Why America’s collective outrage over the actions of Michael Vick, Walter Palmer and Rebecca Francis is too convenient to be taken seriously.
By Jesse Mechanic
As the NFL season begins to hit its stride, we must once again prepare ourselves for the moments of off-field controversy that will barge in, dominate headlines for a week or so and subtly slide back into the recesses from which they came. And while there are a number of players whose crimes have been far more egregious, Michael Vick—now thrust into the spotlight once again—remains one of the most hated figures in the sport. Compound the unceasing vitriol surrounding Vick with the recent outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion and the controversy over the morbid Instagram account of big game hunter Rebecca Francis, and it seems as though, as a nation, America deeply cares about animals and animal rights. And we do. We do care about animals being killed. It makes us really, really angry—when it’s convenient.
“Vick? The dog guy, right? I despise him.”
-My friend (while eating an overstuffed turkey BLT)
The three of these events that are: Michael Vick funding and taking part in a dog-fighting ring and killing eight dogs himself, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer illegally hunting and killing a protected Lion, and hunter Rebecca Francis posting pictures of herself next to a cadre of dead, majestic wildlife she killed, are all rather brutal acts that deserve to be ridiculed in some capacity. And they have been. A portion of the blinding hatred exhibited towards these three has been from animal rights groups, which makes sense. But much of the hate derives from a far more pedestrian swath, consisting of a large section of the general American public. An American public that is highly selective in the animal abuses we choose to care about. We cannot seem to bare the sight of a dog/lion/giraffe carcass—it boils our blood, but the way the animals we eat are treated doesn’t seem to bother us much at all. So this particular brand of outrage over the actions of these three individuals, while stemming from the heart and of good intention, is just a bit too convenient and myopic to stand on its own as a pillar or even really, as a point. This keyboard activism is akin to being incensed that one’s neighbor doesn’t recycle while not bating an eyelash about a corporation dumping billions of gallons of waste into the Ocean.
Most Americans are certainly aware that the actions and processes that bring much of the meat to our masticating mandibles are generally far worse and exponentially more impactful than what Michael Vick did to his dogs, and the other two did to their targets. Despite this, most of us directly feed more money into this system, seemingly having no issues with the general process of billions of animals being tortured, disfigured and killed. This specific brand of American myopia is common practice—we tend to get up in arms over small things and ignore the overarching issues—it’s easier that way.
With the issue of animal rights though, it’s clearly a connection thing. We have formed connections with the animals we domesticate and with the ones we admire for their size and beauty—and musical chops, courtesy of Disney. Perhaps the reason why our connection to farm animals is so easily severed is simply that we don’t know them. And perhaps we are able to casually disassociate our food from its origin because we don’t see the process. It’s not a pig, it’s just bacon. Bacon is delicious. Bacon was never a pig with a life and a personality; for most, it seems it was never anything more or less then what it exists as on a plate…food.
We’ve never been told lion’s are delicious; we’ve been told they’re noble creatures that must be protected and thus, we act accordingly. And yes, these animals are beautiful, and many of them are endangered so when they are killed we all should be up in arms—we should be outraged. But we should also be outraged about the conditions and common practices of slaughterhouses around the world that on average kill an estimated 56 billion animals each year. What happens in many slaughterhouses on a daily basis would be flat-out revolting to most of us if we paid attention to it, but our collective moral antennae does not seem to budge for pigs, cows, chickens, goats, lambs et al. Is it simply that as Americans we are so slavishly dependent on routine, consistency and the undying preservation of the status quo to think objectively? This is all fairly well-treaded ground, but the motives behind this specific, persnickety brand of pitchforking should be examined more thoroughly, or at the very least we should be aware of the hypocrisy of it. Separating the food we consume from its origin as a living, breathing animal enables us to not have to think about what we are consuming, or where it came from. And it’s a delusion that prohibits us from being able make truly poignant statements regarding animal rights.
Of course, the actions of the three people in question are different from slaughterhouse animal abuse. A slaughterhouse is using the animals for food, and—sans the claims of Rebecca Francis—these three were not. Vick was forcing the animals to fight, and when they did not perform up to his standards, he would abuse or kill them—in horrendously inhumane ways. Dr.Palmer illegally lured Cecil the lion out of his protected Hwange Game Reserve, shot him with a bow and proceeded to stalk the animal for over 40 hours until finally killing him with a rifle, skinning and beheading him. And Francis seems to simply be an attention-seeking hunter with a penchant for publicly displaying the animals she’s killed. So yes, the scenarios are different, but the endgame should really have no bearing on the act. If an animal is mistreated and killed for food or out of punishment, it does not change—or justify—the abuse perpetrated on the animal. The animal doesn’t care about the reasoning behind the treatment and neither should we. The treatment needs be considered as a separate entity to everything else.
Many say the inhumane practices of a great number of our slaughterhouses are the only way to produce enough meat to meet the massive demand in the US. If this is true—which in some ways, it may be—we need to look at our insanely high levels of meat consumption as a systemic problem. According to stats from The Earth Policy Institute, in 2012 -the most recent numbers- the average American consumed 270.7lbs of meat, with the world average for 2012 being 102.5lbs. That is a glaring disparity; Americans ingest over two and a half times more meat than the average human. If animals need to be disfigured and violently mis-treated to fit our needs, doesn’t that mean something is wrong?
My friend, gleefully enjoying his overflowing turkey BLT while saying how disgusted he is about animals being abused, seems to fit all the parameters for satire. The money paid for that sandwich is directly supporting an industry that does far more harm to animals than Michael Vick ever could. But I suppose we are all guilty in some capacity of letting habit and aesthetics dictate the way we treat living things. In a previous apartment I was known to commit roach genocide with a toothy smile while occasionally going to great lengths to preserve the life of a lady bug or cricket. But this doesn’t mean we should be complacent in our hypocrisy and move on with our lives—we can do better than this.
Ignorance is bliss is an embarrassingly clichéd platitude; but it applies. Our hearts, as little as we would like to believe it, are agents of convenience. We tend to collectively choose issues that are easy to get behind, issues that allow us to be armchair activists. I suppose this selective, unobtrusive outrage is still far better than no outrage at all, but it’s far too thin.
This is not meant as some patronizing plea for vegetarianism, or a call to arms for militant vegans; this is more of a plea for rationalism—a wholly unattainable rationalism, perhaps, but still something worth striving for.
If news of someone killing dogs/lions/giraffes makes our collective heart pulse that achy pulse that occurs when empathy has entered its walls, then the quotidian practice of livestock being mistreated and killed should elicit a similar pulse. And since we are not in full control of the cerebral mechanism that produces our intermittent pulses of empathy, we need to be more pro-active in our pursuit of truth.
We can do better than this.