Hero, Villain or Hypocrite: The Dilemma of the Undercover Dog-Fighter

The limits of absolutism and the drawbacks of utilitarianism both come under scrutiny in assessing the strange saga of Terry Mills, whom the ASPCA recently appointed as its Animal Fighting Specialist.

Beyond question, this is a job he is uniquely qualified to hold. In 2008, Mills worked for the FBI’s domestic-terrorism task force, and went under-cover for more than a year to expose and break up a national dog-fighting ring. His efforts resulted in many arrests, and the rescue of more than 500 animals. Accomplishing all of this, however, required Mills to become part of the culture he was attacking. He trained and fought his own dogs, engaging in the very cruelty he was working to prevent.

Dog rescue and animal rescue advocates are questioning whether the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should hire Mills, on the theory that he is permanently stained by his undercover work.  One poll on the topic showed over 85% of respondents condemning such undercover operations as cruel and unethical. Yet despite all the regret and hand-wringing expressed by animal lovers, their only criticism is essentially the eternal lament of the good person who cannot stomach the necessary measures that are often required to fight crimes and serious wrongs—what some would call evil. “Yes – the investigators need a way in to the fights so they can gather the evidence needed to bring the f*ckers down, but when you turn into one of the f*ckers yourself in the meantime? It’s been really hard to reconcile,” one blogger laments. “It just seems as if there had to be a better way without purposefully putting more dogs in the ring,” another writes.

Really? What better way, unless by “better” we mean “nicer” rather than “effective”? Mills explained why law enforcement resorted to an undercover operation:

“We would have never been invited — never gotten anywhere close to them,” Mills said of the dog-fighters. “Especially after Michael Vick, they went from being ‘Let’s have everybody over and have a good time’ to ‘If you don’t have a dog in the fight, you don’t have any business here.'”

I have no reason to believe that law enforcement would have resorted to such extreme measures if any other tactic would have had anything approaching the success Mills achieved. If the dog lovers reading about what Mills had to do are upset just reading about it, imagine what it must have been like for him. This is the sacrifice of the eternally damned role of the spy: he lives with and works with the evil-doers at constant risk of being discovered. He violates his own values and loyalties by participating in the very acts he is striving to prevent, creates trust and friendships with the perpetrators, and then betrays them. It is dirty, soul-killing work; those who survive always live with suspicion and condemnations for the rest of their lives.

There have been undercover agents who have risen to positions of power in organized crime, sometimes participating in planning murders. Undercover F.B.I. agents joined Ku Klux Klan organizations in the 1950s and took part in lynchings; they infiltrated radical student groups in the 1960’s and participated in bombings.  “In prostitution stings, do cops have sex with johns? I think not,” one blogger notes. She thinks wrong. Before laws made solicitation the crime rather than the sex act itself, undercover officers did indeed compete sex acts in order to arrest both “johns” and prostitutes.

Extreme measures, including violations of core, absolute human values, are sometimes—sometimes— the only avenue available  when particular conduct is deemed so wrong and so harmful that it has to be stopped. Ethical absolutists will not accept this, just as pacifists will not concede that war is ever justified, even if it is, for example, the only way to stop organized genocide. I once read an interview with Sixties protester Phillip Berrigan, in which he seriously argued that “passive resistance” might have stopped Hitler. He is delusional. How much easier it is, however, to condemn those who take affirmative action at the cost of their own virtue, rather than  committing to fixing the problem! The bloggers questioning Mills’ ethics rescue abused dogs; one of them admitted that her own dog was alive because of Mills’ operation. Yet she doesn’t trust him. After all, he abused dogs.

The ends don’t justify the means, but some ends justify some means. Law enforcement is an ethically complex task; officials are charged with following rules while trying to outmaneuver criminals who feel free to break them. Becoming part of horrible conduct in order to stop it should never be engaged in lightly, and less ethically troubling methods should always be attempted first, if any are available.  If an informed and thoughtful decision is made, however, that the only way to stop child pornography is to enter the world of child pornographers, or the only way to stop dog-fighting is to join the dog-fighters or, as I am certain is going on now, the best way to stop terrorists is to have undercover agents embedded in terrorist organizations, the brave and dedicated individuals who do the dirty work should be admired and praised. Those who sit on the sidelines, tut-tutting and shaking their heads in dismay, should keep asking questions, by all means. That’s what they do best, and it is valuable, for undercover operations are in the ethical gray zone, and should always have to justify themselves. The critics are not the heroes, however.

People like Terry Mills are. They deserve to be treated, honored, and trusted accordingly.

3 thoughts on “Hero, Villain or Hypocrite: The Dilemma of the Undercover Dog-Fighter

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on this matter. I can’t even fathom the difficulty of undercover work, especially for operations that take months or years. I don’t think most people can appreciate the mental toll it must take on someone to pretend to be the very vermin they are trying to bring down.

  2. Jack,
    While we find ourselves in agreement over the merits of the case, I was bothered somewhat by the following statement: “I have no reason to believe that law enforcement would have resorted to such extreme measures if any other tactic would have had anything approaching the success Mills achieved.”

    However necessary undercover work may have been justified an necessary in this case, we shouldn’t arrive at that conclusion by assuming it was the only way else they would have done something less extreme. Police engage in all sorts of overbearing and needlessly risky behavior all the time when other alternatives HAVEN’T been exhausted.

    I don’t suggest you would argue this is every case, I just worry that its a dangerous precedent to set in ANY case. “Gee, the LAPD just shot another unarmed black male. It sure looks bad, but I can’t believe they would have resorted to such extreme measures if it wasn’t the only way.”


    • I agree. I meant that given the individual sacrifice, danger, expense, and time required for undercover work, I have a hard time believing that it would be anything but a last resort. Thanks for the qualification, that should have been explicit.

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