Cruelty Porn

September 16th, 2015 | Posted by Karel Minor in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

The recent 9-11 anniversary, and its wall to wall reshowing of the images of the horrific crimes committed that day, sparked some discussion among staff at Humane Pennsylvania about the appropriateness of the imagery.  You couldn’t avoid it on TV, newspapers, the billboards of a local advertising company, or even on radio, where NPR spent the day verbally drawing us mental pictures.

smile-kitten-largeFor me, this image assault is very much like what I call the “cruelty porn” tendency in my own animal welfare industry.  I don’t mean the “crush videos” that occasionally get dragged out by a concerned politician (but are actually about as common as roving hordes of Satanists sacrificing cats, which is to say, essentially non-existent).  I mean the tendency of animal shelters and their Facebook pages to insist upon posting images of abused, tortured, and dead animals.

There is often the same mantra and justification we heard recently:  Never Forget.  We must see the carnage so that we never forget it and are ever vigilant in our opposition to a repeat of said horrors.  Let me ask you, if you never saw a picture of the burning towers again, would it erase the memory of the feelings they conjure up?  I doubt it.  By the same token, seeing a picture of a dog that was doused in gasoline and lit on fire isn’t necessary for me to appreciate that act of cruelty or desire to prevent it.  It isn’t necessary for me to want to support the organizations which I know are there to care for animals who face cruelty and work to strengthen cruelty laws.

So why do we show these images?  Perhaps the better question is why do we look at them?  Is it the same impulse that makes us slow down and look at a nasty car accident?  That’s my impulse, I’ll admit it.  But I think there is a difference between wanting to see something in the immediacy of an accident or a terrorist attack or a witnessed incident of animal cruelty and wanting to replay the images again and again, in a way that seems somewhat emotionally masturbatory.  For me, that difference is respect.

I oft repeat a story about something that took place on the very first day of my tenure as Executive Director of the Humane Society of Berks County.  When you walked into the lobby there was one wall with a bulletin board chock full of happy pictures of adopted pets.  Then you walked past it to come to another wall with bulletin board lined with pictures of animals which had been shot with arrows, starved to death, lit on fire, beaten bloody.  I asked why we had that bulletin board and was told (I paraphrase), “So people know what happens, what we see and do, and so they never forget.”

I was appalled.  No one who walks into our lobby needed to be assaulted or made to feel bad that we have a tough job sometimes.  That’s why they are there- to help us do it by adopting and donating their money and their time.  And in the off chance that some sociopath did come in, what would these pictures accomplish for a person who doesn’t feel anything in the first place?  It was utterly ineffective and only served to create a hostile, painful, fearful mental environment, not a sympathetic one.  Not a respectful one.

That was the moment I met one of my very favorite people on Earth, then volunteer and later board member, Scott Yoder.  I grabbed him and asked him if he would mind taking it down and I believe he said something like, “With pleasure.”  He understood.

Some members of the staff went, bluntly, apeshit.  People need to know!  What they were really saying is that I need to share my anger and grief over what I see with everyone else to make them share my pain.  I understood.  But I wasn’t going to facilitate it.  And I settled on a way to express the reason for removal of these images that was at the core, for me, why they needed to come down and one which seems to resonate effectively with the staff:  The pictures were disrespectful and perpetuated the crime against the animals.

If we were a shelter for victims of domestic violence, would we hang photos of battered women in the lobby?  If we were a shelter for victims of child pornography, would we post images of their rape on the wall?  Of course not.  It is a perpetuation of the violence they have already experienced.  It is wrong for us to use their suffering to make some point about our job with a public we apparently think to be too thick to appreciate the magnitude of the crime.  The fact that it happened is enough, must we make others experience a slice of that pain to make ourselves feel better?

And what of the off chance the owner of one of those animals was there to see it?  Do we run drunk driving ads with the pictures of decapitated teenagers to drive home the “reality” of the problem?  No, we would say that it is morbid and unnecessary, and unnecessarily cruel to the family of the victim.  Yet we post images of the exact moments of the crimes which took the lives of 3,000 people for their families to see run over and over, out of respect and remembrance.  What must it be like for those families to be subject to so much of our respect?

It is perhaps a somewhat smaller matter, for most people, to be presented with the image of a tortured dog.  But it is no less respectful of its suffering and crime committed against it.  It is no more needed to make us know that vicious animal cruelty exists and that we must do something about it or help the organizations which do.  I travel to a lot of other shelters and I still see these bulletin boards of horror in some of them.  When I do, I tell my bulletin board story and share my analogies of the abused children, because hits home, and with any luck those boards will come down.

There is a reason Humane Pennsylvania and our partner organizations don’t resort to using shocking images such as these.  We don’t need to.  We trust you.  We trust you pay attention without having to be gore enthralled into it. We trust that you will never forget.  We also know showing these images are disrespectful and wrong.

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With the announcement of Michael Vick’s signing by the Pittsburgh Steelers, the self-righteous social media screeching which he perpetually leaves in his wake has once again reared its smug head. The moderate among of his well-wishers predict his sure descent into Hell. The worst offer to send him there. The kindest of the bunch tend to focus on his victims. Never forget his victims.

It might be a good idea to introduce you to the very first victim in the dog fighting saga that has become Vick’s life. Before there were the dogs he tortured and killed as a professional dog fighter, there was another victim of animal cruelty, one as lacking in culpability as any dog and one who is universally ignored.

mike-vick-childhoodIt’s Mike Vick, the child.

Before the wailing begins that I’m an apologist for his actions, I will make it clear I am not. His actions were vile. He deserves every bit of punishment he received, and more. I don’t believe the NFL should be hiring him to any position. Since he’s going to a town which cheers an alleged serial rapist, perhaps Vick is a moral improvement in their eyes.

However, the faux humane concern for “all” the victims, buttressed between calls that Vick be tortured and killed just like his dogs were, ignores that this is not a man who woke up one day and decided he was going to bash dogs heads in and drown others in buckets. This is a man who was a product of victimization himself, a man who was crafted and molded into being a sadistic abuser of animals.

Yes, the dogs were victims. But so was Mike Vick when he was a young child being taken by the adults around him to witness and participate in dog fights. As a child, he had no more control for his participation in dog fighting than did the dogs. As a young male child, likely taken there by older males in his life, he probably had the added burden of having to prove himself and show his acceptance and enthusiasm. As a poor child, he also likely did not have the kind of social environment that wealthier kids might, with housing and food stability, regular checkups and the local pediatrics practice, pets who saw a vet regularly for checkups and health care.

Granted, most people, nearly all, in fact, who were poor and lacked these things don’t grow up to be violent criminals. From what I’ve heard he didn’t have it much worse off than I did for stretches of my childhood, but I grew up to work in the animal welfare industry and he grew up to be a mediocre quarterback who spent time in prison for slaughtering companion animals for fun and profit. And while I acknowledge that I had the benefit of probably being a fair amount smarter than him, if utterly lacking in athletic ability, and, let’s face it, way whiter than him in a world were that matters, I didn’t make the choices he made.

Before I can proudly beat my chest at being better than Vick and pointing out that lots or most people don’t succumb to their bad upbringings to the extent he did and that many people with zero exposure to violence do turn out to be sadistic horrors, I must also acknowledge being exposed as he was increases the odds of offending in like ways. In the case of violence and boys, there can be a significant increase in the odds. Not all wife beaters saw it in the home but the boys who did are vastly more likely to beat their wives if they saw their dad beat their mother. What are the inclining odds if your dad or uncle took you to a few dog fights?

That is why recognizing Vick’s victimization while also condemning him as a victimizer is so important. If we want to stop dog fights, we can and should keep railing against them and have lots of cops prosecuting them. If we want to bring an end to dog fighting culture, we have to save boys like Vick before they become men like Vick. There is a cycle of violence. It is real and we have to support ways to intervene to keep kids from being a part of it and help them not become inculcated in that cycle if they are a part of it.

Socially, maybe ensuring that kids don’t have to move constantly because of housing insecurity, can always know that there is healthy food and plenty of it in the kitchen, have an economy which pays living wages so parents can work just one job- and be lucky enough to have one job- and come home to help their kids with their homework, homework assigned at great schools will make the difference. Maybe those schools could put as much emphasis on being smart and getting great grades as they do on creating the next generation of unaccountable self-entitled jocks who grow up to be another crop of loathsome criminals hired by the NFL Maybe those kids can see great doctors because they have health insurance. And maybe even access to high quality veterinary care for their pets so they can see that the right and normal thing to do with pets is keep them healthy and happy and in the home.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave making that happen to the brain trust running for President right now (fingers crossed!). What I can do is what we have pioneered at Humane Pennsylvania. We can offer high quality, affordable veterinary care to the community. We can invite in everyone with a pet to get the care they need without being disrespectful to them because they don’t look like us and call their pets “fur babies” like we do. We can show families who have never been able to provide stable, ongoing vet care for their pets how to do it and make it easy, and invite their kids in, too.

Traditional “humane education” has been an abject failure. People do what they know and they do what is the norm. When the norm is seeing the pediatrician regularly, graduating high school and going to college, not getting in trouble, taking Fluffy in to the vet a couple times a year for checkups, that’s what most people do and it’s what they pass on to their kids. When normal is none of these things, when normal is knowing that dog fighting is just around the corner every Saturday night, that’s what you accept. And when you grow up to be a rich football player, it’s what you carry with you.

Our veterinary hospitals have real potential for breaking this abuse cycle, not by preaching in schools to kids with bigger problems facing them, but by making the right thing to do the easy, available, affordable option for their family. We can make abuse the aberration by offering an alternative.

Our Humane Veterinary Hospitals in Lancaster and Reading aren’t just neat ideas, they combat cruelty today and tomorrow. They keep pets in homes and out of shelters. They offer an alternative which doesn’t exist for many families. By getting national AAHA accreditation (our Lancaster hospital is the only non-profit accredited vet hospital in Pennsylvania and the new Reading Hospital will be the second when completed later this winter) we also ensure that we aren’t offering at risk pets and families sub-par care, we offering the best. Just like their pets, and yours and mine, deserve.

When I see an eight year old kid holding his dog’s leash, waiting to get him in for his check up and vaccinations, I can’t help but wonder if that’s the next Michael Vick who will never be. I also can’t help but feel a little pity and more than a little shame that those of us in my humane industry who weren’t there to save young Vick from being the man he is today.

(You can support our work by making donation in support of our shelters’ adoption programs, cruelty intervention programs, and veterinary services.  You can even bring your pet to our excellent practices- we have vets for your pet, too!)

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