About fifteen years ago, when I was the CEO of New Hampshire’s Monadnock Humane Society, our director of operations called me at home and asked, “Are you sitting down?”
Calls that began with that question typically meant bad news, but nothing could have prepared me for what followed. She told me that my former foster dog, a beautiful black shepherd named Cheyenne, had been shot in the head.
First, I felt sick, then I cried, and then I was filled with rage. Cheyenne was so scared that she huddled in the corner of her room and refused to eat. After eight weeks in our home she became a playful, happy puppy; she learned to trust people. When she was adopted by a woman with two kids, I imagined the happy life she would have. Someone had violated her trust in the most horrific way.
Our first order of business was to rush Cheyenne and her ‘sister’ Bella to the hospital. Although both girls had been shot at point blank range in the head, they both would, miraculously, survive.
Our second order of business was to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. The story was complicated and awful. The adopter’s boyfriend, and that sweet teenage boy who had come in with his mother to adopt Cheyenne, had shot the dogs. As details emerged, so did a story of violence. Research shows that animal abuse often co-exists with violence to people. The (now) young man who shot Cheyenne (I’ll call him Mike) failed her so terribly because he had been failed himself.
I then did something that surprised the staff and community – and made some of them very angry. I petitioned the court to drop the cruelty charges against Mike and sentence him to community service at our shelter.
I intervened on Mike’s behalf despite the protests of colleagues and volunteers whom I loved and respected. I did so because I believed that the best way to honor Cheyenne, and make the strongest impact possible, was to give her abuser a second chance. I knew we could provide Mike with a profoundly more humane example than that of his abusive father figure.
This service project took a lot of planning to balance Mike’s service with the priority we placed on the wellbeing of our animals. Cheyenne and her sister, both recovering in foster homes, would never see Mike. Staff members would always be with him .
At first, Mike was withdrawn and quiet; he rarely made eye contact as he cleaned outdoor kennels and did laundry. After a couple weeks, we started to see a change – he asked about individual animals, trying to learn their stories. Once he saw them as unique and special beings, he wondered what they needed to move onto their next chapters.
The more he got to know the animals, the more he opened up. He started to greet the animals by name and with genuine happiness. His confidence grew; he developed enthusiasm for his work and a connection with our team. There is no doubt that this experience completely changed the course of his life because he was open to change.
I believe deeply in second chances for animals and people. You can’t do this work effectively – with integrity and an open heart – if you don’t believe people can change for the better. I know redemption is possible, because I’ve seen it dozens of times. But true redemption requires desire and accountability.
In 2007, one of our legacy organizations, the Washington Animal Rescue League, was ground zero in one of the most infamous and egregious animal cruelty cases in our nation’s history. We took the dogs rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting operation, Bad Newz Kennels. Our staff were some of the first people to show the dogs love and respect. These poor animals had endured unimaginable trauma; when they were given the love they deserved, they blossomed into dogs who could pay it forward.
Vick is back in the news with the NFL‘s selection of him as a Pro Bowl Legends captain. I’ve heard the arguments that Vick did his time in prison, although most people don’t realize he did so under a plea bargain and never served a moment for animal cruelty charges. After his release, Vick gave a few speeches against animal fighting alongside the Humane Society of the United States. To my knowledge, he hasn’t done much more.
Should that be enough? Doesn’t Vick deserve a second chance, too?
I don’t know whether Vick is truly remorseful. His public appearances and his meetings with elected officials could have been authentic – or opportunistic. I know some of the people who adopted his broken dogs. Their stories are told in “The Lost Dogs,” by Jim Gorant, and I encourage anyone who wants to see Vick at the Pro Bowl to read the book. Apparently, Vick had to be forced to pay the court-ordered restitution money intended for the costly care for his dogs. If Vick had shown any interest in the welfare of those dogs after they were rescued (he didn’t), or if he had used some of his millions to help the everyday Americans who went into debt to give his dogs homes and make them whole again (he did not), I might believe in his story of redemption, but I don’t.
I suspect those who support having Vick honored at the Pro Bowl don’t appreciate the brutality of his crimes. Skim the book. Vick personally ordered the killing of ‘loser dogs’ and participated – himself – in their drowning, slamming, hanging, and electrocution. The extreme depravity of those acts offers the possibility that true remorse might not even be attainable. This was senseless torture of precious creatures who wanted love, security, and appreciation – like our own pets.
Beyond Michael Vick, what is the NFL thinking? How can they elevate someone with his history as a role model? Maybe it’s no surprise – every major decision the NFL has made in recent years, from silencing Colin Kaepernick to selecting Vick as its brand ambassador, has reinforced a culture of sexism, violence, drug abuse, and suppression of free speech.
The rescue dogs from Bad Newz Kennels are dying of old age after a well-deserved new lease on life. I think of them often, as I do Cheyenne (renamed Liesl). A few years ago, I got a letter telling me she died after a long, happy life on the 300-acre farm we dream about for all animals. She was adopted by a psychiatrist and his wife and became a therapy dog. For years she dutifully warmed the feet of his clients and silently, lovingly bore witness as they worked through their own pain and trauma. Liesl took the second chance we provided her and made her corner of the world a lot brighter – a story of redemption we can all get behind.