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Forgiveness, Redemption And Animal Cruelty: How Does It All Fit Together?

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forgiveness, redemption and animal cruelty-- how does it all fit togetherThis afternoon, the civilian Army police officer, Keith Shepherd, went to trial for animal cruelty and discharging a weapon in public for shooting the Husky Bear-Bear at a Maryland dog park.  Anne Arundel County District Court Judge Pryal rejected Shepherd’s claim that he acted only to defend himself, his wife and his dog, finding that Bear-Bear never hurt anyone and didn’t even so much as bear his teeth during the incident.

Even though Judge Pryal found sufficient evidence to convict Shepherd of both counts, he gave Shepherd the benefit of “probation without judgment.”  Shepherd will have to complete 80 hours of community service and maintain good behavior for one year.  He also received a $500 fine on the animal cruelty count and a $1000 fine on the firearm count.  If he completes these conditions, his charges will be dismissed after one year.

As satisfying as it is that the authorities prosecuted Shepherd and prevailed at trial, I’m not sure many people will be satisfied with the sentence.  Quite frankly, the level of disparity in animal cruelty sentences is astounding.  For instance, a Virginia man who shot and killed his neighbor’s dog for barking recently received five years in prison for a combination of animal cruelty and skipping town for seven years between plea and sentencing.  As another example, an Illinois man recently received 20 months for shooting a neighbor dog who trespassed on his property.  Compare these sentences with Michael Vick’s 23 month sentence for dogfighting, involving not only the deaths of dogs but profiting financially from their deaths.

Later this evening, I had a wonderful opportunity, along with Dr. Ryan Fehr of the University of Maryland, to be a guest speaker with Baltimore radio station WEAA 88.9 FM’s Listen uP public affairs radio show.  The topic tonight was “The Politics of Forgiveness:  What Does it Take to Gain Redemption in our Society,” with the majority of the conversation exploring whether we should forgive Michael Vick and consider him to now be redeemed.

Many of the listeners felt that Vick already paid his debt to society, that it was time to forgive him and give him a second chance.  As a former public defender, I am all for forgiveness and redemption.  But my take on this is that Vick is a highly paid and very public figure who committed heinous acts against defenseless animals, and profited financially from it.  Millions of dogs are sitting in shelters, and the percentage of those dogs that are pit bulls is rising every day.  There is plenty for Vick to do before he earns his redemption.

Dr. Fehr added great insight about the science of forgiveness and redemption, and how much whether we can identify with the person who wronged us factors in to whether we can forgive.  But animal cruelty crimes are not directed towards any one of us.  Instead, they are directed against helpless animals.  We domesticated dogs and cats over thousands of years, making them dependent on us.  Because companion animals depend on us, we have the responsibility to stand up for them.  This fact, plus Vick’s highly visible and public status, means that Vick has a long way to go before he earns forgiveness and redemption.

UPDATE (12/16/10):  With the Philadelphia Eagles getting closer to the Superbowl, Michael Vick is back in the news.  In an interview earlier this week, he was candid in saying that he would likely still be dogfighting had he not gotten caught.  About the role he would play, he was much less candid, saying  he would still be involved, but only “from a distance.”  Other reports center around Vick’s public talks about dogfighting.  Steve Dale did a great job in his post yesterday of exploring whether these talks are truly voluntary, or are just carefully orchestrated media events.  Most of the hubub revolves around Vick claiming that he would really like to get a dog, because his kids keep asking for one.  The judge who sentenced him ordered that he could not keep companion animals.  I think that was a wise move.  He’s still got a long road to prove himself in my book.  Allowing him to go back to football and his livelihood is one thing.  But trusting him with a companion animal is another thing altogether.

UPDATE (12/20/10):  Seems the debate of whether Vick should be able to get a pet is still raging.  Compare Steve Dale’s recent comments with HSUS President Wayne Pacelle’s recent post on the topic.

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About Heidi Meinzer

Heidi is an attorney and animal lover, not necessarily in that order. She handles small business, animal law, and nonprofit legal issues. She is licensed to practice in Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Washington State. Heidi is also a certified dog trainer. Heidi Meinzer's Google+ Profile