To Watch, or Not to Watch?

Posted by Paula Mullen, ALDF's Executive Assistant on June 23, 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,
resounding YES.

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?

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.  

One thought on “To Watch, or Not to Watch?

  1. Kelsie says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I was searching for strength to resist sweets containing dairy, but I can’t watch the cruelty either or I feel like my heart will really break inside me. Using images of happy, rescued animals instead is such a positive way of reminding myself to stay committed to the cause.

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