If you cry when animals die on screen, go vegan
I’m quick to close my eyes when an animal faces peril in a movie or television show. It’s a knee jerk reaction, but I’ll almost immediately cringe, turn away, and sometimes at the dismay of fellow viewers, let out an audible nooooooo. But people have come to expect this from me as the token vegan in my family and my friend groups. What always surprises me, however, is the parallel reaction from non-vegan people. Whether it’s in person, or through a social media outlet, the shock, sadness, and mourning that is exhibited for fictional creatures is astounding when it comes from people who exploit real life ones. Still, I think these outcries are good proof that whether or not people realize it, they have compassion for animals. From Bambi to Marlee, movies and tv shows can help us reconsider how we feel about the suffering of real life animals.
The most common scenario I find confusing is when people tear up over the death of onscreen animals who are the subject to human use on a daily basis. While chickens and cows might not get the spotlight often, horses, rabbits, lions, and owls are commonly placed as pets and companions, and face hardship from human use. Be it entertainment, sport, or vivisection, these animals are being used in the same way characters are written to in fiction, but the average person isn’t privy to it. I remember my father calling me, distraught that a rabbit killed in a movie reminded him of my pet Libby. This was a surprise to me, as he’s someone who hasn’t given up eating rabbit for my same pet. Can onscreen violence help us make a connection to the real life kind?
The reason I think many are able to sympathize with an onscreen animal and not an offscreen one is how infrequently we witness animal death. Consider this; we are constantly bombarded by human death in news and entertainment media. As such, seeing a human take out another human is usually not so shocking in film and tv. But if we haven’t watched videos of what goes on behind the closed doors of slaughterhouses, zoos, or animal testing facilities, chances are it’s fresh, shocking, and makes us uncomfortable. Opposite to the way we might cheer on a good guy getting the chance to kill a bad guy onscreen, but would surely step in if we saw anything similar in person, it’s easier to feel sorry for the animals on screen than to do something about animal suffering in reality. If everyone could relate the sinking, sad, and sickening feelings they get to seeing actors and actresses cause or contribute to fictional animal suffering to how they feel about buying and using animal products, there’d be a hell of a lot more vegans.
On the other side of the spectrum, a great example of people mourning extremely non-existent animals are the dragons from Game of Thrones. In a heart-wrenching scene from the fourth season, a couple of dragons are lead to shackles, crying and acting out as they are locked away. I remember post after post on Facebook of people wondering what will become of the poor dragons. Fantasy is far from the only genre that pulls at our heart strings in this way. Characters like Bing Bong the elephant, from Pixar’s Inside Out, are famous for making unsuspecting viewers go from blissfully unaware to full body sobbing. In that scenario, the character is even make believe to other characters, despite it’s resemblance to the elephants we know to exist in real life. In both scenarios, the animals serve a purpose for humans, and are symbolic of the instincts we have towards not causing harm to any living things. Even though we can reason that dragons and imaginary animal friends don’t exist, we long for them to live without violence. So why don’t more people care about the animals that are sharing our world, and in need of our help?
A big reason we can freely give our affections to the animal characters on screen is because we assign attributes to them. We don’t want to see the dragons die because they’re loyal and brave. We don’t want to see Bing Bong disappear because he’s caring and funny. These characteristics might be a bit subjective, but society still applies them to individual animal species. It’s how some people are “dog people” and others are “cat people.” Or how someone can love one species and kill another. If we could see the spirit and attitudes of fish, sheep, and other frequently forgotten animals, it would be harder for us to exploit them. But it we can agree that animals matter morally, than our own projections of love and personality wouldn’t matter in the effort to protect every animal from harm.
A quick Google search will produce a number of top ten lists of animal scenes that made us cry in movies. All of them, fictional deaths, or scenes of abuse and trauma to animals. Although it can be difficult to face deaths like these that happen in very non-fantastic ways every minute of every day, we should be able to use the power of onscreen narratives to help us examine where we are turning ourselves away in real life. Are we open to feeling what film and television makers want us to feel in the same way we’re open to the stories that the meat, dairy, or leather industries sell us? If the truth about what was happening to the animals we exploit for our food, clothing, and entertainment were available for us to buy a admission ticket to, would we keep from covering our eyes? One thing remains clear, if we have feelings for any animals, there’s reason to have feelings for all animals. Whether it’s your dog or a fictional one, feeling empathy towards a non-human animal should be a hint that the suffering and death of any living being deserves your same attention and abhorrence to.
Photo from The Fourth Wall