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Floyd: Forget Eagles' Vick; cheer for his victim Mel

January 2, 2011

Mel does not care who will be starting at quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles against the Dallas Cowboys today. They don't watch pro football at Mel's house.

Dallas resident Richard Hunter and his wife adopted Mel, one of Michael Vick's dogs, 15 months ago. Mel is believed to have been used as bait, a live attack target for fighting dogs-in-training.

 I don't care, either, especially not after meeting Mel. As fond as any journalist of a thumping good tale about disgrace and redemption, I can't stomach the rosy narrative surrounding Michael Vick's wondrous comeback. Why on earth the president chose to pay sentimental homage this past week to the Eagles for offering a "second chance" to a spoiled millionaire sociopath is an imponderable mystery.

Well, the president is not acquainted with Mel, one of about 50 pit bulls seized from Vick's Virginia dogfighting operation in 2007.

A medium-sized black dog built like a small fireplug, Mel now lives in Dallas. He's safe, comfortable and secure, but he's terrified of strangers.

When faced with a new person, he shakes uncontrollably. If not restrained, he'll cower and retreat to a corner, trying to back himself into invisibility. He fits the classic profile of a recovering torture victim.

"Compared to where he was a couple of years ago, he's made leaps and bounds of progress," said Richard Hunter, a local radio personality who, with his wife, adopted Mel 15 months ago. "But he's still extremely shy."

Mel, who is now 4 years old, was lucky to survive his first year of life, which was spent at Vick's Bad Newz Kennel, which bred and fought pit bulls for sport.
It's kind of a stupid name, chosen by a rich athlete and his posse playing at being bad-guy gangsters. The operation was launched in 2002, shortly after Vick was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons and started pulling down some serious star money.

Boilerplate shorthand of the now-familiar story has reduced Vick's crime to "dogfighting," as if he had strayed over to the wrong side of the tracks for a little tough-guy recreation. Prison and bankruptcy, as the popular storyline goes, were the prices he paid before redemption and remarkable athletic talent brought him back.

Well, deliberately breeding and forcing dogs to maim one another is ugly business. But Vick's forgive-and-forget apologists seem to have forgotten how much uglier the story was than garden-variety backwoods dogfighting. They don't bother to revisit the shockingly cruel violence he and his cronies inflicted on these captive animals.

Winning dogs were kept. The ones that lost or refused to fight were executed, often using inventively cruel methods. Court documents show Vick personally participated in killing at least a half-dozen dogs. Some were hanged, suspended from a crossbar with a nylon rope. Some were drowned, held upside down while their heads were forced into a bucket of water.

One was killed when Vick and one of his partners seized it by the legs and slammed it repeatedly to the ground, breaking its neck and back.

Other dogs at the "kennel" � an awfully nice name for what was really a charnel house for helpless animals � were reportedly electrocuted, shot or forced to breed until their bodies just gave out. According to a report released by U.S. Department of Agriculture officials who were part of the investigation, on a couple of occasions Vick and his pals threw untrained family pets into the pit with savage fighters.

Pet dogs that apparently belonged to his own family: Vick "thought it was funny to watch the pit bull dogs ... injure or kill the other dogs."

Lemme see, what do we generally surmise about a person who finds it "funny" to maim or torture animals?

We don't say that person "made a mistake" or "used bad judgment" or any of the other hackneyed expressions routinely trotted out by somebody trying to weasel back into the public's good graces. We say that person is a head case.

"There are errors in judgment, and there are fundamental character flaws," said Hunter, who cultivates an edgy Goth look that is somewhat undermined when he kisses and baby-talks Mel and his older dog, Pumpkin. "This is sociopathic behavior."

For my money, Mel's is a much more engaging comeback story than Vick's.

Mel is believed to have been used as "bait," a live attack target for fighting dogs-in-training. He was one of 22 Vick dogs, some of the most traumatized, who were eventually transferred to a Utah no-kill shelter called Best Friends.

He was one of several dogs so terrified that the sight of a human being caused them to "pancake" � flatten themselves to the floor, legs splayed, in a desperate effort to go unnoticed. Where Mel grew up, human attention was not something a dog wanted to attract.

Hunter and his wife underwent a strict vetting process, which included driving to Utah with their older dog to meet Mel.

Like other families who adopted these scared, damaged dogs, they're heroes. So is Pumpkin, who, with exquisite canine sensitivity, became Mel's pal and protector.

If Mel fears a stranger, Pumpkin � an affable, geriatric shepherd mix � will squeeze between them, offering himself as a barrier to shield the younger, much more muscular dog. Mel, who never barks, relies on Pumpkin to sound the alert if he needs to go outside. Both dogs sleep companionably on the Hunters' bed.

"As much progress as he's made, Mel is still kind of like having a special needs kid," Hunter said. "And Pumpkin is his service dog."

Mel's lucky, but he'll never be the dog he would have been had he not suffered such abuse in his first year of life.

Unfamiliar and open spaces, for instance, scare him. Unlike Pumpkin, who loves to meander alone and sniff every shrub on their outdoor walks, Mel wants to do his business and head back inside.

"His life is all about getting from Safe Point A to Safe Point B, " Hunter said.
There are lots of unlucky, homeless dogs in the world. Mel is certainly more fortunate than some of them.

But why do we want to celebrate a person capable of inflicting such cruelty for his own entertainment?

Fine with me if Michael Vick gets the kind of second chance meted to most parolees. Societal forgiveness is one thing; multimillion-dollar contracts and the blind adoration of football fans strike me as over the top.

Once again, of course, we've mixed up being a great athlete with being a great person. They're not the same thing.

If you want to talk about endurance and redemption and grace, just look at Mel.

Now, that's a good comeback story. latestnews/stories/010211dnmetfloydcol.148152a.html

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