August 2014

Hey, if You Can't Abuse an Animal Abuser, Who Can You Abuse?

The story first came to my attention on Facebook, delivered with a heaping side order of vilification and outrage. Justifiably so, or at least it seemed. After all, there was no misinterpreting the event: a woman had taken four pitbull puppies and drowned them in a toilet tank. She'd been charged with four counts of animal cruelty and was being held in lieu of $20,000 bail. "This makes me sick," declared the person who shared the news story. "If you can't afford dogs, you shouldn't have them," chimed in another. "If she can do this to puppies, what's to stop her from deciding to kill a person next?" It seemed there was no room for nuance or even the possibility of mitigating circumstances. The internet was eager to assume her guilt (according to the story she admitted the act but pled not guilty to the cruelty charges) and use it as de facto evidence, not just of crime, but of evil.

For me, this brought to mind Jon Katz's comments about the owner of Simon, a badly neglected donkey who was delivered to Katz near the point of death. Simon's condition was so horrendous that it certainly amounted to cruelty. Under Katz's care, Simon made a remarkable recovery, although he will always bear the physical scars resulting from that awful period when he was left alone to die.

As Katz blogged about the experience of acquiring Simon and nurturing him back to health, he noted that the comments he received were full of concern and sympathy and even outrage—for Simon's situation. But not one commenter showed any measure of the same compassion for the person who originally owned Simon—a person whose life had gone so wrong in some unknown way that he was unable to exercise the good judgment and custodianship we expect from people who take on the ownership of animals. What sort of calamity could have befallen this person, who undoubtedly acquired Simon with honorable intensions, that caused him to shut down completely even in the face of his donkey's obvious suffering? Where was the compassion for the human in this situation?

With these thoughts in mind, I clicked through to read the full report about the woman who drowned those puppies. She had admitted to the act. Was there any way to understand her actions as anything other than evil?

According to the story, the woman had moved into an apartment with her young son. Her dog then had six puppies. The landlord told her that was too many animals—she'd have to get rid of the puppies or face eviction. She managed to give away two of the pups. When the landlord visited, she took the remaining four puppies into the bathroom. When she came out, she had drowned the puppies. These are the facts as reported by the newspaper.

To me, this spare story suggests a picture of financial desperation. The woman had moved into a rental with her young son. There is apparently no husband or partner present. She is caring for this child on her own, perhaps with no financial assistance. Does she have an income? Probably, if she's paying rent and taking care of her child, but that implies she probably pays for some form of child care while she works.

Her dollars must be stretched—why else wouldn't she have had her dog spayed? Most people want to avoid unplanned litters, especially of pitbull puppies. Yes, there are programs to help indigent people spay their animals (even these aren't free), but that option might have required her to lose time—and income—from work, where single parents are often on shaky ground in terms of attendance. Perhaps she had intended to fix her dog, but her circumstances changed (after all, she had moved recently) and she hoped she had time to postpone the procedure—and those hopes weren't realized.

Why didn't she just take the puppies to the animal shelter? Maybe she tried. I don't know about the situation in her town, but if she lived in my hometown, she would have been greeted with good news: if she resided within the city limits, the "surrender" fee would have been only $85—per animal. Instead of $120 for those outside the city limits! She would have been looking at $340 for the four homeless pups. Money she probably didn't have.

And why was the landlord on the scene? Was he delivering her notice of eviction? Did the pressure of his presence in the apartment drive the woman to a desperate but immediate solution?

Even if true (and I'm not saying any of this is—it's highly creative conjecture) does it mean that her actions were in any way justified? No, of course not. She made a horribly bad decision and she should face the consequences.

But let's look at those consequences. So far (before there's been any trial or conviction) they mean that she's being held in jail. Her child? Probably in foster care. If she was employed, she'll probably lose her job because of the arrest and resulting absences from work. She'll almost certainly be evicted from her apartment. When she's out of jail, she'll probably be unemployed (and far less employable), probably homeless, separated from her child and with no obvious plan or timeline to be reunited with him as a parent. It might be dramatic to suggest that the consequences have already destroyed her life, but I would imagine that she probably feels something close to this as she wonders how the legal case will play out.

But yes, four helpless puppies are dead. How do you balance the value of their lives against the value of the two human lives (one an innocent child's) that have been tragically disrupted too as a result of this situation? This, sadly, is an equation that I lack any wisdom to balance. But I would suggest one thing: when we take to social media to condemn people—yes, even animal abusers—we are indulging in the same sort of self-righteous indignation that allowed our long-ago ancestors to lock their neighbors in stocks and abuse them as public sport in the name of justice. It obviously doesn't do the fallible people at the heart of these stories any good. It doesn’t do the neglected donkeys or drowned puppies any good. And, for those of us who can't resist indulging in the mud-slinging, it turns us into exactly the sorts of brutes and bullies that we claim outraged us in the first place. We owe some measure of empathy to the humans in these situations too, especially when we don't know all the facts. That human obligation should not be offset—ever—even by the death of an animal.


New Poetry from Margaret Elizabeth Bednar


she owns the tufted
Redgrave chair,

flicks not a whisker
as she saunters past three dogs
who diligently avoid eye contact -

no contest
the early morning sunspot
belongs to her.

A world encased
about her protectively,
yet she's drawn to the kill -

chatters and stalks,
tense behind glass.  "Domesticated"
or so we tell ourselves


Margaret Elizabeth Bednar is a poet, blogger, and mother of six from North Carolina. She shares her home with several animals including her cat Gabriella, featured in the photograph here (yes, that's actually a photograph!). You can read more of her poetry at Art Happens 365. Thanks, Margaret, for sharing your talents--and Gabriella--with us here!

Louis Wain, Mental Health, and Creativity

Victorian-era illustrator of anthropomorphic cats. Wow. I can’t even imagine a more appealing job description. It was fulfilled by a man named Louis Wain. Born in England in 1860, Wain first started to draw pictures of his black and white cat Peter to amuse and comfort his ailing wife. After her early death, he continued to draw cats and refine his style. As the years passed, his feline characters eventually walked on two feet, wore fetching Victorian frocks, and engaged in every activity imaginable, from fly fishing to reading contentedly by the fireside. For many years his cat postcards were all the rage in Victorian England. Having been widowed with no children, he happily shared the financial rewards of his success with his five unmarried sisters and their aging mother.

Unfortunately as the years progressed, Wain’s behavior became increasingly erratic and even violent. In 1924, when his sisters were no longer able to cope with his symptoms, they had him committed to the first in a series of mental asylums. For the next 15 years, until his death, Wain remained institutionalized but continued to practice his art. A great many of his cat paintings survive even today.

A famous series of Wain illustrations assembled by Psychologist Walter Maclay purports to show a bizarre decline, as the years and Wain’s illness (then thought to be schizophrenia) progressed, in his ability to portray a cat on paper. Where his early works were fully representational (if playfully whimsical), his paintings produced in the mental ward became increasingly colorful, experimental, and almost psychedelic, finally losing any resemblance to cats at all.

The problem with Maclay’s theory is that, because Wain did not date his paintings, there is no way to know if they actually show a chronological progression. Furthermore, other paintings that Wain produced during the period of his hospitalization remained conventionally representational of their given subjects. There is also some evidence that, instead of schizophrenia, Wain may have suffered from a severe form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Unfortunately, the unfounded conclusions first published by Maclay were reprinted in psychology textbooks for decades afterward.

Regardless of the specifics of Wain’s diagnosis, there is an obviously some connection between mental health and creativity. In Wain’s case, it could have been as simple as finding the freedom to express himself on canvas for the first time free of any obligation to create works for public consumption. No longer obligated to support others through his art, perhaps his mind was free to create works following no whim but his own for the first time in his adult life.

Certainly one does not have to be mentally ill to create great art. But, for some people, mental illness seems to allow them to tap into veins of creativity that might have otherwise remained dormant and unexpressed. Far from causing a decline in ability and skill (as Maclay sought to illustrate), mental illness might conversely open a door to increased skill and creativity in at least some patients. But what a price to pay.