What should the penalty be for wantonly abusing a shark for ego and social media giggles? We’re about to find out:
Nearly five months after video surfaced on social media of a shark being dragged by a speeding boat, three men are facing animal abuse charges as a result of the investigation sparked by public outrage.
Robert Lee “Bo” Benac, 28, Michael Wenzel, 21, and Spencer Heintz, 23, have each been charged with two counts of aggravated animal cruelty, a third-degree felony, according to a press release from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Tuesday. Benac and Wenzel also face one count of illegal method of take of a shark, a second-degree misdemeanor.
If ever there was a moment to draw a clear, bright line regarding animal cruelty, and to set an example that says abusing sharks will come with (severe) consequences, this is it. Hope they throw the book at them and win convictions that count.
It’s a profoundly important question. I tend do go with the simple explanation that we can, we have retrograde beliefs about the moral consideration we should give animals, and doing so often yields profit or profits human in some way (allowing them, for example, to go around saying “MMMM. Bacon.”).
The focus of this paper is to explore how cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s claim that human behavior is largely motivated by fear of death may explain important aspects of our relationship with nonhuman animals. Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggests that when we humans are reminded of our personal mortality, we tend to deny our biological identity or creatureliness and distance ourselves from the other animals, since they remind us of our own mortal nature. In support of this, an abundance of peer-reviewed experimental literature shows that reminders of our own mortality create a strong psychological need to proclaim that “I am not an animal.” We contend that the denial of death is an important factor in driving how and why our relationships with other animals are fundamentally exploitive and harmful. Even though today there are more animal advocacy and protection organizations than ever, the situation for nonhuman animals continues to deteriorate (e.g. more factory farming, mass extinction of wildlife species, and ocean life under severe stress). We also suggest that developing a new and more appropriate relationship with the natural world would be a key factor in resolving the question that Becker was never able to answer: How can we deal with the existential anxiety that is engendered by the awareness of our own mortality?
Got it? Michael Mountain, in a blog post, explains further, in an effort to better understand whether this dynamic can help explain the disastrous and destructive trajectory of the human race:
Why are we doing this? Why have we created a way of living that’s destroying the only home we have and bringing on a mass extinction that will most likely consume us, too? And all in the name of “progress.” Why can’t we stop?
Those are the questions Dr. Lori Marino and I set out to answer in a paper that will be published in March in the journal Anthrozoos, but is already fast-tracked online here. (You need a subscription to Anthrozoos to access the full text.)
The paper, entitled “Denial of Death and the Relationship between Humans and Other Animals”, explores the psychology of how and why we humans feel compelled to treat our fellow animals as commodities and resources – and the whole natural world as our property.
The reason lies at the core of the human condition. It’s probably best summed up by the French author Albert Camus, who wrote:
“Humans are the only creatures who don’t want to be what they are.”
And what we absolutely don’t want to be is an animal.
Our central problem, as humans, is that as much as we reach for the stars and create profoundly beautiful works of art, we cannot escape the knowledge that, just like all the other animals, we are destined to die, go into the ground, and become food for worms.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote that the awareness we humans have of our personal mortality creates a level of anxiety that drives much of our behavior. Certainly other animals experience bursts of terror in the face of death, but for us humans it’s a lifelong awareness, and one that brings about a chronic level of anxiety.
And so, to alleviate the anxiety we feel over our animal nature, we try to separate ourselves from our fellow animals and to exert control over the natural world. We tell ourselves that we’re superior to them and that they exist for our benefit. We treat them as commodities and resources, use them as biomedical “models” or “systems” in research, and force them to perform for our entertainment.
I personally am comfortable with my animal nature (though that doesn’t mean I don’t try to better understand it and resist its more aggressive tendencies). And I experience joy at the connectedness I feel with regard to other creatures.
That connection is where true empathy comes from, and is the foundation of the idea that while we may be more powerful than other species our power should not be mistaken for moral superiority or the right of dominion. In fact, our power to dominate (and destroy) should be the moral basis for greater consideration and care for other species. We should be stewards, not exploiters. But since that is clearly not a view that our global culture accepts or promotes, I am glad that Lori Marino and Michael Mountain are making a bold intellectual bid to explain why.
The agriculture industry is waging an international campaign to create a media blackout. In response to a series of investigations by animal-welfare groups that has resulted in criminal prosecutions and consumer outrage, the industry is promoting new “ag-gag” laws that make it illegal to photograph factory farms and slaughterhouses. About half a dozen US states currently have these laws, and now this censorship model is being adopted internationally.
So how should journalists respond to investigative methods and sources being criminalised? Just as the best response to governments banning books is to encourage reading them, the best response to banning photographs is to encourage more photography. It’s time for journalists to send in the drones.
The factory farm lobby is already fighting the idea and trying to extend ag-gag prohibitions to the airspace over big farms, a push given some urgency after a Texas drone hobbyist inadvertently recorded a tide of blood flowing from a slaughterhouse into a nearby river (the slaughterhouse was shut down).
Naturally, that only makes Potter all the more determined to open up a top-down view of the world of factory farms. And he is winning lots of support. His Kickstarter campaign seeking $35,000 to fund a drone fleet hit its funding goal in just five days, and donations eventually topped $75,000.
I have never been a fan of drones, whether they are used as an anti-terrorist weapon, as an annoying and privacy-invading thrill for hobbyists, as a tool of law enforcement, or to further invade the lives of wild animals. But it has to be said that there are some uses that are quite inspired (anti-poaching, for example), and this is definitely one of them.
Coming soon to a factory farm near you: anti-drone missile batteries?
“No animals were harmed.” That’s the stamp of approval that is supposed to assuage any doubts or qualms moviegoers might have about the use of animals in films. Thanks to this powerful investigative report in The Hollywood Reporter (which includes some pretty brutal pics), you now know not to believe it (if you ever did):
A THR investigation has found that, unbeknownst to the public, these incidents on Hollywood’s most prominent productions are but two of the troubling cases of animal injury and death that directly call into question the 136-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit’s assertion that “No Animals Were Harmed” on productions it monitors. Alarmingly, it turns out that audiences reassured by the organization’s famous disclaimer should not necessarily assume it is true. In fact, the AHA (American Humane Association) has awarded its “No Animals Were Harmed” credit to films and TV shows on which animals were injured during production. It justifies this on the grounds that the animals weren’t intentionally harmed or the incidents occurred while cameras weren’t rolling.
The full scope of animal injuries and deaths in entertainment productions cannot be known. But in multiple cases examined by THR, the AHA has not lived up to its professed role as stalwart defenders of animals — who, unlike their human counterparts, didn’t themselves sign up for such work. While the four horse deaths on HBO’s Luck made headlines last year, there are many extraordinary incidents that never bubble up to make news.
A Husky dog was punched repeatedly in its diaphragm on Disney’s 2006 Antarctic sledding movie Eight Below, starring Paul Walker, and a chipmunk was fatally squashed in Paramount’s 2006 Matthew McConaughey-Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy Failure to Launch. In 2003, the AHA chose not to publicly speak of the dozens of dead fish and squid that washed up on shore over four days during the filming of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Crewmembers had taken no precautions to protect marine life when they set off special-effects explosions in the ocean, according to the AHA rep on set.
And the list goes on: An elderly giraffe died on Sony’s 2011 Zookeeper set and dogs suffering from bloat and cancer died during the production of New Regency’s Marmaduke and The Weinstein Co.’s Our Idiot Brother, respectively (an AHA spokesman confirms the dogs had bloat and says the cancer “was not work-related”). In March, a 5-foot-long shark died after being placed in a small inflatable pool during a Kmart commercial shoot in Van Nuys.
All of these productions had AHA monitors on set.
Just one more facet of the entertainment and animals problem.
Since I first started reporting on Tilikum, SeaWorld and orcas in captivity, there have been efforts to delegitimize the former SeaWorld trainers who had the courage to step forward and talk openly about the reality at SeaWorld. They were disgruntled, they were fired, they weren’t experienced and knowledgeable, they were simply seeking 15 minutes of fame. Every possible charge was leveled against them in response to their criticisms of SeaWorld’s practices, in the hopes that the public would not listen to what they were saying about the lives of killer whales in captivity, which is, after all, the core issue. Here is an early rebuttal to those attacks.
Now a new and even more explosive charge has been thrown into the debate swirling around Blackfish, the documentary which has brought the issue of killer whale captivity before a global audience: that one of the trainers in the film was fired from SeaWorld for intentionally abusing an animal.
As far as I can tell, the charge was first aired at the recent International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) conference in Las Vegas (at a session critiquing Blackfish). The below, for example, comes from one account of the IMATA conference (love the session on penguin media training):
Abusing an animal is the worst charge that could be leveled against anyone who cares about animals, and since that casual and sly slander has been happily bounced around on social media without much scrutiny, how about we look at the, you know, facts.
The accusation involves Dean Gomersall, who worked at SeaWorld from 1987 to 1994. In 1994 Gomersall was working at the Sea Lion and Otter Stadium (after running the Whale and Dolphin stadium). One day he was doing a training session with two small-clawed river otters, called Trixie and Bubba. The session involved sending the two otters to a target, and then calling one to the exit gate (the other was supposed to remain on the target). No big deal, except Trixie was in heat. Gomersall could call Bubba to the gate without any problem, while Trixie remained in the enclosure, on the target. But if he called Trixie to the gate, Bubba would not stay on the target, and would not let her go. With the session going poorly, Gomersall took a break, and left to go work with some other animals. Before he did, he slid down the plastic slider on the exit gate, which was used to keep the otters from messing with any other otters on the other side of the gate.
Fifteen minutes later he returned, opened the gate, and saw blood all over the floor of the enclosure. As best Gomersall could figure, Bubba must have stuck his nose under the gate as Gomersall was dropping the slider down, and the slider cut Bubba’s nose (Gomersall hadn’t noticed anything because you can’t see through the slider). He immediately called for help and Bubba was treated. The next day, Gomersall was called in by management and told he was being fired for injuring an animal and waiting 15 minutes before telling anyone.
Gomersall says he was not surprised when management twisted the facts (accusing him of knowing the otter was injured and waiting before telling anyone; “Why would I do that?” Gomersall says) to create a firing offense. He knew he was already under scrutiny because had been complaining persistently about the misuse and living conditions of a Pacific Walrus called Garfield, a troubled (and potentially dangerous) animal who would cooperate with almost no one other than Gomersall, and as a result was treated harshly. In addition, Gomersall had refused a request to work at Shamu Stadium, because he had become uncomfortable with the idea of killer whale captivity and did not want to work with captive killer whales.
After being fired, Gomersall was escorted out of SeaWord’s Orlando park by Robin Friday, who had a long and successful career as a trainer and manager with SeaWorld. He knew something was off. “Dean you are getting really screwed here,” he said, according to Gomersall. “I don’t know what the hell happened. But if I ever go somewhere else I would hire you in a heartbeat.”
Gomersall was angry at the way in which SeaWorld had misconstrued what happened to drum up a firing charge. But when he looks back now he is glad that SeaWorld forced him to walk a different path. “It ended up being the greatest day in my life because it changed the way I think about everything,” he says. “Lots of trainers walk away on their own. I wish i had done that.”
Since SeaWorld Gomersall has gone on to work in marine mammal rescue in southern California. Does that sort of commitment to helping animals seem consistent with the charge of animal abuser?
Using a legal cudgel to go after critics wasn’t entirely a new tactic for agribusiness. PETA first began undercover investigations around 1981—getting video of rhesus monkeys being vivisected in a Maryland medical research lab by posing as employees—and a few legislatures responded by enacting laws to protect animal research from exposés. (Only Kansas had the foresight to expand its law to cover “livestock and domestic animals.”) Then, in 1992, when two ABC PrimeTime Live reporters shot undercover video of Food Lion workers in the Carolinas repackaging spoiled meat, Food Lion sued—not for libel, since the tapes spoke for themselves, but for fraud and trespass, because the reporters had submitted false information on their job applications. (A jury awarded $5.5 million, but an appeals court reduced it to just $2.) In 1996, at the height of the mad cow scare, the Texas Beef Group launched a two-year lawsuit against Oprah Winfreyover an episode that questioned the safety of hamburger. Recently, not only has the rhetoric heated up, but so has the coordinated legislative effort. Deeply invested in industrywide methods that a growing number of consumers find distasteful or even cruel, agribusiness has united in making sure that prying eyes literally don’t see how the sausage is made.
“If you think this is an animal welfare issue, you have missed the mark,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, who served as a representative for the whistleblowers who tipped off ABC in the Food Lion case. “This is a bigger, broader issue.” She likened activist videos to airplane black-box recorders—evidence for investigators to deconstruct and find wrongdoing. Ag gag laws, she said, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistleblowing.” In short, “you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.”
Exactly. This is a story about animal welfare AND the first Amendment, AND democracy itself. And along the way it makes clear that abuse is both rampant and the inevitable consequence of the public lust for abundant and cheap meat.
It is hard to read this story and not come to a simple conclusion: the only ethical choice is to stop eating meat.
For anyone who thinks that taking hidden cameras into factory farms is all about fund-raising and publicity, instead of stopping cruelty, tell that to the nine workers at Wyoming Premium Farms who were fired, and the five who were just convicted of multiple accounts of animal cruelty.
WHEATLAND – Five employees from Wyoming Premium Farms have each been convicted on multiple counts of cruelty to animals after a Humane Society of the United States undercover investigation documented acts of animal abuse. The five convicted workers are: Patrick Ruckavina, Richard Pritekel, Edward Pritekel, Kali Oseland and David Bienz.
A total of nine employees were charged in late December. All were terminated from their jobs at the farm by the time charges were filed.
In addition to the five convictions, according to a deputy clerk at Platte County Circuit Court, three cases – against Kyla Adams, Jarrod Juarez and Steve Perry – are still pending. Shawn Colson, the former assistant manager of the farm who faced seven counts of animal cruelty, is currently considering a deal offered by the court.
The abuse, which was captured on video and became a sensation on YouTube last May, led to food giant Tyson Foods severing its relationship with the farm.
The investigation documented Wyoming Premium workers kicking live piglets like soccer balls, swinging sick piglets in circles by their hind legs, striking mother pigs with their fists and repeatedly and forcefully kicking them as they resisted leaving their young, among other abuses.
Confining pigs in gestation crates so small they can’t even turn around is so patently cruel the practice has been banned in nine US states, and nearly 50 major food providers, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Costco, Safeway, Kroger, Oscar Mayer, Jimmy Dean, and Bon Appetit, have committed to ending the use of these cruel crates in their pork supply chains.
Yet, rather than improve conditions for pigs and other farmed animals, pro-factory farm legislators in Wyoming and some other states are trying to outlaw investigations that uncover cruelty to animals and other criminal activities at factory farms and slaughterhouses. These legislators don’t want to stop animal abuse; they just want to stop consumers from finding out about it.
In January, the Wyoming House of Representatives introduced House Bill 126. If passed, this bill would make it a crime to “knowingly or intentionally” record images at a factory farm without the owner’s consent, effectively outlawing the type of undercover work that led to the criminal convictions of these five workers at Wyoming Premium Farms.
Here’s the Humane Society video that led to the convictions and to Tyson’s abandonment of Wyoming Premium Farms. Yes, it is very hard to watch, but that is the point. I’d say we need more videos like it, not criminalization of the folks who have the guts to show the world what is happening behind the walls.
Specifically, Hogarth used visual imagery to underscore his belief that cruelty to animals would lead to other forms of social ills. In other words, Hogarth did not see the mistreatment of animals as a distinct issue but, rather, understood it to be part of a larger pattern of social problems. Hogarth’s series, entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty, was released in February 1751 and was comprised of four separate prints, each furthering the narrative of a fictional character named Tom Nero. Of this series, Hogarth noted that he created these images “in hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the streets of London more disagreeable to the human mind…the very describing of which gives pain.”
You can imagine what Hogarth might think of a factory farm, the Taiji slaughter, or the ivory trade. But these days he’d probably tackle it on Vimeo.
His series of drawings on the four stages of animal cruelty are still worth looking at, though, because they make a powerful point that I think it is critical to understand: cruelty to animals (and cruelty to the environment, for that matter), is not an isolated problem. Instead, it is just one consequence of a chronic human failure, which is a lack of wisdom or enlightenment. So addressing these problems is not simply a matter of trying to end animal cruelty, but trying in the first place to cultivate a completely different understanding about the human role on earth, and human relationships with other species–one that moves away from profit and exploitation, and toward compassion and stewardship. Do that, and lots pf problems are open to solution.
From Our Hen House: In the first image (appropriately titled “The First Stage of Cruelty”), we are introduced to Tom Nero as a young boy. He is on a London street with several other children, most of whom are engaged in some form of cruelty: a pair of cats are suspended from a lamppost, a stray dog has an object tied to his tail, a bird is being blinded by a hot object inserted in her eye. Tom Nero, Hogarth’s protagonist, is in the center of the composition torturing a dog by sticking an arrow in the animal’s anus while another friend pulls harshly on a rope tied around the dog’s neck. While this scene of unchecked cruelty is bad enough, the artist hints at worse to come through the inclusion of a compositional device foreshadowing Tom Nero’s mounting violence: a young man sketches Tom Nero’s eventual demise on the brick wall that the children cluster around.
On Friday, a team from the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport found a dolphin on Ship Island with its lower jaw missing.
Last weekend, IMMS responded to a dead dolphin found along the Ocean Springs/Gautier coastline with a 9mm bullet wound. “It went through the abdomen, into the kidneys and killed it,” said Moby Solangi, IMMS executive director.
In Louisiana, a dolphin was found with its tail cut off.
“Animals don’t eat each other’s tails off,” Solangi said.
“We think there’s someone or some group on a rampage,” he said. “They not only kill them but also mutilate them.”
IMMS investigated the first dolphin shooting earlier this year and incidents have increased in the past few months. In Alabama, someone stabbed and killed a dolphin with a screwdriver, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration press release. In September, a dolphin was found on Elmer’s Island, La., with a bullet in its lung. Others have been mutilated with knife-like lesions.
Turns out that this has been going on for a while now, this year. I can’t pretend to understand what motivates anyone to do such things, any more than I can pretend to understand so much of the violence humans inflict on each other and the rest of the world.
But I hope they catch someone and prosecute to the full extent, which could include a fine of up to $100,000 and a year in jail. One important point made by NOAA about this dolphin killing spree is that feeding wild dolphins–which happens all too often–encourages dolphins to approach boats, which either makes them more vulnerable to maniacs with guns, or can led to conflict with fishermen if the dolphins go after their catch.
Kiska, the killer whale, swims alone in her pool at Marineland, often followed by a trail of her own blood.
Her tail has been bleeding off and on since July but has been getting progressively worse, according to Christine Santos, who has been one of Kiska’s primary trainers. She described the bleeding as “gushing” last week….
The Star obtained recent video of Kiska showing a blood trail from cuts in her tail. Once one of Marineland’s best show animals, Santos said she now spends her days swimming listlessly and scratching parts of her body against the sides and sharp fibreglass grates that run the circumference of her Friendship Cove pool.
Treating her is difficult because Kiska, about 37, has refused to go into the medical pool for the past month. Her behaviour has been “breaking down for some time,” said Santos. She won’t even present her tail for blood samples.
Santos believes there aren’t enough trainers to give Kiska and 39 beluga whales enough attention at Friendship and Arctic Coves.
Santos was fired Wednesday. She said she was asked to sign a document that included a statement she’d never seen animal abuse at Marineland. She didn’t sign because “it didn’t feel right.”
Marineland called Santos’ allegations inaccurate and false. Here’s a photo of Kiska, trailing blood, published by The Star (click image for full size).
The Star story also has some pretty gruesome details about a beluga transfer that went wrong:
Other whales have been bloodied at the Niagara Falls tourist park. On Apr. 11, 2012, after female beluga Charmin was left on a trailer when a crane jammed during a move to another pool, photos show the area soaked with blood…
Last April, staffers moved two belugas, Tofino, a male, and Charmin from Friendship Cove to the performing stadium pool. At the end of Charmin’s move, the crane set to lift her in a sling over to the pool jammed, and she was stuck on the flatbed, her tail thrashing against the metal slats and edges of the trailer, according to former senior trainer Phil Demers.
“It was one of the worst days of my life,” says Demers, who helped in the move. “It went on for at least an hour. . . . There was blood on Charmin, on the ground, on the side of the pool, on the pads — it was sprayed all over. The worst, though, was that she lay there all that time with the pressure of her heavy weight (about 1,350 kilograms) on her internal organs — so bad.”
All the staffer accounts that have been leaking out of Marineland this summer certainly paint Marineland as a poorly managed park where animals suffer daily (video here).
It’s possible that Marineland is, in fact, the worst park in North America. But who knows for sure? How much do we really know about all the other marine parks? It is not until insiders step forward and put the facts out in the light, or the parks open up to real scrutiny, that we can really know the reality.