being part of a culture shockingly dignifies those sadistic acts while also demeaning the concept of a "culture." I cannot imagine there being anything that qualifies as a "culture" in which dogs are trained to savagery by being beaten, starved, and tortured and are then made to fight to the death. Does any definition of the word "culture" include killing dogs by hanging, drowning, electrocution, and beating because they lacked sufficient viciousness to be worth keeping, as Vick is accused of having done?
THE "CULTURE" argument has a couple of obvious subtexts. The first is that this "culture" does not regard the lives of animals as being of any value or certainly does not equate them with the lives of humans. Those who pose the "it's just a dog" argument seem to believe that there is a moral high ground in suggesting that too much attention is being paid to this dogfighting case when people have been brutalized and killed. The point they are missing is that the people who abuse and kill animals are the very people who abuse and hurt other people. A personality that does not feel compassion for other living things and that derives pleasure from seeing others suffer will brutalize other people in a heartbeat. This fact is borne out by abundant evidence that dogfighters are consistently gang members and felons guilty of crimes of human abuse.
The other obvious, but rarely articulated, subtext is outrageously insulting to the people who are being suggested as being part of that "culture." What is really being said by the proponents of this "culture" theory in a not-so-subtle way is that poor African-American people enjoy seeing animals tortured and killed and have no feelings of compassion for dogs. That premise is not only unspeakably insulting to them, it is not true. Oprah Winfrey is one well-known example of the many African-American people who grew up poor and who love animals deeply.
All racial and ethnic groups have historically had some members who engage in the abuse of animals for pleasure. We need only think about bullfighting in Spain, cockfighting in Mexico and now the United States, bear baiting in the American West, and the production of foie gras for the palates of the rich and over-indulged to realize that no group is exempt from these sorts of behaviors.
However, most people of every social, racial, and ethnic group are repulsed by brutality to innocent animals. While most people believe that the killing of animals for food and the wearing of leather goods are acceptable, they generally do not believe that inflicting unnecessary pain or torment on animals may be excused. Most people of all "cultures" are disgusted by those few who derive pleasure from the suffering of animals.
RATHER THAN attempting to excuse the horrific acts that have been alleged, and now have been admitted by one of the co-defendants, these apologists would do a great deal more good for those they are suggesting to be part of such a "culture" by promoting as role models the people who really deserve that status. There are many African-American men who have distinguished themselves with a life of service. Rodney Monroe, the Richmond police chief, and Reginald Gordon, the CEO of our local American Red Cross chapter, are but two local examples of the kind of men who deserve to be treated as heroes.
Whether you believe that torturing and brutally killing a dog is as bad as torturing and brutally killing a person does not matter. The torture and brutal killing of an innocent animal is deeply, terribly wrong. Most people, whatever their race, ethnicity, religion or nationality, know it. That feeling of disgust in your gut is all the message you need. It is not culture; it is cruelty. And it is a disgrace to all of us as humans.
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