THE BLOG
01/28/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

This Week in Magazines : Vick's Dogs, Katrina's Race War, and Tight Abs for the New Year

Michael Vick, a scummy pro football quarterback, has improbably inspired an uplifting New Year's odyssey, according to Dec. 29 Sports Illustrated.

"Vick's Dogs: The Good News out of the Bad Newz Kennels" is a feel-good look at the four-legged aftermath of Vick's criminal conviction and current federal imprisonment for overseeing and financing a dog fighting ring on his Virginia farm. In the process, this may prompt you to consider that inevitable debate over the primacy of nature versus nurture---even if the only animal in your orbit is, say, a two-legged two-year-old or nettlesome teenager.

PETA, the Humane Society of the U.S., and others, wanted to kill the 51 dogs found on Vick's farm. They argued that the pit bulls were beyond rehabilitation and it was a waste of money to try to save them. In some cases, females had been strapped into what's known as a "rape stand," so they could breed without injuring other dogs. Vick and chums would also place dogs into the fighting pit for brief tussles to see who had potential; those who didn't show much were then killed---by gunshot, electrocution, drowning or hanging.

The trauma endured by all of the dogs on the farm was substantial. One animal behavioral expert here says that merely seeing or hearing abuse can be painful. So just seeing a dog hung on a spring bar, teeth clamped on its rubber rings, to strengthen their jaws, could have a very negative impact on others. Such practices were routine on Vick's property.

After Vick's arrest, the dogs were sent to six different animal-control facilities in Virginia, where they were given scant attention, and mostly left to themselves, because workers assumed they were dangerous. Amid an outcry about their continued mistreatment, Vick's plea agreement included his paying $928,000 for care and treatment of the animals, including any necessary humane destruction.

An ASPCA evaluation followed and, then, Rebecca Huss, an animal-law expert at Valparaiso (Ind.) University School of Law, was put in charge of dispersal of the dogs to families nationwide. What one has ultimately found is that the dogs were not killers, but abused animals, mostly fearful, and capable of love like other animals. Of the original 51, 47 have been saved and spread around the country. Up to this point, most have shown far less aggression than anybody would have assumed.

One pit bull, Jasmine, is with an artist and her family outside Baltimore. For months, Jasmine sat in a cage, refusing to exit. She still walks with her head and tail down and won't let anybody approach her from behind. Most of the other dogs are more confident, including Leo, who is a certified therapy dog visiting cancer patients in Los Gatos, Calif.

But the story ends with Jasmine and the question of whether it was worth it to save the 47 dogs when so many (millions) are stuck in shelters. Will they all prove tame and loving and not generate headlines with any future acts of violence?

Writer Jim Gorant chooses as his finale a scene of Jasmine kissing the Baltimore artist's face, suggesting hope for even a still-scared pooch. For the moment, this leaves readers knocking on wood that all these victims have survived the atrocities of Michael Vick, a very talented athlete with a rifle arm and a killer instinct.

---President Obama's foreign policy hierarchy should read, "Lives of the Saints" in Jan. 5 New Yorker. It's Jonathan Harr's tale of the heroic, at many times frustrated, efforts of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; in this case as it oversees 12 refugees camps for 250,000 Sudanese who've fled across the border to neighboring Chad. The UN agency oversees 33 refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people in more than 110 countries on a rather modest $1.2 billion budget (with the U.S. the biggest contributor). This is about trying to bring some decency to victims of lawlessness and irrationality, though it's not a puff piece on valiant public servants, conceding some of the agency's many faults even as it provides profiles in true selflessness.

But though the piece's intent is not to place the Sudanese mess in any larger, international framework, it should still be read by policymakers because it focuses on exactly the sort of international mess which is growing in number. This symbolizes the sort of tricky humanitarian aid challenge, with inevitable political ramifications, necessitating mostly "soft" responses, as opposed to the "hard" responses represented by military means. The general topic did not get much attention during the presidential campaign but disasters like this may increase and will have to be seriously addressed by Obama and both his foreign affairs and military lieutenants. Susan Rice, Obama's pick for UN Ambassador, could help craft an important legacy for us if she can prod more effective, international (and domestic) attention to these hideously complex realities.

---World Politics 60 includes this intriguing academic treatise: "The Political Economy of Women's Support for Fundamentalist Islam." Harvard's Lisa Blaydes and Emory University's Drew Linzer combine to ask, "Why do, in Muslim countries, women adopt fundamentalist value systems that limit their social, political and economic opportunities and, in the extreme, can even result in their physical harm," notably genital mutilation and even honor killings? There are a load of qualifiers but in general women with limited opportunities, mostly due to poor education or poverty, are seen as more likely to go that route, in part deeming such a fundamentalist system as enhancing their value as a "potential marriage partners." Thus, the threats to such a system of increased economic opportunities are pretty self-evident.

---"Why Music?" is Dec. 20-Jan. 2 Economist's wonderful treatise on the origins and function of music, inspecting the latest scientific research and various theories to explain its central role in our lives. Why do 40 percent of the lyrics of popular songs deal with romance and sex? Is there any relevance that the creativity of many artists seems to match their reproductive life, with productivity soaring after puberty and reaching a peak during young-adulthood? And when it comes to impact, why do some sounds manipulate other emotions in different ways? "The truth, of course, is that nobody yet knows why people respond to music," this concludes.

---Jan. 5 Nation's "Katrina"s Hidden Race War" makes the case that in one New Orleans neighborhood, Hurricane Katrina inspired white vigilantes to attempt to seal off their area and begin patrolling it as some self-designated militia, in the process shooting at least 11 black citizens. The existence of such a band is not news but A.C. Thompson offers new details as he underscores how none of the crimes have resulted in any punishment. Elsewhere in the issue, Nomi Prins, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs, reminds us of the general lack of transparency tied to the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. "Indeed, instead of having to explain their leveraging procedures, the most leveraged companies are getting the best deal," and getting bigger in the process, with their greater size potentially constituting a bigger risk and their "merged balance sheets" by definition a lot more difficult to figure out and to monitor.

---January Wired's "Cancer and the New Science of Early Detection" is Thomas Goetz's fascinating look at our seeming obsession with finding cures for cancer once a patient has it rather than getting far better with early detection. There are an estimated 566,000 Americans who will die of cancer this year but more than a third of all Americans, or about 120 million, will be diagnosed with cancer during their lives. Find those much earlier and the 566,000 number gets smaller. This argues that "early detection is an afterthought in cancer research," with the drug industry, just to cite one player, using most of its huge research budgets on drug development and late-stage treatments. Using a small research group, the Canary Foundation, as his vehicle, Goetz inspects the "riddle of early detection," including the three big obstacles: some cancers can be too easy to find and medical intervention is debatable; others are inherently very tricky to find, like pancreatic cancer, with proper diagnosis often a matter of mere serendipity; and research money goes to where the cancer is, including lung cancer, which is mostly detected in late stages.

---January Harper's Magazine includes bashing of the New York Times' Thomas Friedman by Lewis Lapham as he derides the federal bailout of financial firms (and Friedman for placing too much stock in the decline of a "Puritan work ethic" in this country). Meanwhile, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz combines with Harvard's Linda Bilmes to offer an annotated primer with a $10.35 trillion estimate of "Bush-era excess," namely the debt of the war in Iraq, the bailout of financial firms, new commitments to the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, new pledges to disability compensation and education benefits for veterans, and to simply paying interest on the debt itself. Finally, critic William Gass inspects the curious, myth-filled life of Texas-bred writer Katherine Ann Porter with an engaging essay in part about the challenges of falsifying one's past.

---Finally, it's the holiday season, so there's both too much food and distinct repercussions for abs, whether you voted for Obama or John McCain, and regardless of your source for news being Fox, CNN, MSNBC or Gawker.com. Please run out for January-February Women"s Health and its world exclusive "six-week plan that will help you lose your belly, tone your abs, and stay lean and healthy for life." For now, let's just stipulate that this is indeed "based on revolutionary new weight-loss research," demonstrating how you can eat more but, alas, weigh loss, in the process even "supercharging" your sex life. If your home isn't stocked with almonds, beans, spinach, nonfat dairy products, instant oatmeal, eggs, turkey, peanut butter, olive oil, whole grains, extra-protein powder (whey) and raspberries or other berries, at least make sure that's the case after you gorge at that New Year's bacchanal.

Republicans, put aside your animus toward "crunchy granola" responses to problems and run to the nearest Whole Foods.