ASPCA President & CEO Matthew Bershadker responds in a NY Post op-edto the Jets’ signing of Michael Vick.
On Friday, the New York Jets signed Michael Vick to a one-year contract worth $5 million. His return on that investment is unknown, and frankly I don’t care.
Vick is free to do as he pleases both on the football field and off. But one thing he can’t do is absolve himself of his direct participation in horrific and fatal animal torture and abuse. And whether he takes our home team to the Super Bowl or spends the season riding the pine, we’re not obligated to forgive, and it’s essential we don’t forget.
History bears repeating: The Michael Vick investigation began in April 2007 with a search of Bad Newz Kennels, located on Vick’s Virginia property. We at the ASPCA were involved early on, assisting in the recovery and analysis of forensic evidence from Vick’s property, including carcasses and skeletal remains of numerous dogs.
The ASPCA also led a team of certified applied animal behaviorists in behavior evaluations of the rescued dogs, making recommendations to the USDA and US Attorney's Office regarding the dispositions of the dogs.
It became clear over the course of the investigation that this was not a crime of passion or a case of obliviousness. Michael Vick was fully involved in a six-year pattern of illegal activity that included dogs being savagely electrocuted, drowned, and beaten to death.
We fully acknowledge Vick has "done his time" and even participated in some public outreach, but that does not erase the crime.
Stopping animal cruelty is difficult enough when it’s done in secret, but when it happens legally and out in the open, ending it can be just as challenging. A tragic case in point: Greyhound racing, a cruel and senseless “sport” that not only kills or injures thousands of dogs every year across the country, but loses money for the places that operate them. State governments are often losers too, having to spend more to regulate the sport than they get back in revenue. Florida alone lost between $1 million and $3.3 million on Greyhound racing in 2012.
So why is this abomination still in business? Because for some, Greyhound racing is still big business.
Greyhounds begin their lives on breeding farms, where only a select few actually become racing dogs. Unwanted pups, those who assessed as unfit for racing, are killed or sometimes sent to laboratories, which use them in experiments. Those chosen for the sport spend most of their lives stacked in double-decker cages in warehouse-style kennels for 20 or more hours a day. Most of the areas Greyhounds are kept are not heated or air-conditioned, causing many to suffer during severe weather temperatures. Many also suffer from fleas, ticks and internal parasites.
While this is enough for most states to turn their back on the ugly practice, Greyhound racing still exists in seven states. More than half of all active American tracks, 12 of 21, are in Florida, where a ridiculous law requires gambling institutions to maintain and run dog racing facilities. You read that right: If you want to run a gaming institution in Florida, you must, by law, race dogs as well. More about that oddity in a moment, but first know that when these dogs are sent out to race, many are actually sent to their deaths.
Making use of a recent Florida law requiring that dog track deaths be reported, the Greyhound protection group GREY2K USA, with ASPCA help, put out a report last month revealing that 74 racing Greyhounds died at 10 different racetracks in Florida over the last seven months of last year. Put another way, from June to December, a Greyhound died from a racing-related injury every three days.
And only two months into 2014, there have already been an astounding 18 deaths at Florida Greyhound tracks. If this shocking rate of deaths continues, Florida tracks will have more than 100 Greyhound deaths by the end of the year.
Causes of Greyhound deaths included including fatal injuries suffered during or after races, and heat stroke. Fifty-one of the dead Greyhounds were under three years old; the two youngest dogs were both 17 months old. These majestic, perfectly healthy, gentle and loving animals were essentially run to death.
Michigan’s wolves, once reduced to less than a handful by the 1970s, are now squarely in the crosshairs of eager hunters and politicians hoping to destroy as many as they can under a thin, and sometimes fictional, justification of threats to livestock and humans. Before we take lethal aim at these relatively defenseless and innocent animals, there’s good cause for a reality-check, because the reality is there’s simply no good reason to hunt these wolves.
Protected since 1973 under the Endangered Species Act, Michigan wolves were delisted at the start of 2012. By the end of that year, Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation declaring them fair game for hunting. Why? Because…
Well that’s a tough question to answer. Yes, there are now over 650 wolves in Michigan. But charges that wolves have ventured onto residential porches or daycare centers— or are killing livestock frequently—are not passing the truth test. In some cases, entire stories about wolf incidents are being retracted.
What is true: Michigan farmers, ranchers and other landowners are already permitted to kill wolves to protect livestock or dogs, even though cases of wolves killing livestock are relatively rare. Ranchers are also compensated for livestock losses from wolves.
What’s more, in other Great Lakes states, wolves are often trapped inhumanely, sometimes with steel-jawed traps in which animals can suffer for days before being killed.
This leaves only one motive: killing wolves merely for sport, thrill, out of hatred, and for trophies, which are what brought wolves to the brink of extinction in the first place.
Some Michigan politicians, hell-bent on opening trophy hunting season, will take any legislative or regulatory means necessary to allow the killing of wolves—even if it means going against the will of their own citizens. Michigan residents have fought to protect wolves through referendums, yet influential pro-hunting groups have found new ways to thwart the public’s voice. And it’s time once again to put up a fight to protect their lives.
In March 2013, over a quarter of a million Michigan citizens signed a petition calling for a referendum to undo the call to arms and protect the wolves, as well as to postpone wolf-hunting season until after the 2014 election.
Unmoved, the Michigan legislature gave the unelected Natural Resources Commission (NRC) the authority to determine which animals can be hunted. Being a regulatory body, the NRC’s decisions are not reversible by public vote. With its new power, the NRC approved the wolf hunt in July.
To preserve these animals’ lives, the Michigan public needs to overturn two critical laws in November: PA 520, the law which put wolves on the list of “game species”; and PA 21, which grants the NRC the authority to add animals to that list. These two laws both have the same deadly effect: to kill wolves.
Rejecting these measures will effectively stop the senseless hunting and trapping of wolves, and ensure that important issues about Michigan wildlife will still be influenced by the electoral voice of Michigan voters.
In the end, these wolves are not nearly the threat to humans as some of us humans are to our own humanity. Too often, as is in this case, the truth is deliberately obscured by individuals and institutions guided solely by self-interest and profit.
When that happens, animals are not the only ones who pay the price. We all do.
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This past weekend, I had the privilege to be among the ASPCA team assisting New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and New York State's Organized Crime Task Force (OCTF) in the execution of the largest cockfighting takedown in New York State history, and among the largest in United States history.
The ASPCA's Field Investigations and Response team is leading the removal of the animals, as well as identifying and documenting forensic evidence. We also established a temporary shelter at an undisclosed location to house and care for the animals.
On Saturday night, I was at the gruesome scene of the raided cockfights in Queens, New York, where we removed 65 birds. The basement was small and dirty, and seemed permanently haunted by the atrocities it had housed for many years. This cockfighting ring had been holding bimonthly events there since May. That same night, another 50 birds were removed from a Brooklyn pet shop.
The massive show of force on display was awe-inspiring. That the state committed such intense resources sends a strong message to the entire bloodsport industry about the appropriate seriousness with which it considers these crimes.
As horrific as these scenes get, it's important for those of us in animal advocacy to see with our own eyes the depth of man's cruelty towards defenseless animals. No one falls into cockfighting or just shows up at a cockfight by chance. Whether you're participating, refereeing, or just watching, it's a malicious, unconscionable, criminal act.
I knew there were only two reasons for cockfighting: sadism and greed. But as I stood in that dank Queens subterranean room, surrounded by a palpable atmosphere of death and suffering, I realized the two are linked at their core. The greed is inherently sadistic; the sadism is fed and magnified by greed.
Owners and spectators placed bets on the outcomes of the fights, with individual wagers reaching $10,000. These fights, which began in the evening and lasted into early morning hours, pitted dozens of roosters against one another in battles to the death. Often in such cases, the roosters are injected or fed drugs to enhance their performance, mutilated without anesthesia, and forced to wear sharp weapons intended to inflict maximum injury in the pit. Injuries we see include punctured lungs, broken bones, and pierced eyes. Win or lose, the inevitable result is agonizing death.
On Sunday morning, OCTF investigators, with the help of the Ulster County Sheriff's Office, State Police and other local law enforcement, raided a 90-acre farm in Plattekill. There, the ASPCA recovered approximately 4,000 more birds, belonging to rooster owners from all over the Northeast, including New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
These arrests and the enormous number of animal seized should open some eyes to the modern face of this abhorrent crime; it's both more prevalent and more savage than most dare to think.
While there are obvious differences between roosters and more typical companion animals, let there be no mistake in our position, or weakening of our resolve: Cockfighting is a very serious crime, and an example of animal cruelty at its most heinous and deplorable. No animal should be forced to fight for human amusement and profit.
It's encouraging to know that most people agree on this issue, and stand united to ending the brutality, whether it takes place on a rural farm, a city pet shop, a residential basement, or anywhere else.
Cockfighting is illegal in all 50 states, and punishable as a felony in 40 states. The possession of birds for fighting is prohibited in 38 states, and being a spectator is illegal in 43 states.
We were happy to see that the Farm Bill signed by President Obama last week includes a measure to strengthen federal animal fighting laws by making attending an animal fight a federal offense. It also imposes additional penalties for bringing a child to an animal fight.
Still, while this weekend's efforts removed thousands of roosters and hens from cruel abuse, there are many thousands of animals out there suffering the same sad fate.
The ASPCA will continue to partner with law enforcement, champion anti-cruelty legislation, and be present on the front lines to ensure that we're doing all we can to end the brutality, including prosecuting participants to the fullest extent of the law.
Doing less would not only leave animals unprotected, but would signal to society that certain forms of abject cruelty are conscionable, that we don't care about desensitizing our society—and our children— to despicable animal abuse.
We can't let that happen, and this strong collaborative act of investigation, intervention and enforcement is a loud step toward our shared goal of wiping out cockfighting in this country. You can help us take the next step by sharing this story with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and state or federal representatives.
The ASPCA has been closely following the progress of the federal Farm Bill for months. This mammoth bill contains many complex rules and provisions on a wide array of issues, most of which you haven’t heard anything about unless you’re a politician or a farmer. Now that it’s passed, one provision in particular deserves your attention because it will make a big difference in the fight to end animal cruelty.
Thanks in part to the work of the ASPCA and advocates from around the country, the Farm Bill includes a measure to strengthen federal animal fighting laws by making attending an animal fight a federal offense. It also imposes additional penalties for bringing a child to an animal fight.
These changes send a clear message: animal fighting is so vile, so unconscionable, that accountability shouldn’t end with those participating directly. Anyone attending an animal fight is a participant, and any participation is wrong—especially when you bring along impressionable children or facilitate the events through illegal wagers and admission fees. No child should witness animals being forced to maul each other beyond recognition; or be exposed to grownups torturing animals mercilessly, gleefully, profiting from their pain. It’s not just a traumatic experience for them; it breeds desensitization to violence, abuse, and atrocity. That paints a pretty bleak future.
And if you think animal fighting is a rare event restricted to small communities, think again. You need only go back to last year’s major dog-fighting raids, one in March involving nearly 100 dogs in Missouri, Kansas and Texas, and another in August involving 367 dogs in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas. We were proud to play a leading role in each, but we also know that for every fight we disrupt, many more go on undisturbed.
While we celebrate this law as a victory for animals, we also express relief for what it didn’t include: namely, a dangerous amendment introduced by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would have decimated state animal cruelty laws across the country by preventing states from passing and enforcing their own laws regarding the production of “agricultural products.” Such products could include farm animals, dogs in puppy mills, and even locally grown fruits and vegetables. Grabbing that power from the states would set a dangerous precedent and leave animals unprotected.
History shows us time and time again that where there’s money to be made, defenseless animals often pay the highest price. Thanks to our collective efforts, Congress took a stand for them, and for children. It may not be the part of the Farm Bill getting the most attention, but it’s the part best protecting the most vulnerable among us.