Saturday, June 27, 2015

Crimes Against The Cute, Part 1: Allan Gate

PHOTOS: Keraj1976, Eric Veland, and Silke Hahn. 
Last month, Danish radio host Asger Juhl bludgeoned to death a 9-week-old rabbit named Allan on a live radio broadcast. This gruesome stunt was meant to spark a debate about the hypocrisy of animal welfare activists who eat supermarket meat in Denmark. Did it bring about a new wave of vegetarianism? No. Instead, it solidified Juhl's identity in the Twittersphere as a psychopath. 

Juhl clearly orchestrated a few things to pull at listeners' heartstrings and produce maximum shock. He named the rabbit Allan, giving it a human-like individualism. He also identified Allan as a "baby rabbit", even though most fryer rabbits in the frozen section are also 9 weeks old. He supposedly "beat the rabbit to death" with a bicycle pump, lending the slaughter the feeling of inner-city violence, even though the pump was just a blunt object used to kill the rabbit in a humane manner according to expert, zookeeper instructions. 

Allan the 9-week-old rabbit was killed in a live radio broadcast
in Denmark on May 25, 2015.
But put all these things together and you have a spectacle where a helpless, innocent, cuddly little baby animal is murdered in public. What felt equally bludgeoned was our sense of human decency. We felt abused by Juhl because he made us feel a relationship to the rabbit before he killed it. Otherwise, most of us have come to terms with the fact that animals are killed to be eaten. Butchers walk amongst us. My in-laws slaughtered their own pigs to make sausage back in the day when other sources of calories like fruits and vegetables weren't available. Omnivores can't afford to see all living things as cute. 

Nevertheless, the power of cuteness is real; it's functional and biological. Considering the limits to which our own toddler-offspring can push us, mothers have secretly confessed over a post-bedtime whiskey, "If my kids weren't so cute, they'd be dead." Cuteness is a protective mechanism that ensures that we humans tolerate and nurture the narcissistic, exhausting, and demanding little creatures that we gave birth to. 

Cuteness is also a social construction. Each society has its own way of doling out the "Awww's", if it's a Hello Kitty superstore or a petting zoo at the county fair. What is preciously cute in one culture may not be in another. Like, for example, balut, a cute baby duckling boiled alive in its shell and eaten as a delicatessen in South East Asia. Or the majestic bears and big cats that we regard with awe, but who suffer rampant abuse in Chinese zoos. Or the practice of female infanticide in India and Pakistan to get rid of baby girls. Baby girls, the cutest of the cute and most worthy of protection in our Western eyes. 

These examples should make our stomachs wrench. But what we deem cute can be manipulated. Give anything a name, portray it as helpless and innocent, and a decent person will instinctively feel protective of it. This is also a healthy response, a function of empathy for our survival. Interspecies cuteness, the keeping of pets and caring for livestock, offers a way to develop this empathy with non-human creatures for mutual benefits

On the flip side, someone who violates the Code of Cute comes across as sick and broken. We see him as a threat to our social fabric because he lacks the instincts to protect the most vulnerable amongst us. This is especially important to humans, since our babies are born extraordinarily underdeveloped, before their heads grow too large to pass through the birth canal. Our babies thus require much more care for a longer time than other species' infants, and therefore we have to trust our fellow humans to respect to this vulnerability. If we didn't obey the cute, we would go extinct very quickly. 

Seeing it this way, it's clear that all Asger Juhl achieved with his stunt was to trigger our feelings of disgust. By flaunting his disregard for a creature that he first publicly designated as cute, innocent, and helpless, he portrayed himself as a dangerous human in whose presence our babies are not safe. 

Juhl didn't abuse an animal. He abused our empathy. A far more effective way to raise awareness of and improve animal welfare would have been to announce that the meat of mistreated livestock makes you fat (which holds some truth). Because let's face it, in a world of media low-blows, appealing to our vanity achieves far more end-results than one man behaving like a psychopath and distracting us from a real discussion of ethical farming practices.

The humane treatment of livestock is healthier for us and the environment; we all know that by now. There is no shortage of horrific reports and images of animal abuse, and social media already puts us just a click away from learning everything about livestock and how to stand up for them. What use is one DJ's publicity stunt in the grand scheme of things?

In the end, the Allan Gate affair left us thinking no more and no less than the following: Humans eat meat. Animals have to be killed for us to eat meat. And Asger Juhl is a psychopath.  

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