The folks at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) must be absolutely giddy. Handed to them on a silver platter was the biggest public relations campaign possible for their anti-animal-cruelty crusade. Of course, I’m referring to the media frenzy surrounding Michael Vick, the disgraced Atlanta Falcons quarterback who has pleaded guilty to federal dogfighting charges in Richmond, Va.

It would be impossible to place a monetary value on the anti-cruelty publicity Vick handed PETA, the Humane Society of the United States and all the other animal-rights groups. His story repeatedly made national headlines and led the evening news programs. It spurred investigative journalists to examine the underground blood-sport known as dogfighting.

In case you spent the summer in a line shack somewhere high in the mountains watching over a herd of cows, here’s Vick’s story. He led Virginia Tech to the college national championship game in 2000 before being drafted first overall in the 2001 National Football League draft by the Atlanta Falcons. By 2004, Vick had signed a $130 million contract and was one of the league’s most recognizable stars.

But sometime in 2001, Vick purchased a property in southeastern Virginia where, according to a federal indictment, he decided to start a dogfighting operation with two others who where indicted at the same time. The men named their enterprise “Bad Newz Kennels,” and “used this property as the main staging area for housing and training the pit bulls involved in the dogfighting venture and hosting dogfights.”

The indictment also said that in April of this year, Vick and the other men “executed approximately eight dogs that did not perform well in ‘testing’ sessions by various methods, including hanging, drowning and/or slamming at least one dog’s body to the ground.” Dogfighting is a felony in Virginia and 47 other states. Transporting dogs over state lines for dogfighting is a federal crime.

Vick plea-bargained with federal prosecutors after the other men pleaded guilty. He is expected to receive a year to 18 months in a federal prison, though the judge could impose a sentence of up to six years.

Worst of all for Vick, his $130 million contract with the Falcons is gone, and the team has said it will try to recover some of the $22 million signing bonus Vick received in 2004. Vick also lost endorsement deals with Nike, Coca-Cola, Kraft and Rawlings.

Stripped of his salary, Vick has also lost his marketability. Forbes magazine listed Vick 33rd among its top 100 celebrities last year and listed his total earnings for the year at $37 million. But it’s all gone.

Today, he is the poster boy for animal cruelty. PETA protesters marched outside the court house in Richmond, Va., where Vick entered his guilty plea late last month, calling for “justice for all victims.”

Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s co-founder and president, famously said, “A rat is a dog is a pig is a boy.” Her point being that she failed to distinguish between animals and humans. She’s also called those involved in animal agriculture “America’s real terrorists.” Visit PETA’s Web site and you can view the fodder Michael Vick’s legal troubles have provided the organization.

Everyone can condemn dogfighting. It’s indefensible. But Michael Vick has made it popular to be “anti-animal-cruelty.” The problem with that label is who will define animal cruelty. Ingrid Newkirk would shut down every animal agriculture operation in America tomorrow if she could. She would also stop every form of animal use that provides medicine, clothing, food, etc.

And now that Michael Vick has pleaded guilty and waits for his sentence, PETA’s campaign is only beginning. When Vick is released, he’ll likely have to serve a suspension from the NFL. But at some point, about 2009 or 2010, Vick will attempt a comeback to pro football. When he does, PETA will be ready.

They’ll march and protest outside the stadium of any team that dares sign Vick, the dog killer. They’ll call for boycotts of sporting events and anything else they dream up over the next few years. They’ll develop whole campaigns around keeping Vick out of the NFL. They’ll chase the man to the end of the Earth, all for publicity to further their cause.

Yes, Michael Vick’s actions were most cruel and despicable. And PETA loves it.