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.
For 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.