To Watch, or Not to Watch?Posted by Paula Mullen, ALDF's Executive Assistant on June 23rd, 2008
One day several years ago, a committed animal activist who I very
much respect proclaimed that all animal advocates should periodically
force themselves to watch videos depicting animal cruelty and
suffering, in order to remain inspired to help animals. With a mental
image of a scene from the film "A Clockwork Orange"
(in which the main character is forced to watch violent images as a
type of aversion therapy), I asked my friend if people who have already
seen these types of videos and have changed their lives accordingly
need to continue watching such footage. The answer was a firm,
At the time, I stayed silent, for fear of looking like a "bad animal activist." You see, I am someone who has a very difficult time viewing pictures of (or even reading about) abuse and cruelty. For quite some time after our discussion, I started feeling secretly ashamed when I would feel the need to avert my eyes, stop reading or click "stop" to take a break from particularly gruesome online footage. Unfortunately, I was feeling that guilt quite often, working at ALDF where photos, video and written accounts of horrific abuse are forwarded to our staff on a regular basis.
My guilt about finding it difficult to watch or read about such vicious acts continued until one day several years later, when I was on a break with some of my ALDF coworkers. Somehow the subject came up, and I was both surprised and relieved to discover that I am not the only animal advocate who has an especially hard time viewing such video or pictures, and I’m also not the only one who avoids exposing myself to such things during my "off" time, away from my ALDF job. I appear to be in very good company.
Certainly, there would be something terribly wrong with us if we enjoyed watching such graphic suffering. And if we were apathetic or desensitized to such violence, that would be a concern as well. But the question is, if we have a difficult time watching videos documenting monstrous acts of animal abuse, does that mean that we are "soft" on animal protection issues? Does it mean we are not committed animal activists? That we don’t care about the animals and what they experience? Are we (gulp) "wimps"?
To watch, or not to watch?
The coworkers I spoke to that day are committed activists and, like me, have seen (and continue to see) their fair share of videos containing animal cruelty, from vivisection to abuse of factory farm animals to dog fighting. Because they once viewed these videos, today they are 100% committed to ending the suffering of animals. Except when they need to view such footage to effectively do their jobs at ALDF, they remain committed without repeatedly and deliberately subjecting themselves to the visual horror that has already been burned into their minds forever. After all, are we truly effective advocates for the animals if we haven’t slept for days or weeks due to insomnia and nightmares? Do we really need to keep viewing animal cruelty over and over to remain committed?
On the other hand, my friend who made the original statement believes that one cannot stay motivated and committed to the cause without viewing such misery on a regular basis, and that if the animals have to suffer through such horrific pain, the least we can do is partially share in that horror by viewing it. If they have to go through something so atrocious – whether they’re being cut open and experimented on in a lab with no anesthesia, or torn limb from limb while still conscious in a slaughterhouse, or fought to the bloody death in a dog fighting pit – don’t we owe it to them to at least be a witness to their torment, to hear their cries of pain? Even though that particular animal in that particular footage may be free from pain (either rescued or now deceased), somewhere another one, or hundred, or million are suffering a similar fate, alone and voiceless. Shouldn’t we watch their suffering, to motivate ourselves to be their voice?
The late Gretchen Wyler summed it up quite eloquently: "We must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies."
Ms. Wyler’s words have haunted me, and they have come to me with stabs of guilt when I have felt so sickened (and sometimes, almost panic-stricken) by what I am viewing, to the point of turning it off. But after many years of thought about this subject, and after talking with many different people who have made such strides for animals over the years, the conclusion I’ve come to is this: what deeply inspires one person can cause another to mentally, emotionally and even physically shut down. I’ve also learned that those of us who must watch such footage, or even see the results of animal cruelty first-hand - animal control officers, shelter workers, district attorneys, animal rights activists - may need to counteract such experiences with more positive motivators, away from the job.
A great example of an inspirational motivator is visiting a farm animal sanctuary. There we can see how good life is for the ones who escaped a fate worse than death, and how good life could be for others who are still suffering that terrible fate. Speaking from experience, when one leaves such a sanctuary, it is with positive mental images of those rescued animals, animals who now have actual names instead of being tagged and numbered in a feed lot, waiting for slaughter. Theirs are the names and faces that keep me going, after being pummeled with and sickened by the very worst that humans are capable of doing to animals.
There are a huge number of people who haven’t yet made significant changes in their lives to help animals. The animals desperately need them to see pictures depicting cruelty and abuse, to shock them out of their complacency. And I have the utmost respect and admiration for activists like my friend, who stay inspired to help animals by forcing themselves to view footage of inhumane acts toward animals, and then channel their anger into action. But for the rest of us, especially those who are all too familiar with the horror of animal cruelty, perhaps forcibly and repeatedly subjecting ourselves to such horror can be a one-way ticket to paralyzation if we don’t also experience any significant relief or uplifting experiences to counteract the effects of watching such brutality. The animals need each of us to be their witness, but what good will we be to them if we are so sleep-deprived, shell-shocked and depressed that we can’t get out of bed in the morning? The animals also need us to be strong, both physically and mentally, so we can continue to fight for their right to exist without being exploited, tortured and terrorized.
It may just be the Libra in me, but I think that maybe, as with most things in life, balance is the key.