The recent news story of a dog in Kentucky named Felicity, who was found tied to a post and branded with a profanity, sparked an outpouring of empathy as well as outrage and indignation for the perpetrators. The local Humane Society in Lexington has raised money from many donors in honor of her rescue, and a vet even volunteered to perform plastic surgery to “cover up” the profanity branded into her skin. HS also issued a $3500 reward to those who led them to Felicity’s abuser.
Many are baffled at why someone would want to do this to a dog. And, yet, as horrible as this is, it is not without precedent. In fact, branding has been used routinely for centuries to identify both non human animals and even human slaves.
Branding animals: the larger context
While the story of Felicity’s branding with a profanity is sad and shocking, it shines a light on the fact that branding, and numerous other terribly cruel and inhumane mutilations, are routinely practiced on billions of farmed animals every year, on small and large farms alike. Most people remain unaware (or choose to remain comfortably unaware) of these practices, much less consider them “abuse,” yet the fact remains that consumers pay farmers to subject animals to an unimaginable level of suffering to produce the egg, dairy and meat products they demand. Not only are farmed animals routinely branded, they are subjected to other painful bodily mutilations as infants without anesthesia, including castration, dehorning, tail-docking (cutting off their tails) debeaking, the cutting down and extraction of teeth, the cutting off of toes and ear “notching” (cutting out pieces of the pig’s ears).
The meaning of branding animals
The branding of farmed animals can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Mexican cattle ranchers were known to mark their cattle with their family coat of arms. According to the Agricultural History Project, “The reason for branding is simple: to make it clear who the animal belongs to…” The branding of human slaves also has a long history. Ancient Romans marked runaway slaves with the letters FUG (for fugitives). European and American colonial slave traders branded millions of slaves during the period of trans-Atlantic enslavement. Southern slave owners often branded slaves’ palms, shoulders, buttocks, or cheeks with a branding iron, giving them permanent identifying marks should they escape and be caught. Some prisoners of Auschwitz were tattooed with numbers on their arms. In contemporary times, certain gangs and other groups brand their members as a rite of initiation into the group.
International animal liberation movement 269 Life, in fact, makes the act of branding a central symbol of its fight to end animal oppression. In the words of founder Sasha Boojor, “It’s a method that humanity invented to take away an individual’s personality and identity. We believe that animal activists who willingly subject themselves to branding undermine its mainstream legitimacy.”
Aside from burning a mark or number into the skin, there are others forms of identification used on farmed animals today that are equally disturbing. A recent undercover investigation at an Australian farm exposed female breeding sows (“baby machines”) with the words “destroy” and “lame, cull” spray-painted across the sides of their bodies. And while this investigation may have triggered some outrage, many people who witnessed the footage likely continued to eat pork products because it is such a widely-accepted cultural practice. Meat-eating cultures around the world teach us to block our awareness of the suffering of the animals we consume, to deny the existence of any problem or victim, to stifle any critical thinking on the issue.
But putting the powerful influences of culture aside, it’s clear that a pig suffers just as a dog would under these circumstances. Therefore, If it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering on a pit bull companion animal, then it logically follows that it is equally wrong to subject a pig, or any sentient being for that matter, to the same.
Felicity was one of the lucky ones to have encountered people who genuinely cared about her fate. Her story is a testament to the fact that people care when they bring themselves to witness the injustice perpetrated against another and when they can identify themselves as the victim in that context. In this case, her rescuers, not only acted as individuals to right the wrong done to her; they actually mobilized a concerted group effort to raise funds, garner media attention, provide her with costly surgical treatment and find her a new loving home. And they accomplished all of the above. For those of us who care and seek to awaken the same caring in others, there is a valuable lesson to learn from Felicity.
If we want justice for animals, we have to first stop undermining our efforts by repeating the mantra of failure we inherited from our meat-eating culture that tells us “people just don’t care.” It’s been used against many similar efforts to change prejudicial social norms. It only serves to protect the dominant culture’s oppressive beliefs while stifling efforts for positive change. In a sense, it has become the activist’s psychological brand, one that, like Felicity’s, we too must overcome.