NFL quarterback Michael Vick faces 12 to 18 months in jail and the ruin of his brilliant career with the Atlanta Falcons — for killing six or eight pit bulls and running a dogfighting operation in Virginia. "Barbaric". "Reprehensible". "Odious". The media was outraged. Even a remorseful Michael Vick sniffled that it was "a terrible thing".

The leading animal rights groups, the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, are jubilant. They have doubled bounties to as much as US$5,000 for reports of dogfighting which lead to successful prosecutions.

Killing half a dozen dogs is deemed wrong because it is violent, bloody
and lawless. The deaths of human beings, so long as they are painless,
convenient and discreet, are no big deal.

But just how terrible were these crimes? Let's take a reality check on the superstar's overnight fall to earth instead of signing up to the animal rights dogma that hurting animals is the non plus ultra of depravity.

Vick fell foul of a Federal ban on dogfighting. He knew that gambling on a blood sport at his Bad Newz Kennels in Virginia was illegal. And if he did the crime, he should do the time. No one should scoff at the majesty of the law. But where on the scale of immorality are Michael Vick's extracurricular sporting activities located?

Consider this. Vick killed a handful of under-performing pit bulls, apparently by drowning, hanging and electrocution. Drowning is a quick death; hanging is a preferred punishment for human beings in two states; electrocution in ten other states. The dogs' demise may not have been crueller than taking them to the local vet. The 50 or more pit bulls impounded at his kennel may end up being euthanased by the authorities with a lethal injection — a method of executing human beings by 36 states and the Federal government.

In any case, pit bulls killed at least half a dozen human beings in the United States — in the first six months of 2007 alone. A study of fatalities between 1979 and 1998, the last period for which such statistics are available, estimates that this breed killed at least 66 people — more than three a year. Pit bulls are vicious killing machines which will fight gladly to bloody exhaustion or death. If your neighbour buys one, start looking for another address. It's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for them.

Nonetheless, dogfighting is despicable, but not just because dogs die. It is despicable because it brutalises the human beings who organise it, bet on it and watch it. As the only creatures on the planet who can reason and make moral judgements, we are the stewards of the animal world. Entertaining ourselves by inflicting needless pain on a fellow creature dehumanises us. Besides, abusive treatment of animals often leads to cruelty to fellow humans, too. Our own humanity is the greater victim in the sickening spectacle of dogfights.

Much of the outrage directed at Michael Vick happened because the infliction of pain, and not the violation of human rights, has become a touchstone of morality. This shows the degree to which public discourse has been imbued with the principles of the radical animal rights agenda. Killing half a dozen dogs is deemed wrong because it is violent, bloody and lawless. The deaths of human beings, so long as they are painless, convenient and discreet, are no big deal.

What puts this in dramatic relief is the appalling decision not to try a New Orleans doctor for intentionally killing nine patients with lethal injections in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In July last year, Dr Anna Pou, a well-known head and neck surgeon, was charged with the murder of nine patients in her care in New Orleans's Memorial Medical Center.

Her story, of course was quite different. She said that conditions in the hospital after the hurricane swept through were hellish. The city was flooded; there was no power; there was no fresh water; medication was in short supply; the heat, the stench, the hygiene were all unbearable. She took responsibility for patients in acute care on the seventh floor of the hospital. She sedated the sickest ones to alleviate their pain and anxiety until they could get proper treatment. In that dreadful environment all she could do was make them comfortable.

Colleagues jumped to Dr Pou's defence, darkly warning of the dangers of criminalising expert medical judgements. Delegates at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association in June even called for legislation to shield physicians from civil or criminal liability in disaster zones. This sympathetic approach seems to have carried weight with a New Orleans grand jury. In July it decided not to indict her for second-degree murder.

A few days ago, a report by five doctors with national reputations who had studied the incident surfaced in the media. Amazingly, all five had agreed that nine patients had received massive overdoses. They had all called it homicide. But the official in charge of the investigation, District Attorney Eddie Jordan never even called them to testify.

Dr Arthur Caplan, who is probably America's best-known bioethicist, complained that the grand jury had not sighted his report. "Now you can still get into a dispute about the evidence," Caplan told CNN. "You can get into a dispute about the circumstances and all the rest of it, but at face value there is no other conclusion I think that's possible, other than these people — or someone — killed them."

"All these patients survived the adverse events of the previous days and for every patient on a floor to have died in one three-and-a-half hour period with drug toxicity is beyond coincidence," said Dr James Young, the chief coroner of Ontario for 14 years.

But hardly anyone was listening. New Orleans station WDSU-TV asked its viewers what they thought. About 91 per cent agreed with the grand jury.

Now it is quite possible that Dr Pou is innocent. Someone else may have been responsible. Or she may have accidentally miscalculated the doses. Or the patients may have died of natural causes. But eyewitnesses said that she spoke of a decision to administer lethal doses. The experts said that nine people were victims of homicide. Surely the truth deserve to be determined at a trial.

Pretending that nothing untoward happened treats these patients as lesser beings than Michael Vick's dogs. What does it say about public attitudes towards human life when the deaths of half a dozen vicious animals spark a media frenzy and the deaths of nine innocent people are swept under the carpet? What a shameful way to commemorate the second anniversary of the Katrina disaster.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....