When Michael Vick stepped on the field a few nights ago in Philadelphia it marked his first appearance in a National Football League game in three years. The former Atlanta Falcon’s performance in his first start for the Eagles—four completions in four attempts, six plays in all—wasn’t particularly noteworthy, but the fact that he was playing at all was. Vick served almost two years in federal prison for his involvement in an especially vicious, multi-state dog fighting operation. Following Vick’s release, it was not clear whether the NFL would allow him to play again, or whether any team would take a chance on invoking the wrath of animal lovers everywhere by signing him.
Thankfully, dog fighting has nothing to do with the horse industry, and it is easy to dismiss Vick and his post-incarceration difficulties as someone else’s problem. Vick’s situation does raise a question that applies across the board, though—how much punishment is enough for people who abuse and neglect horses and other animals? This is especially relevant when the abuse or neglect is a misdemeanor, as is often the case.
In many states, the cumulative jail sentence for multiple misdemeanors cannot be longer than the maximum sentence for a single misdemeanor. In Kentucky, for example, the maximum sentence for one Class A misdemeanor (such as Animal Cruelty in the Second Degree) is one year. The maximum sentence for multiple Class A misdemeanors (several separate counts of Animal Cruelty in the Second Degree) also is one year. This accounts for the apparent inconsistency between a conviction for multiple counts of animal cruelty or neglect and what appears to be a slap on the wrist when the offender is sentenced.
This disparity also is why prominent New York Thoroughbred owner Ernest Paragallo faces a maximum sentence of only two years if convicted on 35 counts of animal neglect--all misdemeanors. The indictments came after more than 100 horses were seized from his farm.
But back to Michael Vick. Should the NFL limit his ability to ply his trade as a quarterback after his release from prison, denying him a second chance after he has served the sentence imposed by a court? Reprehensible as his conduct might have been, he has served his time. Of course, playing football is a privilege, not a right. Even if playing football happens to be Michael Vick’s only marketable skill, the NFL almost certainly can ban Vick from the game. The same is true for training horses. Several years ago, courts upheld the authority of the American Horse Shows Association (now the United States Equestrian Federation) to impose a lifetime competition ban on show jumper Barney Ward for his role in a scheme to kill horses to collect insurance payoffs.
Although animal abuse and neglect laws might be lax in many states, other legal and administrative penalties often are an option. Fines can be levied; seized animals can be forfeited; restrictions on ownership of animals can be imposed; training and showing privileges can be suspended; prize money and breeder incentive awards can be withheld. At some point, though, enough is enough. A second chance is just that, an opportunity for an offender to show that things have changed.