News that the Eagles had signed quarterback Michael Vick, a convicted animal abuser, was met with swift outrage last night by members of Philadelphia's animal-welfare community.
Many said they were concerned that the move would cast a pall over a state in which animal advocates - led by Gov. Rendell, who has three rescue dogs - have fought to improve conditions for dogs, particularly those who suffer in substandard commercial kennels.
"Over the last three years, Pennsylvania has made historic strides in bringing attention to the abuse and neglect that so many dogs suffer in this state and throughout the country," said Tom Hickey of Drexel Hill, a member of the governor's Dog Law Advisory Board. "For the Philadelphia Eagles, knowing the heinous crimes committed by this man, to sign him is unconscionable."
The initial reaction, which included the launching of a Twitter feed called "Boycott the Eagles," is a likely indication of the angry response to come.
"Michael Vick is coming to a city with some of the strongest and most outspoken animal advocates," said Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester Springs. "In a city where thousands of pit bulls are destroyed every year because we don't have the resources to rehabilitate them, it's shameful that we are willing to rehabilitate Michael Vick."
Vick, who played with the Atlanta Falcons, pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges in 2007, admitting that he participated in the destruction of dogs that did not perform, including drowning, hanging, and slamming them to the ground.
He spent 18 months of a 23-month sentence in federal prison, during which time he admitted "using bad judgment and making bad decisions," and vowed to redeem himself.
Since his release from house arrest last month, Vick has participated in events in Atlanta and Chicago with the Humane Society of the United States, where he spoke to inner-city young people about the cruelty of dogfighting.
Jen Utley, a board member of the Pennsylvania SPCA and the wife of Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, declined to comment last night specifically on the Vick signing, saying the PSPCA board would release a unified statement today.
"My goal has always been and always will be to prevent cruelty against animals in the city," said Utley, who adopted a rescue dog and who, together with her husband, has raised thousands to support PSPCA activities.
In a statement last night, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals expressed disappointment that the Eagles had signed a man who had committed such brutal acts against animals.
"What kind of message does this send to young fans who care about animals and don't want to see them be harmed?" the statement asked.