Like most people, I fall into the trap of thinking that my personal moral and ethical standards are or should be shared by everyone else in the world. This is why I was pretty unsettled when I read about the recent arrest of a University of Georgia student who was charged with animal cruelty after killing several mice as a part of an art project. It wasn’t just the grotesque nature of his acts that bothered me, but also the realization that so many people shrugged this off as unimportant or that a significant segment even deemed the arrest ridiculous altogether. These people seemed to think something along the lines of, “well, they’re just mice, right?” But the nonchalant attitude that takes against senseless killing makes me pretty uncomfortable.
I’m curious about how and where the line gets drawn when it comes to animal cruelty. I’d imagine that most people would be upset if this student had killed different animals than mice for his art project, especially animals that people keep as pets. This seems to be true, considering that Ukrainian-born artist Nathalia Edenmont has been the subject of so many complaints and protests for having killed not only mice, but also rabbits, chickens and cats for use in her art. The images are strange and disconcerting to view: a portrait of a naked woman holding a dead rabbit by its throat, a beheaded cat on a pedestal, mice turned into finger puppets.
The Wetterling Gallery in Stockholm, which first displayed her art, defended their decision by stating that nothing about the project could be considered illegal: “She has killed the animals in as humane a way as possible.” (If only Jack Kevorkian had thought to use this impenetrable legal defense.)
What I also find pretty pitiful about this UGA student’s art project is that the ideas weren’t even unique if “shock value” was what he was going for (and even then, killing animals still seems to be a pretty unimaginative way to generate controversy). A similar case that comes to mind is the University of Florida student charged with animal cruelty in 1996 after cutting up numerous baby mice into cubes to use in his art project. Aside from the initial “eww” factor, additional disgust is added when considering his lawyer’s defense: that the student was protected by freedom of expression and creative license. To me, that feels like a pretty large perversion of what those rights are meant to protect.
But aside from simply making us realize that some people are just gross, these “art projects” bring to light several larger problems concerning animal rights. The fact that animal rights regulations can be so easily trumped by something like artistic expression is pretty bothersome to me. Animal cruelty cases in general are notoriously difficult to grapple with for many reasons, with the main one being that so many cases go unreported. It can be difficult for lawmakers to pass stricter regulations against animal cruelty, simply because it’s not really a hot-button issue, and laws that do exist are ineffectively enforced. Most of us probably can’t really even describe what qualifies as animal cruelty.
It turns out that the legal definition of animal cruelty in Georgia is pretty ill-defined. As the law’s written, it includes “the intentional withholding of food and water required by an animal to prevent starvation or dehydration.” That seems appropriate, but it makes me wonder how an “accidental” withholding of food and water would be dealt with or how we would classify an intentional withholding of food just short of starvation. When it comes to cruelty against animals, it seems that the regulations are vague and not standardized in any form. In this sense, I can almost feel a sort of sympathy for that UGA student (even though his professor had told him not to kill the mice for his project, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
As disgusted as I felt when I was reading about this case, I couldn’t help but feel a bit confused as well. I had read about the case after seeing a link posted to someone’s Facebook, and one commenter had asked if this student were any different from the scores of people who would squash a cockroach with their shoe “just because.” This is what led me to wonder where and how we draw the line when it comes to animal cruelty (“somewhere between chickens and golden retrievers,” the commenter facetiously suggested).
It seems that the line is drawn pretty arbitrarily in any way that settles our personal moral conscience. After all, why are there so many people who are outraged by the concept of purchasing clothing made out of animal fur, yet they’re not nearly as upset by the idea of leather? One could justify this differentiation by arguing that leather is a by-product of the meat industry, but even if it were, that doesn’t change the fact that skin sales ultimately must generate a greater profit for factory farms, which ultimately still leads to more animal deaths.
In the end, I suppose the only sort of reconciliation I could settle on was that a greater appreciation for all life forms should be encouraged. But then again, what sort of ideal world do I live in, right?
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.