When Hurricane Katrina stranded helpless, starving pets throughout the Gulf Coast, a stream of sympathetic visitors to the Humane Society's Web site didn't cause a collapse. When horrific stories revealed that parka trim from China contained the fur of murdered cats and dogs, the server held up. But the day after a federal grand jury returned a dogfighting indictment against Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, the system was overwhelmed by people offering to help.
"I know the 'Donations' section and the 'Take Action' section were down for a while," Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said Wednesday. "Our server couldn't handle the weight of all the communication we were getting about this, and we're a very large organization. We're used to a lot of traffic."
The combination of Mr. Vick's celebrity and the grotesque details of the grand jury report have created a new stage for crusaders against cruelty to animals. For years, they have tried to expose and curb the depravity of dogfighting, lobbying for tougher legislation against the humans who sponsor the carnage. But this case has grabbed people's attention like nothing else.
"If he is indeed found guilty, the conviction would send the sort of message that needs to be sent," said Allison Lindquist, executive director of the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Oakland, Calif. Dogfighting is a common, largely hidden blight almost everywhere in the country, she said, including the San Francisco Bay Area. "This is an unbelievably sadistic, barbaric practice, and a lot of people try to glamorize it. It's not glamorous at all."
The cold brutality described in the indictment hardly props up any fashionably roguish images. The 52 pit bulls found on Mr. Vick's estate were mostly emaciated, authorities said, kept ravenously hungry so they would eagerly assail the flesh of the dogs they met in the ring. The losing animals, the indictment said, were sometimes executed if they didn't die in the fight. One dog, the grand jury reported, was hosed down after a loss and then electrocuted.
"I think it's the gratuitous cruelty that has really gotten to people," Mr. Pacelle said. "This isn't medical research. You can't argue that sacrificing these animals could save people's lives someday."
He is using public disgust for all it's worth, going after Mr. Vick with more fury than any pass rush the quarterback has ever faced. Mr. Pacelle has demanded that the NFL suspend Mr. Vick immediately and that corporate sponsors drop him as a spokesman. The Humane Society Web site, when it's functioning, invites readers to call the NFL and links to a form-letter e-mail calling for a suspension. On his blog, Mr. Pacelle links to another form letter, for customer relations at Nike, Mr. Vick's most prominent sponsor.
Mr. Pacelle targeted Nike shortly after the initial raid of Mr. Vick's property in April. He got nowhere.
On this issue, the company has a prior offense. In late 2003, one of its ads, called "The Battle," depicted a heated basketball game. Then the camera panned to a pit bull and a Rottweiler facing off. To a typical viewer, unaware of dogfighting's bloody tradition, it may have seemed harmless. To knowledgeable animal-cruelty opponents, it was an outrage. They protested vigorously.
The ad eventually left the air. In an e-mail to a Nike media-relations executive, I asked whether the ad was pulled because of the protests or because it had run its course. At a time when one of its star endorsers is accused of viciously abusing animals for thrills and profit, Nike probably should have hinted at some level of sensitivity on the subject. But the return e-mail said only: "That specific ad ran its course."
The response wasn't surprising. The Nike culture treasures hard edges and despises weakness.
After the Vick indictment, animal activists hope any coy, playful references to dogs in combat will turn stomachs instead of selling shoes. They also want the public to learn the horrible ripple effects of criminally inclined breeding and training on all pit bulls, even those that have never been near a fight.
"They used to be the nanny dogs in England, because they would put up with kids tugging on their ears," Miss Lindquist said. In Contra Costa County and Alameda County, Calif., she said, thousands of pit bulls must be euthanized each year because they are considered too risky or too challenging for most adoptive homes.
"Some of them are adorable, wonderful dogs," she said. "There's nothing wrong with them. This isn't their fault. We're responsible. ... It's the worst sort of betrayal when humans take these domesticated animals and turn them into something so frightening."
For at least one tiny animal shelter near Mr. Vick's Virginia house, though, the investigation hasn't yielded a teaching opportunity. Cara's Corner, named for 13-year-old Cara Appel, sits on 164 acres in Surry County, Va., not 5 miles from Mr. Vick's estate. In an average week, two pets a week would find a home, said Cara's mother, Emma Jean Appel. Since the raid on Mr. Vick's place 3½ months ago, virtually no one stops by; not a single creature has been adopted. "Not even a guinea pig," she said. "Can you imagine that?"
Mrs. Appel called the Newport News, Va., SPCA, a much larger facility about an hour-and-a-half away and asked what was happening there. "They told me they were adopting out animals all the time," she said. "A lady there said she thought the reason we might be having trouble is that people think we're involved with Michael Vick."
Perhaps, in a perverse way, we should all be grateful Cara's Corner hasn't drawn a crowd. Adam Parascandola, the new director of Oakland Animal Services, has a frightening thought about the legacy of this case.
"My fear is that hearing that people like Michael Vick are involved in this will make it seem exciting," he said. "Whether he's convicted or not, he's a famous athlete. He's somebody that young kids look up to. Unfortunately, sometimes they like the bad boys."
Gwen Knapp writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. This article was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.