Animal Cruelty in Media as Threat to Environmental Activism
Updated: Feb 2
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By Eric A.S. Harvey, JD
COPYRIGHT PENDING 2019
Photo Credit: El Pensador Mexicano
A dog is chained to a wall at an art gallery in Managua, Nicaragua. She hasn’t eaten for days. She is on the verge of death. A large heap of crack cocaine and marijuana burns nearby. The dog inhales the fumes. On the wall behind the emaciated canine, “Eres Lo Que Lees” is written in dog food. The dog can’t reach the urgently needed sustenance that will halt her painful demise—the pain augmented by the psychotic inebriation that results from exposure to the narcotics.
“Eres Lo Que Lees” translates as “You Are What You Read.” I’m really not sure why the artist titled this "You are What You Read," but the obvious inapplicability of this title adds to the absurdity of this exhibit. Here, the world does indeed seem random and unjust. Here, Camus’ absurd is on display. Even Camus' Sisyphus would not find meaning in this tragedy, and he was able to find contentment in his seemingly insurmountable doom--rolling a rock up a hill only to watch it roll back down again everyday for the rest of time.
The so-called “artist” behind the exhibit pays a small child to torment the dog toward the end of her abbreviated existence. The dog dies--ribs, hips, and spine completely visible at her time of death. Thin skin cloaks the bones. Crowds of people look on, tragically idiotic so-called aesthetes, believing they are witness to brilliance.
The creator of this exhibit is 44-year-old Guillermo Vargas Jimenez. He is hailed as an ingenious artist in Nicaragua, as the exhibit continues and claims the lives of more dogs.
PETA, the Humane Society of the United States, and even The World Society for the Protection of Animals (“WSPA”) mobilize, as photos of the dogs hit social media platforms across the globe.
With these organizations behind them, activists all over the world protest this cruelty. Vargas Jimenez claims he himself signs a petition to bar his participation in one of the biggest art exhibits in Central America. A probe initiated by WSPA indicates no record of his signature exists. Jimenez then defends his art, saying it is a testament to peoples’ complacency towards suffering. He stands behind his art, not only saying this, but also by referring to how a factory-worker was killed in Central America, when no one came to his rescue as two Rottweilers tore him to pieces. It turns out the man provoked the dogs. Seriously, guys! What did the guy expect when he provoked two wild dogs?
WSPA ultimately prevails, but not before the death of almost ten dogs in this repeated affront to animals---an affront not only to lower vertebrates but also to human beings.
Some of the worst transgressions against animals go largely unnoticed. The above-recounted story from August 2007 is one of those largely unnoticed demonstrations of cruelty. As heinous as it was, I am surprised by how few people know about it.
It is the contention of this article that human beings are just as affected by animal cruelty as lower vertebrates are. When animals are tortured, we suffer just as much as they do. Below, I will argue this by addressing:
(1) the effects of animal cruelty on aesthetic theory and the usefulness of art in remedying the human condition;
(2) the perversion of what it means to be a celebrity as demonstration of the normative effect animal cruelty has on standards for what is deemed culturally acceptable; and,
(3) animal cruelty as motivating factor in social ills and damage to the environment.
(1) The Effects of Animal Cruelty on Aesthetic Theory and the Usefulness of Art in Remedying the Human Condition:
Vargas Jimenez claimed he starved the dogs in the name of art, but his conduct is an abuse of what art is supposed to be. He undermined what should be the underlying principle of artistic endeavors—the development of the human spirit in service to contextualizing human beings’ suffering as a way to remedy that suffering.
To re-iterate, Vargas Jimenez claims he did what he did in order to draw attention to how uninclined people are to remedying suffering. As a testament to this, the exhibit continued until international pressure halted it. Let us emphasize and re-emphasize that the patrons at the gallery did nothing to stop it. Perhaps, Vargas Jimenez anticipated this, and used these dogs’ suffering to point a finger at not just society’s complacence, but also so-called “art-lovers’” complacence. Put differently, the scene at the gallery was a microcosm for every other space that humans occupy. Thus, he was not providing an answer to suffering. He was merely putting it on display to give it an opportunity to perpetuate itself. The dogs suffered to gratify peoples’ perverse and insatiable appetite for passively observing pain.
Jimenez Vargas continued his career after facing the international music that followed the dog starvation exhibit. Locally in Central America, he won awards. He received a not so negligible degree of international exposure. In light of this, I worry that art is not universally understood as a way to treat the tragedy that is the human condition. If Jimenez Vargas can make a name for himself doing something so heinous, just about anyone can make a name for themselves in the art world and beyond doing just about anything, regardless of how much pain it causes. Is this murderer really an artist? Nicaragua certainly feels that he is.
The limited circle of people I know remember Jimenez Vargas as a reprobate, but any press is good press. The people I know may view him negatively, but he has been inscribed into the annals of time due to his cruelty. Google him, if you doubt me. Pages and pages come up in association with his name.
It seems then that art can be understood not as a way to alleviate human suffering, but as a way to foster that suffering.
(2) The Perversion of What it Means to be a Celebrity as Demonstration of the Normative Effect Animal Cruelty has on Standards for What is Deemed Culturally Acceptable:
Celebrities are used as a mechanism for establishing cultural values. As fetishized as they are in America and elsewhere, what they do is seen as behavior to replicate. Many people want to be like them. So, many people try to act like them. Thus, celebrities drive normative standards for determining what is culturally acceptable.
Vargas Jimenez's behavior is a threat to animals for sure. However, he received accolades and became a celebrity in Central America for his abhorrent exhibit. I worry that this will establish a normative standard that makes animal cruelty culturally acceptable; the Central American art community endorsed him by praising him after all. Insofar as he received a great deal of attention, he became a celebrity. As a result, I worry that animal cruelty will seem less harmful than it is such that Central American artists and even artists elsewhere will feel compelled to re-enact the cruelty he perpetrated in their own art.
Vargas Jimenez has achieved celebrity for the wrong reasons, and that celebrity may influence other peoples' attitude towards animals. The reasons for his celebrity suggest an underlying cultural standard that forgives, accepts, and even celebrates cruelty. However, plenty of people manage to gain celebrity for the wrong reasons, and their behavior is considered a risk insofar as it, while it may be harmful, can serve as an example to other people.
Let's consider the celebrity status ultimately given to the Columbine killers, and how sub cultures of people try to imitate them and perpetrate their own atrocities. Pictures of the killers were on the cover of most major magazines shortly after the mass shooting in Colorado nearly twenty years ago. I have often felt that violence can breed more violence, and I argued that in my article titled, "Abuse and its Consequences," which is also on this blog. In this vein of thinking, in "Psychology of Virginia Tech, Columbine Killers Still Baffles Experts," ABC News journalist Susan Donaldson James emphasizes that Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho cited the Columbine killers as a motivating factor in why he killed 32 students at the university. (This article was published 16 April 2009.) Seung-Hui Cho called the killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris "martyrs" in the video-taped manifesto he released before he went on his killing spree. And these days, the problem of assigning celebrity status to mass murderers remains. It is killers like these that receive praise on platforms like 4Chan and 8Chan. For example, reprobates took to these platforms to applaud the man that committed the Christchurch mosque killings in New Zealand. Furthermore, after other shootings, other reprobates have also taken to these platforms to applaud other killers.
The willingness to translate cruelty into stardom speaks to a sickness that is certainly present in America. It is the motivating factor behind the aforementioned sub-cultures' fetishization of mass murderers. It is a sickness in people that find their entertainment in real world atrocities. For example, in "'Columbiners' and 'TCC': A look at the Columbine-obsessed subculture that exists online," KTVU journalist Kelly Taylor Hayes characterizes this subculture of people as "fans" of Klebold and Harris. (This article was published 18 April 2019.) "Fan" is an entertainment-oriented word, and in the article, she suggests that school shootings like those that occurred in Columbine serve as captivating entertainment for many that live on the violent fringes of our culture.
This sickness indicates a psycho-spiritual pathology that motivates spectatorship. Just think of how drivers on the highway slow down to gawk at car accidents. The severity of the gawkers’ delay is directly equivalent to how many police cars, ambulances, fatalities, and pieces of twisted metal are present in the crash. Likewise, you can probably easily call to mind how everyone at a crime or disaster scene whips out their phones and films the carnage rather than volunteering to correct it. The more graphic that video is, the more likely it is to go viral on social media platforms. Disaster seems to be intoxicating. Perhaps, so many violent blockbusters are blockbusters because they are violent. For example, in "Media and mental health," Indian psychology researchers Kalpana Srivastava, Suprakash Chaudhury, P.S. Bhat, and Swaleha Mujawar show how violence serves as an insatiably consumed form of entertainment that contributes to various forms of mental illness. (This article was published in the January to June 2018 edition of journal "Indian Psychology.") And in "Violent Video Games and Movies Causing Violent Behavior," published in Psychology Today 22 December 2012 and by psychologist Dr. Eugene Beresin, M.D., M.A., Dr. Beresin argues that violence in video games can lead teenagers to act out violently. His article may be about the possible consequences of how teens can consume video games, but it speaks to my argument regarding how violence in entertainment can lead impressionable peoples to engage in cruelty.
Up until this point, we have addressed the ramifications of animal cruelty in art for aesthetic theory, and how perversions of art contribute to normative standards that facilitate celebration of violent behaviors and turn violent criminals into celebrities. But, let us turn to the less abstract consequences of animal cruelty depictions.
(3) Animal Cruelty as Motivating Factor in Social Ills and Damage to the Environment:
It is well-documented that animal cruelty can serve as the basis for many social ills, from further abuse of animals prompted by the notion that, “If one guy does this, then it can’t be that bad!” to the destabilization of eco-systems. (For evidence of the latter, see op-ed Washington Post journalist Helaine Olen's "We’re in danger of killing off the biodiversity that makes our way of life possible," published 7 May 2019 in The Washington Post. For evidence of the former, see "Animal Cruelty: A Serious Crime Leading to Horrific Outcomes," published on cops.usdoj.gov April 2019.) The latter, the destabilization of eco-systems, tends to deal with the extermination of lower vertebrates by man’s rape of the environment for profit. The former, further abuse of animals, tends to deal with domestic abuse-type settings. (For evidence of the economic motivations of corporate environmental destruction, see "Profits v planet: can big business and the environment get along," published in The Guardian 7 September 2018. For evidence of the prevalence of animal abuse in domestic-violence settings, see "Protecting All the Victims of Domestic Violence," published on ASPCA.org 5 March 2015.) However, there are obviously exceptions to both observations.
Jimenez Vargas’ conduct obviously has no far-reaching effect on the environment. However, animal abuse comes in many shapes and sizes. It ranges from the de-forestation that destroys animals’ homes (such as what has occurred in the Amazon for so long) to the remote effects of global warming, an example of which is argued to be the fires engulfing massive parts of Australia. (Again, for evidence of the far-reaching environmental effects of animal abuse in the form of species extermination, see the aforementioned piece by Helaine Olen from The Washington Post. In addition, see "Amazon fish species at risk if fires destroy river habitat," published in National Geographic 13 September 2019 and by environmentalist Stefan Lovgren, for substation of the claim that de-forestation has destroyed many animals' homes in the Amazon, and thus put them at risk of extinction. Furthermore, see "Climate Change Affected Australia’s Wildfires, Scientists Confirm," published in The New York Times 4 March 2020 and by journalist Henry Fountain, for substantiation of the claim that the recent fires in Australia may likely have been prompted by global warming.)
Violence towards animals doesn't just affect the environment. It can serve as motivation for some particularly impressionable children to commit atrocities later in life. Plenty of well-recognized animal rights activists and psychologists will say that many children bearing witness to animal abuse will engage in cruelty towards animals in the future, not only shortly after they are exposed to the crime, but well into the rest of their lives. (Again, for evidence of this, see "Animal Cruelty: A Serious Crime Leading to Horrific Outcomes," published on cops.usdoj.gov.) It is well-known that plenty of serial killers began their violent careers by preying upon animals. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is a good example of this. As a child, he ventured into the forests surrounding his childhood home to torture and kill birds, vermin and the like. And as an adult between 1978 and 1991, he raped, murdered, and dismembered 17 men. (For a study on how many serial killers have preyed upon animals when they were children, see "The link is established between serial killers and animal cruelty," published in The Independent 30 July 2019.)
But Dahmer is just an example among many. (Again, see immediately aforementioned article.)
This is in part what makes Vargas Jimenez so awful. Every time abuse of an animal is celebrated, let alone permitted, those who bear witness to this abuse are at best just de-sensitized. At worst, they will re-enact that abuse later in life, either on other animals or their fellows. (Again, for substantial of this claim, see "Protecting All the Victims of Domestic Violence," published on ASPCA.org 5 March 2015.) Consider the aforementioned Jeffrey Dahmer. Likewise, every time a lobbyist group strong-arms an environmental regulatory agency into loosening regulations on environmentally problematic business practices how permissive it is to rape the environment and thereby abuse animals grows more acute and is made more likely to continue into perpetuity. (For evidence of this, see "A running list of how President Trump is changing environmental policy," published in National Geographic 3 May 2019.)
As ethicist Peter Singer has said, animals have navigated a torturous landscape since God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the earth.” The consequences of attitudes towards animals found in early Judeo-Christianity are beyond the scope of this article, but it is perhaps the case that the propensity to abuse animals is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It is found in the earliest parts of The Bible after all. Vargas Jimenez’s exhibit is just another tragic chapter in the history of lower vertebrates.