PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia Eagles tailgaters will be out in force long before Michael Vick takes the field on Thursday. So will animal advocates — on the other side of town.
Dog lovers are throwing a competing tailgate party for the 2nd Chance Dogs campaign — a pointed reference to Vick's second chance in the NFL — to increase awareness of dogfighting and encourage adoption of rescued pit bulls.
The initiative, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was launched after the Eagles signed Vick, who served 18 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring.
"As a lot of people have pointed out, (Vick's) animals never got a second chance," SPCA chief executive Sue Cosby said. "We need to speak for them."
For Cosby, Vick's arrival in Philadelphia has put a needed spotlight on the types of cruelty cases her agency deals with every day — and that's where she wants it: On the dogs, not the dogfighter.
"For us, this whole thing has just reinforced how hard we have to work at the work we're doing every day," she said.
The signing of Vick two weeks ago sparked protests from fans and animal lovers appalled that the Eagles would bring in a player involved in fighting, hanging and drowning dogs.
Some threatened to boycott the team; protesters waved signs outside Eagles practices; newspapers and radio talk shows spewed endless commentary. Supporters countered that the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has paid his debt to society and deserves a second chance.
It remains to be seen what the crowd response will be when Vick takes the field for his first game in more than two years on Thursday against Jacksonville; so far, no formal protests have been announced.
Vick is trying to rehabilitate his image by working with The Humane Society to warn urban youths against dogfighting. But local animal advocates seem to be keeping their distance, instead using the public debate about Vick to raise money and awareness of cruelty issues.
"The animal welfare groups really have no interest in working with Michael Vick," said Tom Hickey Sr., founder of the Pennsylvania advocacy group DogPAC.
Dogfighting is still very much a problem in Philadelphia, where authorities broke up another ring on Sunday after finding two dead pit bulls and several others injured during a house raid.
District Attorney Lynne Abraham addressed the issue at a closed meeting the next day between Eagles brass and animal advocates.
"It's strictly a blood sport, if I can call it a sport at all," Abraham said after Monday's summit. "And while you have that, you also have drugs and guns and other violence."
The Eagles appear to have made strides with animal rights groups by hosting that discussion before Vick's first game.
The two-hour gathering at the team's practice facility involved representatives from about 20 regional animal groups, including Hickey. He said some of the meeting focused on Vick, but most of it centered on how the team could support animal welfare.
Hickey, who is also a member of the state dog law advisory board, has more than 5,000 signatures on a petition asking the Eagles spend the equivalent of Vick's salary — $1.6 million — to establish a rehabilitation and training center for dogs.
Nothing was decided at the meeting, but Hickey felt it was constructive.
"I think it was very educational for the Eagles. It was important that they get involved in the community," he said.
Eagles senior vice president Pamela Browner-Crawley told reporters afterward that "financial support is on the table," along with other resources, but gave no details.
Karel Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County, wrote on the agency's Web site that he was one of many at the meeting who felt it was time to stop chastising the team and start using its resources to help animals.
"We can make use of the power and influence of the Eagles to make a positive difference," Minor wrote. "We can challenge them to make good on their promise to help us end dogfighting and maybe even more."