First there was the shocking story of Patrick, the pitbull in New Jersey whose owner starved him to skin and bones, and then stuffed him down the elevator shaft (Patrick, by the way, has made a miraculous recovery, thanks to those who found him and cared for him). Another recent story focusing on the man caught on tape abusing a small pitbull in an East Harlem housing project elevator by slamming it against the walls and kicking it has gone viral, and so-called "animal lovers" are trotting out the requisite responses (this dog is also now okay). A horrible hoarding story just out of Ohio showed photos of a rundown shack and numerous enclosures where hundreds of animals, including dogs and exotics, had been kept. These stories fit into every stereotype that poor people, both rural and urban, abuse and neglect animals. A narrative builds.
Forget that middle-class and rich people also abuse and neglect their companion animals. Anecdotally, a man in my middle-class neighborhood (now moved) kept his three large dogs, two of whom were German shepherds, in small outdoor chain-link cages year round, through brutal summers and winters, with only occasional, brief forays into a side yard (maybe 20 minutes of exercise). The dogs had enough room to turn around, and that was about it. Sure, there were food and water bowls, and each dog had a well-built bed, but day after day, I listened to those confined dogs howl and bark, and my repeated calls to Animal Control resulted in my being informed, "Those dogs are just fine. Those cages are beautiful. In fact, the owner is going to pay several thousand dollars for surgery on the legs of one of the dogs."
I kept wondering, what if those cages were dilapidated, and the man hadn't been in a PhD program, and eloquent enough to charm the Animal Control officer?
Another neighbor chains her dog outside all day, regardless of weather, and it was only after I called Animal Control that I was relieved an "igloo" had been added into the mix, so the dog could get out of the rain and snow. The chain is attached to a short overhead wire that runs between two trees, giving the dog maybe three or feet on which she can actually move with all four feet on the ground. The rest of the time she is "dancing on her toes" as she pulls and lunges any time anyone walks by. It looks, at first glance, as if the dog is hanging herself. This family has a huge yard. A portion of it could easily be fenced to allow the dog some freedom. It is clearly cruel, and heart-breaking, but the family live in one of the nicest houses in the neighborhood and I was told by Animal Control, "they really love that dog."
A woman I know from exercise class used to keep her lively beagle, whom she hates, in a tiny crate in the darkest corner of her basement, day in and day out. The dog was allowed out briefly when the children came home from school and then returned to the crate where she lived in her own waste. The woman is married to a wealthy older man, and they live in a large, well-appointed house. A recent report from someone who knows the woman and was also concerned, is that the dog is now allowed upstairs so long as she's on a leash. When I suggested to her she find a new home for the dog, someone who likes beagles, she seemed uninterested. "The kids like her," she said. "But I like big dogs better."
And, finally, an acquaintance of mine told me a horrible story about a job she had working for a wealthy family who essentially starved to death one of their golden retrievers. Though , because of this tragedy, she quit her job with them. She was afraid that any report she made would be traced to her. But I believe she was able to help find the other dog a home.
This clash between rich and poor is never so evident as when I am doing some pro bono legal work with pro se clients on family law issues. Needless to say, many of the clients are the working poor, struggling on minimun-wage and intermittent employment. Some are on disability, some have mental illnesses and few resources, and some have to rely on extended family members to get by. Needless to say, I never see rich people, or even middle-class people, who not only can generally afford their own attorneys, but whose lives are not under such constant and intense scrutiny, and as vulnerable to intervention.
In the legal clinic, whatever story you can imagine, I've heard it, but there's a very different soundtrack running along in the background when the protagonists are poor: A young single mother on TANF wanting to terminate the parental rights of the dead-beat dad (she can't) because she wants to move ahead with her life; the 20-something man who wants the right to visit his non-marital children; an older couple, with a history of domestic violence, divorcing; a woman with drug problems struggling to take back legal custody of her infant daughter from her e mother and abusive stepfather, etc.
A few things strike me:
Dress these stories up a little. Make dead-beat dad a highly paid professional who knows how to hide his assets from his wife and child. The young man who wants to assert his parental rights is a college grad who hires his high-powered attorney uncle to take care the situation for him, OR, he's a high school senior whose well-off parents and attorney offer money to the baby mama and sweep his "indiscretion" under the rug so he can go on to Harvard and not ruin his future. The divorcing couple of means lives in a lovely, thick-walled house set back from the street where their fights can't be overheard by the neighbors, the woman hides her bruises under makeup, and each has not only sufficient funds to hire an attorney to handle all the agreements, but to set up separate households during the divorce. The woman with drug problems is addicted to painkillers, not meth or crack, and is shipped off to an expensive clinic for recovery while the child remains in safe keeping with Grandma and a nanny, until Mom cleans herself up, etc.
Wealth or financial stability cover up a multitude of sins. You have resources and options. If you're upper-middle class and up, it's highly unlikely that you've had child protective services, the cops, the truant officer, probation officers, and social workers on your doorstep, regardless of what you're up to. Something comes up (your kid gets caught with drugs or out "joy riding"---it's "joy riding" when you're rich and "carjacking" when you're poor), you have a good attorney who can always give Judge X a call and ask for leniency. The point is, your kid is not going down to the juvenile detention center.
The poor are far more likely to have experienced repeated state intervention throughout their lives, without sharing the social and economic status of those who accuse, represent, and convict them, nor the access to them outside of "the system."
It's as if the State almost becomes part of the extended family, a kind of uber-parent to keep you and yours in line. Some of my clients know the judges they're going to go before because they've been there so many times before. Many of them know more about the specific details of the law applying to their situation than I do because they've had so much experience.
With fewer resources available in their lives (money, education, privilege, good health care, etc.), their lives are far more likely to fall apart over events like cars that won't start, even minor illness that keeps them from work, a flaky babysitter, and so on, that would be mere inconvenience for the more privileged (and it doesn't take much to be more privileged). And if they have pets, sometimes other priorities take precedence.
But do we really think rich people don't abuse and neglect their pets? Do we really think that well-off women aren't victims of domestic violence? Have we really convinced ourselves that rich people don't make, use, and sell drugs?
Setting aside the plight of farmed animals, owned and tortured by big agribusiness, the "face of animal abuse,"as represented in the media looks "poor." Why?
Let's not kid ourselves. Who sells and buys the expensive fur of animals who are bred in huge numbers on fur farms and/or trapped? Cruel and unnecessary, why isn't it universally condemned? Why is is it that horse racing is called a "sport" and made legal, while dog fighting is criminalized and called "abuse"? It's popular knowledge now that fast-food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC have horrid track records with the treatment of the farmed animals they serve up on buns and in baskets, but who asks about the conditions the animals that show up on the plates in pricey restaurants have suffered?
Demographics play a huge role in how we view and tolerate animal cruelty.
And it's easy to focus on the cases of individual animals who've been abused (large numbers make us feel more distant), particularly if their abusers are poor or lower-class, of color, and otherwise cast as "unsympathetic." And, of course, "caught on camera." What a dirtbag, we think, as we watch the video of the cruelty on the East Harlem elevator, whle we bite into our herb-soaked chicken breast sandwich, or throw on the new lambskin jacket.
If we turned that same "eye" on ourselves, what might we see? We may not be breaking any current laws, but it doesn't mean what we do is right. Ethical duty differs from legal duty. Just being a "law-abiding citizen" doesn't get you off the hook. It may be legal to purchase the flesh of farmed animals who have suffered through their short lives in squalor, pain and anguish, but how ethically different is this from cooking up the illegally-obtained flesh of bushmeat? You might set out to the horse races, or the circus, or even the zoo, and have a great time. You attend a barbeque after where you eat ribs and burgers and chicken. When you arrive home, your dog has been waiting there all day, as he usually does, maybe crated or consigned to one room, but you'll greet him and toss some kibble in his bowl, and send him out in the spacious backyard for half an hour to nose around. You haven't broken any laws. Your neighbors aren't going to call the police on you. Your family loves you. You're highly regarded.
It's easy to police and demonize the poor. After all, they are not us.
- Alyce Miller
- Bloomington, IN, United States
- Writer: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Attorney: part-time pro-bono lawyer for animal rights law and family law. Professor: literature, creative writing, special topics course (assumed identities, critical race studies, animals and ethics, etc.) at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.