The ink was barely dry on Michael Vick’s deal with the Philadelphia Eagles and animal advocates were calling for his removal from the team. But emotions within the animal rights community range from all-out disgust to a charitable sentiment that sounds a lot like forgiveness. Those in the latter camp argue that animals in factory farms suffer much worse than the animals in Vick’s dogfighting operation in rural Virginia, where police removed 66 injured dogs and exhumed the bodies of eight more. Vick served 18 months of a 23-month sentence in federal prison for his crimes.

“What Vick did is, obviously, senseless and reprehensible,” writes actor and animal advocate Alec Baldwin on the Huffington Post. “But I believe Vick, as a wealthy and talented athletic superstar who performs his job out in the open before crowds of amped-up and highly opinionated fans, suffers an unfair disadvantage as compared to, say, the heads of a meatpacking plant or the directors of a medical research lab where animals are suffering the cruelest imaginable abuses behind walls and doors that remove them from our sight and, therefore, judgments.” Baldwin goes on to write that “Vick deserves another chance. One chance. Just like all of us who eat meat, drink milk, attend rodeos, circuses, zoos and horse races and yet find it easier to hand Vick the bill for all of the other, more systemic abuses in our society may find ourselves needing another chance one day. Just like Michael Vick.”

Peter Singer agrees. The author of Animal Liberation told The Philadelphia Inquirer that what Vick did was reprehensible. “But many people do or participate in things regarding animals that are awful. To some extent, I think people may have rushed to judgment because he did something awful to dogs.” Pigs, says Singer, are just as sensitive and intelligent as dogs, but we don’t give much thought to how bacon is created. “What I’m saying is that the people who are very quick to jump on Michael Vick maybe could spend some time thinking about how they participate in the cruelty to animals just by walking into the supermarket, spend some time thinking about what happened to that animal before it was turned into meat.”

Perhaps the largest olive branch has come from the Humane Society of the United States. “Michael Vick admits that what he did to dogs was cruel and barbaric, but now that he has served his time, he wants to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS. “He has pledged to make a long-term commitment to participate in our community-based outreach programs to steer inner-city youth away from dogfighting. At events with Michael in Atlanta and Chicago, we’ve seen him deliver a powerful message against animal cruelty.”

“The football player is free and has the right ― just like any ex-convict in this country ― to go back to work,” writes Michael DuDell of Ecorazzi, which reports on celebrity-related animal news. “Whether you believe him or not, Vick has shown public remorse for his crimes and has even agreed to work with the HSUS campaigning against dogfighting. What better educator than a reformed sinner?” DuDell says there’s no question that what Vick did was wrong. “But what would also be horrible is showing the world that those who stand up for the welfare of animals do not stand up for the welfare of their fellow man.”

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

But other activists aren’t sold on the new Vick. According to PETA’s Shawna Flavell, “Until Michael Vick undergoes the rigorous psychiatric tests now available to determine his ability to experience remorse, there’s no way to establish whether he will reoffend.” Her colleague Dan Shannon was even more emphatic, writing on the PETA blog site: “PETA and millions of decent football fans around the world are disappointed that the Philadelphia Eagles have chosen to sign a man who hanged dogs from trees, electrocuted them with jumper cables, held them underwater until they drowned in his swimming pool, and even threw his own family dogs into the fighting pit to be torn to shreds while he laughed. What sort of message does this send to young fans who care about animals and don’t want to see them be harmed?”

Football enthusiasts are equally divided. Though some Eagles fans have no problem with Vick, others are campaigning to have him ousted from the team. One even launched a Web site, SackVick.net, to target the Eagles’ corporate sponsors, which include Budweiser beer, Canon copiers, Gatorade, MasterCard, NovaCare Rehabilitation, Staples and U.S. Airways. Owners of Hot Dog Collars, an online company that sells NFL-themed merchandise for dogs, announced that they’ve stopped selling Eagles-themed pet products. The site now features anti-Vick images and a page to accept donations for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA). Meanwhile, a former Eagles fan recently advertised their season tickets on Craigslist for $2,000, along with the note: “If the Eagles are going to sell out, then so am I.”

BusinessWeek writer Mark Hyman believes that in the long run, Vick’s dogfighting crimes won’t matter to sports fans if the Eagles’ new player helps the team. What Hyman fails to note is that by landing in Philadelphia, Vick finds himself in one of the most animal-friendly areas in the country. The Humane League of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society and the PSPCA are just a few of the groups active in the city, and they’re not likely to let Vick forget that there are plenty of people watching.

People like singer Pink. Posting on Twitter, the animal advocate and Philadelphia native wrote: “wow. michael vick in MY hometown, Philly. of all the places. I hope the fans tear him to pieces like his beloved dogs.”