Opportunistic use of phrases and imagery can come across as insensitive and insulting
MINNEAPOLIS, PHOENIX, NEW YORK CITY––“It is striking to me,” wrote Mike Troutman in sharing with friends his first-hand account of recent events in Minneapolis, “how three central challenges of our time––racist policing, COVID-19 and the climate crisis––all share the cry: ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Troutman might have added to the list one of the central challenges for animal advocacy. Animal advocates around the world almost overnight co-opted the phrase “I can’t breathe,” just as many animal advocates earlier turned the phrase “Black lives matter” into “Black dogs matter,” and other phrases of similar meaning, even before there was an organization called Black Lives Matter.
In either instance, few people concerned about either animal rights or human rights would disagree that the specific causes in which animal advocates have used “I can’t breathe” and “Black lives matter” are worth raising hell about, from forcing animals to inhale tobacco smoke and gassing animals by way of “euthanasia”, to trying to rehome more hard-to-place black dogs and cats.
The insensitivity of co-opting phrases used by people fighting for their lives, however, should not elude any caring person, particularly when those phrases belonged originally to people with a history of being dehumanized, described as animals, and often treated worse than dogs and cats, sometimes worse than livestock.
George Floyd, 46, of Minneapolis, suffocated on May 25, 2020 by police officer Derek Chauvin, had not even been buried when the New Zealand Anti-Rodeo Coalition posted to Facebook an image of a black calf being roped, headlined “I can’t breathe,” with the explanatory words, “This poor boy was strangled twice.”
“We have to take it to the highest level”
Anyone anywhere aware enough of the George Floyd killing to reference “I can’t breathe” should also be aware of the historically frequent racist use of the word “boy” to belittle black men.
Responded the New Zealand Anti-Rodeo Coalition to criticism, “If anything good is to come from these evils, then we have to take it to the highest level in such a way that will get their attention and get the wheels in motion to engage change.”
Many animal advocates might accept that argument, but to humans trying to escape being perceived and treated like a sub-human species, it can come across much like a metaphorical knee to the back of the neck; as just another way of holding black people down by putting them on the same level as animals.
Rats, pigs, dogs, boys, & refuse
Of course, as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder Ingrid Newkirk famously put it, “In their capacity to suffer pain, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
All, as Newkirk pointed out, have essentially the same central nervous system, and for that reason have essentially the same moral claim, under the Golden Rule, that one should do to others as one would be done by, to not be tortured.
As Newkirk also said, “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment.”
And neither are other people, including those whose ancestors were bought and sold at auction like livestock.
In our capacity to suffer humiliation and recognize oppression, meanwhile, humans are very different from animals. A rat or a pig or a dog may be delighted to eat refuse, for instance, if the refuse is easily accessed and there is enough of it.
A human will be aware that it is refuse, and that a person made to subsist on refuse is being relegated to the status of a rat, pig, or dog, none of whom are accorded human rights.
Two degrees of separation
Continued Troutman, “We live just six blocks from where George Floyd was murdered by police on Memorial Day. One of my friends from church worked at the Cup Foods convenience store,” where Floyd allegedly tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill, “and knew Mr. Floyd as a customer. So not only do I live near the murder scene, but I am in a close two degrees of separation from him in my friend network.”
Troutman and his wife of 42 years, Amy Blumenshine, are both lifelong activists on behalf of the environment, against hunger, and for peace and social justice.
Troutman and Blumenshine attended a memorial service for Floyd, who was held down by two other police officers as Chauvin asphyxiated him. Another police officer kept bystanders from intervening.
What if George Floyd had been a Labrador retriever?
“A local pastor noted that she was sure that if Officer Chauvin had had his foot choking the life out of a black Labrador retriever for over eight minutes, instead of a black man, one of the other officers would have intervened,” Troutman wrote.
American SPCA founder Henry Bergh and attorney Elbridge T. Gerry in 1877 famously invoked animal protection law to rescue an abused child named Mary Ellen Wilson, with the words that if the child had no protection under the law as a human being, she could at least be protected to the same extent as an animal.
The court agreed. If an animal must not be abused or terrorized, a child must not be abused or terrorized either.
Chauvin is now charged with second degree murder.
None of the three other police officers on the scene, all now charged as accessories to second degree murder, recognized even the obligation to respond to Floyd as a suffering animal, if not as a human only superficially differing from themselves.
Mickey the pit bull
This was scarcely a unique inversion of moral logic. Similar examples reach ANIMALS 24-7 almost every day, among which few have been more blatant than the six-year saga of Mickey the pit bull, still evolving in Phoenix, Arizona.
Mickey, who had reportedly killed a puppy several weeks earlier, on February 20, 2014 attacked four-year-old Kevin Vincente without warning or provocation. Mickey seized Kevin Vincente by the face and shook him despite the immediate intervention of Vincente’s mother and several other adults.
Under normal circumstances, Mickey would have been quarantined for ten days to ensure that he was not rabid, and would then have been euthanized, having twice demonstrated vicious behavior.
But, at urging of pit bull advocates around the world, Maricopa County sheriff Joseph Arpaio intervened to save Mickey.
“Local racists loved it”
Summarized Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times, “The dog was white, the boy was brown. Local racists loved it.”
Eventually Arpaio donated $2,500 and an assortment of toys to the 4-year-old victim, but only after the victim and his mother were viciously maligned by Mickey defenders, who wrongly alleged that the victim had taken a bone from the chained pit bull (no bone was found at the scene) and that the victim’s mother was not present.
Pit bull advocates donated many times more money to save Mickey than was donated to help Kevin Vincente, who is still undergoing plastic surgeries to try to restore him to normal appearance.
Arpaio meanwhile persuaded a judge to let him keep Mickey at one of the Maricopa County jail animal shelters, after defanging and castration, and set up a web camera to allow Mickey fans to monitor his care.
Eventually Mickey, now elderly as pit bulls go, developed terminal cancer. His advocates petitioned for him to be released from the jail animal shelter.
On June 12, 2020, attorney John Schill announced, “The aggressive dog petition against Mickey has been dismissed by court order. Mickey is no longer considered vicious! Mickey no longer has any restrictions placed on him that a normal dog would not have!”
Kevin Vincente, however, continues to serve a life sentence to disfigurement and––along with his mother––ongoing online abuse from Mickey fans.
Arpaio, now 88, has been an animal advocacy celebrity and occasional keynote speaker at animal advocacy conferences since 1999, when he converted a former jail into a shelter for animals seized from suspects in cruelty cases and the pets of victims of domestic violence who sought shelters in facilities that did not accept pets.
After that initiative won public approval, Arpaio in January 2005 reassigned four deputies and four civilian investigators to handle animal abuse cases full-time, and authorized the county Animal Cruelty Prevention Unit to immediately arrest and jail suspects.
Arpaio later in 2005 converted part of another jail into an overflow shelter for dogs and cats who might otherwise have been killed due to short space at the at overcrowded county animal shelters.
These and many other well-publicized pro-animal actions and statements burnished Arpaio’s reputation, even as he racked up a record of police misconduct that the U.S. Department of Justice eventually identified as part of the most blatant pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history.
On Arpaio’s record are multiple instances of abuse of power; misuse of funds; failure to investigate sex crimes, including against children; criminal negligence; abuse of suspects in custody; improper clearance of cases; destruction of records; unlawful enforcement of immigration laws; and election law violations.
None of this was any secret as Arpaio and Maricopa County lost at least 11 related lawsuits, while the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department was placed under Federal court supervision.
Animal advocacy groups have yet to distance themselves
Yet Arpaio remained an animal advocacy celebrity even after his 2017 conviction for criminal contempt of court in continuing to detain Spanish-speaking people as suspected illegal immigrants, irrespective of any other evidence.
U.S. President Donald Trump pardoned Arpaio two months later, but U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton did not vacate the conviction. Bolton ruled that while the pardon relieved Arpaio of the burden of punishment, it did not change the facts of his crime.
The Humane Society of the U.S., under former president Wayne Pacelle (2004-2018) especially lionized Arpaio. HSUS and Pacelle have yet to distance themselves from Arpaio.
Others who have yet to distance themselves persuasively from Arpaio include Steve Dale of PetWorld, the Best Friends Animal Society, the Helen Woodward Animal Center, and a legion of other animal advocates and organizations, especially those engaged in pit bull advocacy, who effusively and often praised Arpaio. Some continue to praise him.
What sort of message does this send to any person of color?
What does idolizing a racist––a criminally convicted racist, no less––tell persons of color who are themselves animal advocates, like Christian Cooper, 57, of the Lower East Side in New York City?
Reported Sarah Maslin Nir of The New York Times, “Christian Cooper began his Memorial Day like most of his May mornings, searching for Blackburnian warblers, scarlet tanagers and other songbirds that wing their way into Central Park.” Cooper bicycled three miles to the semi-wild section of the park, the Ramble, which is widely believed to be the best birding location in the city.
“Around the same time,” Nir wrote, “Amy Cooper, 40, who is not related to Christian Cooper, left her apartment on the Upper West Side with her dog, Henry, a blond cocker spaniel, whose romps around the city she chronicled on a dedicated Instagram account.
Just adopting a “rescue dog” does not make a person good
“Just before 8 a.m.,” Nir continued, “Christian Cooper was startled from his quiet birding by Amy Cooper, who was loudly calling after her dog, he said. He asked her to leash Henry, as the park rules required. She refused.
“They exchanged words,” Nir summarized, “and as he recorded on his phone, she threatened to report that “an African American man is threatening my life,” a false accusation. Then she called 911.”
As Amy Cooper demonstrated, one is not a good person simply because one adopts a “rescue dog.”
Neither is one a good person for doing something with good intentions that nonetheless hurts others through indifference to the greater consequences and implications of the action.
Bait & switch
Humane societies eager to rehome hard-to-place black dogs and cats have at least since 1996 published variations of an advertisement opening, in the most often cited form, “Single black female seeks male companionship, ethnicity unimportant. I’m a very good girl who loves to play.”
The telephone number of the humane society placing the ad follows.
Such bait-and-switch ads may have helped to save the lives of some black animals, though this is not actually documented.
But they have also helped to amplify and perpetuate stereotypes about black women.
Those ads are far fewer now than they once were, but that they ever circulated at all should be a continuing embarrassment to a cause which has already long been conspicuous for failing to hire, train, and promote black leadership, even in overwhelmingly black communities.