PC Torture?

Everyone’s favorite progressive newspaper, the New York Times, is hard at work making up for those dark days of old when it served as cultural gatekeeper of The Patriarchy. “Since 1851, the New York Times has published thousands of obituaries,” the paper writes on its website. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones.” In view of that, the Times has begun to correct the record, one week at a time, by publishing retroactive obituaries of non-men whose lives, and deaths, were ignored by the old guard. The series is called “Overlooked.”

Last October I wrote an essay documenting the Times‘ support for the exploitation, torture and murder of animals, for whom it evidently reserves a fervent, blood-thirsty hatred. Thus its former chief art critic saw fit to liken the act of stabbing bulls to death to composing jazz music. Bullfighting, dog and horse racing, “dead goat polo”: so long as animals are being abused, the Times is amused. All the more if the abuse happens to be dished out by a woman.

In a recent episode of “Overlooked,” the Times honors Mabel Stark, “one of the most celebrated animal trainers in a field dominated by men.” When Stark first caught sight of a tiger trapped in a cage outside a circus, she knew she’d found her niche. “Within a couple of years, she was one of the world’s top big cat trainers … commanding them in her chirpy voice to leap through fiery hoops, walk on wires, roll large balls and arrange themselves into pyramids.”

The Times points out that, over her sixty-year career, Mabel was mauled countless times “by her co-workers.” Similarly, in 1831, dozens of slave owners were attacked and killed by their co-workers in Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

After travelling around with various circus acts, including the infamous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus, Stark worked at a theme park/animal prison called Jungleland until she was fired in 1967. Five months later, a Jungleland tiger was shot to death after escaping from her cell, and within a few days Stark had killed herself with barbiturates. Pity.

In case you were wondering, Stark always trained the tigers “with kindness.” The hypocrites at the Times wrote that; do they believe it?

Thanks to the efforts of indefatigable animal rights organizations and activists, we know that the “train them with kindness” bromide is a shameless lie, similar to the “no animals were harmed” certification awarded to films by the corrupt American Humane Association.

A few years ago, PETA published an undercover video depicting a training session between animal trainer Michael Hackenberger, whose defunct zoo rented out animals for exploitation in TV and film, and a young Siberian tiger. Hackenberger curses at the tiger and then repeatedly whips him—twenty times in eleven seconds by my count—as the animal rolls around and cowers on the ground. “I like hitting him in the face,” Hackenberger says later in the video.

Whether or not the heroic Mabel Stark was as psychopathic and sadistic as Michael Hackenberger—maybe she was, maybe she wasn’t—is beside the point, which is that, before big cats and other “wild” animals can be used in show business, they have to be terrorized into docility. Jay Pratte, an expert in animal behavior and training, explained the process and its consequences in a 2016 article titled “Big-Cat Report: Ringling Bros. Circus (Red Unit).”

Pratte’s report draws on more than two decades of experience and research, as well as “direct, personal observations at two separate performances by the Ringling Bros.,” a longstanding act that has since, mercifully, been shut down.

The enclosures in which circus tigers are kept are akin to prison cells. When free, tigers roam hundreds of miles; on circus grounds, they’re confined to small cages. Solitary in nature, tigers become stressed and aggressive when held in close quarters with other tigers. During his visits to Ringling Bros., Pratte witnessed several aggressive confrontations between the cats, many of whom were obese due to a lack of proper exercise. As with other mammals, obesity in tigers leads to myriad health problems including organ failure, arthritis, respiratory illness, heart disease and joint problems.

When the weather is particularly hot, tigers regulate their body temperatures by moving to shady areas or plunging into pools or streams. At Ringling Bros., “there was little to no air movement to cool the animals, and in the afternoon, in particular, most of them were panting heavily and unwilling to move. At 2:30 p.m., the temperature was reported to be 86 degrees and the heat index was well over 90.”

In addition to being obese, many of the tigers at Ringling Bros. had visible injuries. “I observed several cats limping, walking gingerly and carefully to avoid painful jolts, and struggling actually to stand up or to perform cued behaviors during a show,” Pratte writes. “The heavier cats were panting constantly throughout the day and clearly enduring increased physical distress. A few of them had hygromas at their joints, some of which were severe. These are caused by repeated trauma from lying on hard surfaces.”

Most of the tigers had cracks in the pads on the bottoms of their paws from “constantly living on concrete or metal floors, which are hosed clean and remain wet for long periods of time.” Such cracks are extremely painful and regularly become infected.

Over time, the oppressive environmental factors lead to stereotypic behavior, or pointless, repetitious actions (e.g. pacing back and forth, over-grooming, etc.). “The animals are unable to express normal behaviors and therefore experience long periods of inactivity or mindless activity, which results in permanent [my emphasis] long-term changes to the body, brain, neural, and endocrine systems.”

Many cats exploited for human entertainment are stolen away from their mothers as cubs (the heroic Mabel Stark trained cubs, recall; recall also that she worked with Ringling Bros.) and raised in restrictive, unnatural circumstances that prevent the animals from developing critical survival, social and coping skills.

The primary tactics employed by trainers during the Ringling Bros. shows were “to yell at [the cats], bang on the cages, and use long goads, prods, or whips to force them to move in a specific direction or to back off when approaching another animal or human too closely. These prods are ubiquitous. They are in the trainers’ hands, the assistants carry them, and they are left strategically near the cats to remain readily available.” Presumably the editors at the Times would have no objection to volunteering to be incessantly whipped and prodded with these instruments, in order to demonstrate their innate kindness.

Pratte goes on to remark that “the cats’ postures while in the ring with the trainer(s) are indicative of a fear of consequences if they do not perform as coerced. The hunched shoulders, ears-back position is anticipatory of conflict or tension.” Ultimately, “staff members manage the cats using aversive stimuli, fear, and dominance tactics”—otherwise known as torture.

All of which was observed in 2016, when circuses and related institutions understood that they had come under intense scrutiny owing to heightened public consciousness around the issue of animal welfare. One hesitates to imagine what the conditions were like in Mabel Stark’s heyday, when it was widely believed that big cats could be tamed and domesticated “with kindness.”

The utter want of self-awareness at the New York Times, and its enduring reputation as a respectable and progressive media outlet, boggle the mind. In compensating for their contributions to one form of oppression, they cheerfully overlook and perpetuate another. Tune in next week for the new episode of “Overlooked,” in which the Times pays long-overdue tribute to Elizabeth Bathory: one of the most productive women in the male-dominated field of serial homicide.

Michael Howard’s essays and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications, Dissident Voice among them. He lives in Vietnam. Read other articles by Michael.