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Of Dog Fights and Men

Peter Singer on the Comparative Ethics of Dog Fighting and Hunting

On Monday, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick plead guilty to federal charges of dog fighting, including charges that he personally endorsed the execution of underperforming dogs by hanging or drowning. For insight into the reaction to Vick's case, The New Republic spoke with ethicist Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. His book Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, is considered the foundational text of the animal rights movement. He discussed the sorry lives of the American pig, the ethical difference between hunting and dog fighting, and why both of those are minor cruelties in the scale of things.

What do you make of the public reaction to Michael Vick's involvement in illegal dog fighting?

Well, I think in a sense it's quite fair. It seems from the allegation that Michael Vick did horrible things to dogs. If he did what's alleged, people should be disgusted and revolted by it. From my point of view, what is regrettable is that people only react so strongly to such things when they occur with dogs. If something similar had been done with pigs or chickens, the reaction probably would have been much milder. That seems to me to be wrong. I think pigs suffer just as much as dogs, and, in terms of what we do to pigs in this country in general, they suffer a lot more cruelty than dogs do because there are so many of them in factory farms in appalling conditions. That's the incongruity. It's not that there's an overreaction to the Vick business, it's rather that there's an underreaction to what's happening elsewhere.

Basketball player Stephon Marbury was widely criticized for telling reporters, "We don't say anything about people who shoot deer or shoot other animals. You know, from what I hear, dog fighting is a sport." Do you think his comparison was valid?

Well, the aim of a hunter is to kill the animal with as little pain as possible--or it should be. That's the ethic that you get in sport hunting, at least. I'm not condoning or supporting sport hunting but there is a distinction in that the good hunter will shoot the animal in a vital place where it will drop dead immediately. It won't suffer. It seems pretty clear that the dogs that didn't fight well that Michael Vick and his associates killed were not killed instantly at all. They were drowned, for example. Drowning is obviously a much more distressing death than being shot with a bullet through the brain or in the heart.

Has the reaction to the Vick case exposed a schizophrenia in the way the public judges offenses against animals?

That comparison that you just asked me to make between dog fighting and sport-hunting is interesting in itself because these are both really very minor cruelties in the terms of the scale of things. The big thing that is going undiscussed here is the industrial raising of animals for food. Just in terms of the numbers, it's so vastly greater than sport-hunting, which in turn is a lot bigger than dog fighting. We're talking literally about billions of animals each year being reared in conditions that don't enable them to have a minimally decent life and then being killed in mass-production factory ways that again often are not painless. So that's the schizophrenia, that all of this hidden suffering that's engaged in by supposedly respectable corporations and that people then buy in their supermarkets is the thing that is unspoken. It's not the recreational activities that we should be focusing on.

Has there been an increase of interest in animal cruelty recently?

I think so. At the 2006 elections there were a number of animal anti-cruelty initiatives passed. There's been a bit of an upsurge in it and I would say that the response to Vick is consistent with that. People are starting to realize that this is an issue that a lot of people are taking quite seriously now. Perhaps that is going to have some larger political ramifications as well.