My sweet old mutt, Ella, is napping in her corner bed, dreaming, I reckon, of squirrels that are slower than she and big plates of rare prime rib (bone in) that someone mistakenly, providentially, left on the floor for her to bolt. When she was much younger, thinking she was providing essential security for her pack, Ella sometimes growled at other dogs whom got too close to her dad. When the incursion got serious, she even curled he upper lip and flashed an incisor. She was ready to defend — or at least pretend she was.
I don’t know really what Ella’s envisioning as she sleeps. But even her most outlandish dreams, Ella probably can’t imagine that human beings, the people who feed her and give her love, would encourage two of her kind to actually do more than growl at each other.
She couldn’t imagine that her protectors and friends would enjoy watching two dogs kill each other.
As we have learned of late, it’s true: Some folks enjoy dog-fighting. They like arranging it, witnessing it, and betting on it. To those of us who view dogs as four-legged friends, not unpaid gladiators, this phenomenon offends our most essential beliefs about the connection, spiritual and otherwise, between our species. Dog-fighting sickens us, and the creepy human beings who derive pleasure from dogs tearing out each other’s throat, seem to be the most depraved creatures imaginable. But, before we dog-lovers — me included — condemn these sinners to a purgatory worthy of their debased character, we must remember that all of us — i.e., everyone who lives in an accepts our institutionalized culture of violence — bears the implicit stain of responsibility.
The kingpin of the Virginia dog-fighting operation in the news was Michael Vick, soon-to-be former quarterback of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Vick, probably the greatest runner in history at his position, has become famous and wealthy thanks to his sublime athletic skills, chief among them the ability to use his fleet legs and ballettic agility to elude enormously large men seeking to inflict intense pain on his person. He earned our adulation and admiration for being one of the finest practitioners of a sport in which the unspoken (but obvious) aim is to hurt the opponent. Football — the American version, not soccer — is among the most violent entertainment spectacles outside of the shopping mall multiplex. The word “hitting” is a key part of the sport’s vocabulary. Concussions, broken bones, paralysis, and on rare occasions death, occur on the playing field, and no amount of padding or prophylactics can prevent the players from suffering intense injuries for our viewing enjoyment. Like dog fights, people like to bet on these spectacles (so I’m told), just as they like to wager on boxing matches, mixed martial arts matches, and other variants of human dog-fighting.
The difference between dogs and professional athletes is that the human beings hurt each other voluntarily, and for pay. In this sense the human participants in these sports aren’t victims of our appetite for violence; they’re complicit in the perverse thrill. But let’s not kid ourselves: Voluntary or not, remunerated or amateur, we like to watch people damage each other. And if it were legal, no doubt some of us would pay to view “noble warriors” fight to the death — instead of merely to unconsciousness or abject bloodiness.
That Michael Vick, an accomplished human dog-fighter, should be fascinated with and compelled by real dog-fighting ought not to not surprise us. It’s our ongoing species-wide insatiable lust for cruelty and pain that’s the real shocker. Fortunately, my slumbering Ella could never fathom our human capacity for enjoying violence. If she could, she might flash an upturned canine lip at all of us.