Can Michael Vick redeem himself?

A couple of days ago, a dear friend sent me an email about Michael Vick. This sweet, kind, gentle grandmother said that Vick should be hung up by his…well, let’s just say “toes.”

Columnists and talk show hosts have attacked Vick with adjectives like “repugnant,” “reprehensible,” and “despicable.” And an internet search for “Michael Vick” plus nearly any imaginable epithet produces many thousands of hits, including 178,000 for a mild one like “jerk.”

All this venom is well deserved. Vick now admits his involvement in dog fighting, a practice that easily justifies words like “despicable.” Nevertheless, some writers, including me, have expressed a twinge of discomfort over this vigorous attack on Vick when our civilization has depended upon the exploitation of animals for millennia, and for most of that time their welfare was only an afterthought.

In fact, we’ve hunted, killed, confined, castrated, fattened, branded, butchered, and eaten them. We’ve slit their throats to sacrifice them to our gods. We’ve bred them for our amusement, and we have a long tradition of fighting them or inducing them to fight each other for our entertainment. Many countries still do.

In our enlightened country, we’ve outlawed bullfights, cockfights, and dogfights, although illegal versions of the last two are still common.

We experiment on animals to find cures for our own diseases. We confine them in factory farms under miserable conditions and then eat them.

We take them into our homes as pets, often neglect and abandon them, then euthanize about 4 million every year. And we confine them in circuses and marine mammal exhibits under the pretense of “education,” when, really, the goal is amusement and profit.

If we’re uncertain about the safety of coalmines, we send in canaries; if space travel seems too dangerous, we send up a chimp.

In short, since we’ve built our culture by thoroughly exploiting the dominion over animals bequeathed to us in the Biblical story of creation, why are we suddenly coming down so hard on Vick?

There’s a poignant scene in “Jarhead,” the movie made from Anthony Swofford’s account of his experiences during the first Gulf War. In a break from the task of kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, a group of Marines –typical American boys — stage a raucous battle between two enormous Arabian desert scorpions and then torment them until one stings the other to death. Money is exchanged over the outcome.

I suspect that the audience is supposed to have a complicated response to this scene, but it’s not hard to imagine that how someone like Michael Vick, bred in a culture that gives only lip service to the dignity and welfare of animals and raised in the macho violence of football, might see it.

Nevertheless, in the interest of preserving whatever progress we’ve made in animal welfare, he’s got to be punished. I was talking about this with my English-teaching colleague, Bill Pugh, who said that he knew the perfect punishment for Vick: Send him to prison for a couple of years and require him to participate — under very close supervision — in one of a growing number of programs that use prisoners to train dogs to provide assistance to the blind, deaf, and elderly.

At first I thought that this would be like sentencing a child predator to learn how to work in a childcare center. But everyone seems to benefit from programs like these, including the dogs that learn to do surprisingly beneficial tasks for the disabled, as well as provide companionship.

And it appears that the prisoners benefit, as well. Some of them became prisoners in the first place because they never had the good fortune to experience any sort of real connection with another living creature. Participants in programs like these have a good record of rehabilitation in prison and low recidivism once they get out.

Dogs, of course, are champions of a kind of loyalty, forgiveness, and devotion that may be more than Vick actually deserves. Nevertheless, I like to hope that nearly every human being has a core of decency worth salvaging.

If Vick has one, no creature is more likely to find it than a dog.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)