Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Of Film Footage and Animals

I'll never forget my family's first video camera. My dad purchased it 30 years ago from an electronics store in Salt Lake City called Stokes Brothers. When I got that thing, I went around shooting movies everywhere: in the backyard; at family picnics; in the basement rec room. You name it, I shot videos. Now I look back and watch them and they're documents of a happy time - of laughter, of family getting together, of memorable moments, of days long past but never forgotten.

Video cameras - or camcorders or movie cameras or whatever they're referred to in the parlance of the times - have been an extraordinary invention, used to capture histories both personal and on a grand scale. The 20th Century was the first "filmed" century - cameras existed from one end of the century to the other - and the film footage we have of those one hundred years is nothing short of incredible. Some of it, such as the 1945 Victory in Europe celebrations across America or the 1969 moon landing are incredibly inspiring. Other films, such as war footage, or the shooting of a Viet Cong prisoner during the 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam, or the '89 Tiananmen Square protests, or the Rodney King beating, or the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

And then there is the issue of animals and videos. What will historians say 100 years from now about the movies we shot of animals? How will the ways in which we film animals be remembered?

The answer to that question depends on the films of animals that survive our times. Certainly, Hollywood has churned out lots of sentimental films, especially movies about dogs such as Lassie Come Home (1943) and Marley and Me (2008). Hollywood films about other species of animals also abound, including horses (The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit), cats (That Darn Cat, Harry and Tonto), pigs (Charlotte's Web, Babe). The list goes on and on.

But I'm not really talking about Hollywood films here. I'm talking about films used by animal rights activists that depict the treatment of animals in our society, often showing a darker side to how human beings interact with animals.

Example 1: Recently, there were two big developments around the issue of filmed animal footage that are worth noting. The first occurred on April 22 when U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake in Texas decided that so-called "animal crush videos" - showing the torture and killing of animals - are protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Judge Lake dismissed charges against Ashley Nicole Richards and Brent Justice, who allegedly made films showing all kinds of animals - chickens, puppies, mice and kittens - being tortured to death. Judge Lake conceded "the acts depicted in animal crush videos are disturbing and horrid," yet they are "still considered protected speech."(Source)

Example 2: Salt Lake City, Utah. My hometown. In February, Amy Meyer, standing on public property, used the video camera on her cell phone to film the brutal treatment of cows at a slaughterhouse in Draper Utah. She was charged for committing a crime under Utah's new Ag-Gag laws. Thankfully, the case was dismissed when Meyer received a lot of nationwide attention. At the time she was charged, in late April, Meyer issued the following statement:

I visited the Smith Meatpacking Slaughterhouse in Draper, Utah because I have heard numerous reports that any bystander standing on the public thoroughfare could witness the horror of cows struggling for their lives as they were led to their violent deaths. What I saw was upsetting, to say the least. Cows being led inside the building struggled to turn around once they smelled and heard the misery that awaited them inside. I saw piles of horns scattered around the property and flesh being spewed from a chute on the side of the building. I also witnessed what I believe to be a clear act of cruelty to animals – a live cow who appeared to be sick or injured being carried away from the building in a tractor, as though she were nothing more than rubble. At all times while I documented this cruelty, I remained on public property. I never once crossed the barbed wire fence that exists to demarcate private and public property. I told this to the police who were on the scene.  I am shocked and disappointed that I am being prosecuted by Draper City simply for standing on public property and documenting horrific animal abuse while those who perpetrated these acts are free to continue maiming and killing animals. It is my understanding that the Mayor of Draper co-owns this slaughterhouse.  
Amy Meyer (Source)

I am convinced the only reason Amy Meyer's case was dismissed was because she was getting lots of nationwide attention. Had she been sentenced to jail time, she would have become a martyr for the anti-Ag-Gag Movement.

But take a good look at these two cases. One in Texas, the other in Utah. What do they say about our species? Taken together, they are a damning indictment of the human race. On the one hand, filming the torture of animals for some sort of perverse thrill or pleasure is protected under the United States Constitution. On the other hand, filming the horrific treatment of animals in slaughterhouses and factory farms is prohibited by Ag-Gag laws, which - shockingly - are not regarded as violations of the First Amendment.

There are dangerous and potentially very horrifying precedents being set here. Both of them show a callous - one might even use the word "psychotic" or "evil" - disregard for the well being of animals. The message that these cases convey is abundantly clear: The lives of animals do not matter. Worse, in destroying their lives, it is perfectly acceptable to torture them to death in unbelievably horrific ways, the way a serial killer might torture a human being to death. If that torture is being captured on film to educate and mobilize people to act to change this treatment, then filming is banned. By contrast, if that torture is being filmed to satisfy the twisted fetish of sick, perverted, psychotic individuals, then filming such scenes is perfectly acceptable.

The time has come to get militant about animal rights. No more fucking around (excuse the foul language). War has been declared, not by animal rights activists, but by the institutions that are put in place to justify, sanction and use coercion to maintain the mass murder of these beings. Make no mistake: We are living in times that will be remembered in history books as the Dark Ages for Animals.

But this does not need to be the case. Imagine creating the kind of society where the videos and films we shoot of animals show beings living happy, blissful lives. Such videos and films do exist! Look at any film shot inside of a farm sanctuary and you'll see happy animals, living the way animals are meant to live. Leave it to human beings, who have shown us the worst sort of depravity imaginable, to also teach us the noblest ways imaginable to treat our fellow sentient beings.

Therein lies the contradictions, the paradoxes, of our species. We are the most brutal and violent of all animals, yet we have the potential within us to be the kindest and gentlest of all animals. Remember when you were five or six or seven or eight, and you used to visit the petting zoo, and you loved animals and you could never dream of hurting these wonderful personalities?

We need to reclaim that beauty and that innocence. The price of not reclaiming it was revealed in late April, when a judge ruled that filming torture for pleasure was OK, while a few states over, around the same time, a city laid criminal charges against a heroic individual filming animal torture in order to end it.

What does this say about our species?


  1. I really want to see lots of pigs.

  2. You've accurately identified the two extreme points that we seem to be setting out for ourselves in recording our behavior toward Earthlings outside of ourselves. We can depict any horror inflicted on them if it is for fun but we can't show horrors inflicted on them if it is for purposes of objecting to or decrying those atrocities.

    If the stakes weren't so important and the misery weren't so real it would be funny. I really don't think anyone can look at it straight on and not recognize that it is crazy and sick. Publicly and officially sanctioned exhibitions of sickness...eerily reminiscent, I think, of the "Sickness Unto Death" touched upon in Kierkegaard's book.

    We seem to be trying to deny that we...all of us...are the children of Earth, a product of nature. Your blog title says it best, We're All Animals, but that truth seems to be repellant to many if not most of us. And these "laws" are our denial made real. It's as if we think that if we deny reality extremely enough or with enough force or persistence then reality will conform to our delusion(s).

    We're (we being us human animals) trying to deny truth (our kinship with all animals) by destroying them...somehow if we can treat our kin badly enough...or annihilate them...then that will somehow prove we aren't like them or that they aren't our relatives.

    The most awful and egregious behaviors are driven by the denial of reality and that is nowhere more apparent than in the implications of these two instances of "laws".

    This sickness has manifested itself again and again. It shows it's face in racist behaviors, in sexist behaviors and in anti-gay behaviors...on and on and on...and now in speciesist driven atrocity sanctioning. When we want so terribly to deny aspects of ourselves, woe be unto those who manifest clearly those aspects we attempt to deny. They will be the victims of the most vicious and ugly and destructive behaviors we have at our command.

    It is a struggle we have with ourselves and the tragedy is that the innocent are victimized and become "collateral damage". It is indeed a war, an internal civil war of our denial of our kinship with all animals, made manifest in our attack on the right to exist (unmolested) for those other animals. Even unto the point of what is legally sanctioned to be made visible about this war.

    Thank you for this post, Andrew.