A federal grand jury's indictment this week of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, a major star in the National Football League, and several others on dogfighting charges is a troubling reminder that a particularly nasty, but apparently profitable, form of animal cruelty is alive and operating underground. The practice is illegal in all 50 states, but animal rights advocates suspect it is much more common than the rare prosecutions of organized dogfighting might lead one to believe.
Court documents suggest what went on at Mr. Vick's Virginia estate was nothing short of horrific. Dogs that lost, for instance, might be "put to death by drowning, strangulation, hanging, gunshot, electrocution or some other method." Combatants were sometimes starved; fights ended when one dog gave up or died.
It was no casual enterprise. More than 50 pit bulls were taken from the property last April by investigators who say the whole gambling-centered operation was run under the auspices of an organization called Bad Newz Kennels. Owners of winning dogs collected purses in the thousands of dollars, and proven fighters might be shuttled among a half-dozen states for matches.
Do such atrocities take place in Maryland? It's likely they do. In Baltimore, some neighborhood groups recently asked that an additional two animal control officers be hired, in part to address reports of organized dogfights. The Humane Society of the United States believes the city needs more than twice the 15 officers it is authorized to employ. And while that may be unrealistic given current budget constraints, it's clear that more help is needed.
Raising dogs for the purpose of fighting is a felony in this state, but prosecutions are rare. Maryland is one of 11 states where licensed veterinarians are required to report instances of suspected animal cruelty. That's assumed to be helpful in detecting cases of dogfighting, but experts aren't so sure.
Perhaps the best that can be said of the Vick investigation is that it has brought greater public attention to a practice that many of us assumed had gone the way of bear-baiting and cockfighting, which, incidentally, was only recently banned in Louisiana - effective next year. The public will forgive professional athletes for a lot (perhaps too much), but any involvement in the torturing and killing of dogs for pleasure and profit is unlikely to be easily pardoned.