Just for argument’s sake, let me put in a word on behalf of Michael Vick. That’s right, at the risk of becoming a line item on the hit list of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, I am going to offer a few words of support for the beleaguered Atlanta Falcons quarterback, accused of fostering dog fighting.

It’s a terrible crime, of course, and it’s a terrible thing for manipulative human beings to do to innocent animals, of course. And — if we are to believe his co-conspirators who offered their evidence as part of a plea bargain deal as they were cornered by prosecutors — the dog fighting is not the worst of it. Allegedly, once the animals had served their useful “sporting” purpose, Vick and his cohorts disposed of them by drowning them or hanging them. You would have thought that Vick, with more money than God (though not as much as Peyton Manning) could have persuaded some greedy veterinarian to euthanize the creatures.

But I think there’s a little bit of Michael Vick in most of us — and maybe we should cut him the same break we wish he and his fellow dog-fight fans would have given the battered pit bulls in their possession.

I argue this as I spin through the channels on the cable tuner, marveling at what now constitutes content for these many information providers. I pass by the Fox “fair and balanced” news shows, where the news hounds corner their prey and then battle each other for the last morsel.

Further up the remote, just beyond the Yankees classic on Channel 62 (Dave Rhigetti’s 1983 no-hitter of the Boston Red Sox is being re-broadcast at this moment) and the NASCAR racing on Channel 63 (coverage of a practice session of a race the next day called the 3M Performance 400), I come to Channel 64, Animal Planet.

It’s amazing how far we have come in our drive to create content that will lead to innovative shows and then innovative channels that will attract, we can only hope, some viewers and some advertisers. The great example — perhaps apocryphal — is the guy in some backwater Pennsylvania town who discovered he could fill hours of empty air time on his television station by putting a camera over a jukebox and televising the record going around as the music played.

People watched, and MTV became one of the first kings of cable TV.

Animal shows have been on television for decades, at least since Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom first appeared in the early 1960s. Remember the appropriately named Marlin Perkins. I’m not sure when Animal Planet started but it’s 24/7 now, an offshoot of the Discovery Channel. It’s a good place for a channel surfer to rest for a while, to see just how far the producers have to go to keep that channel spinning all those hours.

And the animal world is not always pretty, as a poem by Loring Hughes in this year’s U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue suggested:



It was that fast-swoosh!

Black feathers everywhere pulled out

And left behind in the snow splattered crimson.

The victim kept on screaming

As the hawk ate him alive, Standing on him.

The screams went on, piercing my armor, The flying black feathers.

I paced in front of my now closed window,

Haunted by the sounds of extinguishing life.

Hey hawk, I said, This isn’t fair,

Why, all the nature shows say you go

The painless route: You know,

A snip in the neck causing paralysis, pain easy,

Senses separated, sleepy death, not

This standing on the prey and eating him alive!

Lady, the hawk replied,

Don’t believe everything you see on TV.

It may have been a while since this poet checked out the nature shows. It gets pretty gritty. At this moment the Animal Planet has my full attention, as its amazing cameras track an innocent fish across the floor of some coastal water.

As long as the fish stays in more than three feet of water he is safe, the announcer intones. The view shifts to an osprey beginning a nose dive from high in the sky. Seconds later the underwater camera captures the bird breaking the surface of the water and snatching the fish from his hiding spot in the sand. It can’t be painless, you think, your pulse quickening, as the bird flies off with his prey clutched in sharp talons. The show is called Blue Planet: Seas of Life. Death doesn’t get mentioned in the title, but it keeps us lingering.

Not surprisingly the Animal Planet has been called to task by PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — in part for those amazing cameras, which turn out to be miniaturized devices that are actually strapped to the back of a bird of prey to enable viewers to feel as if they are flying along with the birds. Said one PETA person: “When animals are portrayed as violent creatures, it encourages animal cruelty. No animal should ever be used simply for entertainment, particularly when you have to strap cameras to their backs or attach bulky devices.”

But in this day of 24/7 exposure, even the Animal Planet runs short on content once in a while. A visit to the Animal Planet is not all predator eat prey. There are also funny pet videos, miracle pets (the parakeet who can sense its epileptic owner’s imminent seizures), and animal police tracking down the likes of Michael Vick. But come early morning the Animal Planet runs its “Sunrise Earth” series — video of animals and sometimes even plants hanging out and doing absolutely nothing as the sun slowly rises in the east.

One morning I saw an image of water churning quietly over rocks on a shoreline. After several minutes of this repetitive motion, a caption appeared on the screen: “Frenchman Bay, Maine. Fresh water mixes with salt water.”

So Michael Vick has pleaded guilty. Now let the punishment fit the crime: Community service at an animal shelter plus eight hours a day watching the Animal Planet’s “Sunrise Earth.”

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