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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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