Thank you for visiting our animal defence section. Before reading our main essay, please join us in a moment of compassion and reflection.
The New York Times’ Animal Cruelty Fetish
by MICHAEL HOWARD
That said, The Gray Lady does have sub-interests in which she dabbles: film … TV … books … fashion … sports … restaurants … travel … animal abuse … Surely the last one deserves a place in the paper’s sections list by now. Many a column inch has been dedicated to it over the years. Take theTimes’ coverage of the Kentucky Derby—one of our Great American Traditions. Horses made to compete in this “sport” are over-trained, incessantly whipped, doped to enhance performance, forced to race with serious injuries—after being injected with drugs to mask the pain—and shot dead when they break their legs on the track. Many horses are shipped off to the slaughterhouse as soon as their racing careers come to an end. You wouldn’t know any of this from reading the Times: its breathless annual coverage is restricted to the sweepstakes. Journalism, allegedly the paper’s forte, has no place here. Why spoil a good spectacle with discomfiting facts?
The same lack of journalistic curiosity can be observed when the NYTreports on other celebrated exercises in animal abuse, for instance the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. As with the horses in the Kentucky Derby, the dogs exploited in the 1,000-mile Iditarod are driven, with the help of drugs, to and over their physiological limits, resulting in injury, illness and death. The “Last Great Race on Earth” has killed an untold number of dogs since its inception (the exact death toll is a mystery since many, perhaps most, fatalities have gone unreported). So commonplace are these deaths that race organizers recently adopted a new rule: a musher whose dog dies during the Iditarod will be thrown out (until next year). That is, unless the animal’s death “was caused solely by unforeseeable forces.” Very convenient. What, precisely, constitutes an “unforeseeable force”? Might pneumonia? That’s what Blondie, a five-year-old sled dog, died from in this year’s race. Blondie had been “dropped” (the term used to describe dogs left behind at checkpoints when they’re unable to continue running) like so much garbage at mile 827; he languished for two days before succumbing to his sickness. In 2017, four dogs collapsed and died during the competition; in 2009, six.
Elsewhere the NYT lauds the Iditarod’s egalitarian spirit. “It’s difficult to tell,” Katie Orlinsky wrote triumphantly in 2015, “if the musher standing behind a sled pulled by 16 dogs and wearing a puffy red parka and a face protector shrouded in frost is a man or a woman. But in competitive dog racing, it does not really matter.” Good on the Iditarod for letting women abuse dogs, too—this odious event is going up in my estimation. Flashing its blissful lack of self-awareness, the NYT headlined the article: “Enduring the Iditarod as Equals.”
Like the overrated novelist Ernest Hemingway (“What other culture,” Gore Vidal once asked, “could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?”), the NYT has a particular fascination with the exploitation, torture and murder of bulls. Indeed, it is on the subject of “bullfighting,” as we like to euphemize it, that the Times’ contempt for nonhuman animals takes definitive shape. The depravity of this gruesome spectacle, pandering as it does to the basest human instincts, is impossible to overstate. I’ve found that many Americans have illusory notions about what a “bullfight” actually entails. (I put the term in inverted commas because the word “fight” is inapplicable—“choreographed murder” is closer to the mark. If it were a fight, an entourage wouldn’t be standing by prepared to rescue the courageous matador should the bull unexpectedly get the upper hand. With that said, I’ll stop employing the inverted commas going forward.) The image in their minds is one of men prancing around with capes, provoking, then dodging, raging bulls while decked out in ridiculous costumes. They are invariably surprised, oftentimes skeptical, when told that it’s not merely a matter of courting and narrowly averting disaster, but rather of stabbing the animals to death to the delight of gaping spectators. The reaction is understandable. After all, how could such a terrible exhibition have survived the Stone Age, let alone endured into the twenty-first century? And in this, the civilized West! No wonder Catalonia wants to break away from Spain.
Since it can’t be justified, bullfighting has to be romanticized by its apologists. Hence the familiar argument that it qualifies as an “artform,” and the deification of the matador. “[Bullfighter] José Tomás Román Martín,” Michael Kimmelman, then chief art critic for the NYT, wrote in 2008, “is a mystical figure in Spain … his artistry and grace, along with his fearlessness (it shocks other matadors), make him a figure of widespread fascination.” After contending that bullfighting is in fact not a sport (it’s “a ritual orchestrated to injure and exhaust the animal so that it can be more easily killed”), Kimmelman educates readers that “the tradition is to call [bullfighting] an art …” Righto. He personally likens it “to jazz, since every combination of bull and bullfighter elicits a different, irreproducible, unpredictable, improvised performance.” Music and bullfighting, bullfighting and music … who could object to that neat association? Most musicians, jazz or otherwise, I would venture to assume, as well as anyone equipped to appreciate the fundamental difference between creating something from nothing (art) and destroying something for nothing (bullfighting, and a host of other nihilistic activities).
The above quotes capture the tone (nauseating) of Kimmelman’s essay, titled “Bullfighting is Dead! Long Live the Bullfight!” Punctuating his efforts to romanticize are some cracks at rationalization. For example, comparing bullfighting to other kinds of animal torture like dogfighting is untenable, Kimmelman argues, because “at least [bullfighters] put themselves, and not just the animals, at mortal risk.” By that impressive logic, it’s unfair to compare the rapist who physically attacks and subdues his victims before assaulting them with more insidious types like Bill Cosby—at least the former puts himself at risk of being Maced. Nor can one conflate mass murder via cruise missile with mass murder via car bomb—at least the suicide bomber puts himself “at mortal risk.” Kimmelman, like his newspaper generally, pays lip service to the antiquated concept of objectivity, throwing in one quote from an opponent of bullfighting—against numerous quotes from exponents—before assuring us that “José Tomás would have his response.”
By and by we get turgid descriptions of two bullfights attended by Kimmelman. The first went off without a hitch, the bull crumbling to its death like a “demolished building.” In the second, however, “the bull quickly became winded, hurt by the stabs of the picador’s spear, collapsing to the ground before Tomás could get started.” Poor Tomás! “He tried everything to stir the bull into action, but the bull kept falling until somehow, almost like a hypnotist, Tomás got the crippled staggering animal to rise to his bait, and the matador and bull managed a series of hair-raising, heartbreaking passes. Now the crowd came to life.” Kimmelman, stickler for objectivity that he is, leaves it to the reader to decide whether “Tomás had prolonged the torture of this poor creature or inspired it, miraculously, to do what no one, including perhaps the bull, thought was possible.” A miracle!
“The kill,” Kimmelman notes, “was appalling. After Tomás got the sword in, having bungled his first try, an assistant stabbed the fallen, struggling animal 11 times in the base of the head with his dagger before finally polishing him off by severing the spinal column. It was sickening. The crowd, displeased, counted each thrust, tauntingly. José Tomás walked off, shamed and distraught.”
Long live the bullfight, indeed.
In 2010 the NYT ran a short article titled “Why I Will Run With the Bulls Again.” Its author waxes lyrical (or tries to) about the annual bull run in Pamplona, in which mobs of people flee from six “fighting bulls” that have been let loose into the street. “To stand in the street,” the author writes, “with a huge knot in the stomach, afraid of the possibilities of what six fighting bulls can do to you, is unimaginable.” A master of the hoary cliché, he goes to express that, as the bulls come stampeding toward you, “you are alive as you are few times in life.” Put exactly the same way one paragraph down, it’s not until you’re “close to the bulls” that “you feel most alive.” Ultimately, it’s an “arcane and unique” experience, a refuge from “boring conformity,” an “elemental event,” a “celebration of life.” Missing from the article is the small fact that, shortly after this “celebration of life,” the same bulls will be heroically stabbed to death by those other-worldly artists known as matadors.
Female bullfighters, of course, are a special class of hero. In addition to sticking swords into bulls, they stick it to the dreaded patriarchy. One of them, Lupita López, was profiled by the Times in 2013. For López, who “navigates this male-dominated world with a flirtatious smile and thick skin,” life was without meaning until she began training as a bullfighter. “I felt that if at that instant [fighting a bull] I would die, I would die feeling fulfilled,” López told the newspaper. Killing bulls, after all, “is no small task.” Beneath this profundity is a charming picture of López sitting on a bed applying lipstick, no doubt to enhance that flirtatious smile, the wall behind her adorned with the severed heads of six deer.
Elsewhere, the NYT eulogizes Patricia McCormick, an American woman who “bucked social convention and a long male tradition” and decided she wanted to earn a living by killing animals on the big stage. The Times notes that while McCormick, who died in 2013, never achieved matador status, “her male counterparts marveled at the artistry of her cape work.” Back to art again. Employing the twisted doublethink common to many people who kill animals for recreation, McCormick claimed to have real affection for the bulls she fought. “After killing the animal,” the NYT tells us, “Ms. McCormick, streaked in blood, knelt down and stroked its head.” Touching. In her memoir, McCormick reportedly wrote, “I loved the brave bull.” This is normal: one matador interviewed for the Kimmelman piece asserted that “Nobody loves the bull more than the bullfighter, that’s for sure.”
Also worthy of NYT profiles are people who collect and renovate the severed heads of “fighting bulls.” This past August the newspaper published a piece called “They Die in the Bullring. Then He Immortalizes Them.” The subject is Spanish taxidermist José Luis Martín Moro, who “has won acclaim for the hyper-realism of his creations, the way he imbues them with emotion.” It goes without saying that the article glorifies bullfighting. But first the author lets us know that “animal rights activists denounce it as cruel”—because one has to be an animal rights activist, not just a regular human being, to apprehend that torturing and killing animals for the purpose of entertainment is cruel. With that out of the way, the author gets down to business. Recalling a bullfight in the customary style, he relates how the matador “waved the animal close, coaxing it into tight, gentle turns, as if the gravel ring were a ballroom floor. When the moment came, [the matador] lifted his sword and thrust it between the bull’s shoulder blades. The strike was pure. The animal staggered for a few seconds and then keeled onto its side. The stands erupted in cheers.” You’d have to be some kind of animal rights extremist to fail to see the poetry in that.
The article proceeds to describe the process by which Moro, after arriving at the slaughterhouse, prepares the freshly-severed heads for his handiwork. The details (think American Psycho) are almost as revolting as the photographs accompanying them, one of which depicts four sets of horns, and the electric saw that had been used to cut them from the bulls’ skulls, lying upon a blood-drenched floor. Of this nightmare Moro says, “I’m living in a dream.”
But bullfighting, as even most Spaniards will tell you, is old hat. The NYT recently happened upon a new, more exciting blood sport to rally around. In September, the third World Nomad Games was held in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar was on hand to cover the event. Reading his article—“Horseback Wrestling. Bone Tossing. Dead Goat Polo. Let the Nomad Games Begin!”—we learn that “the game of kok-boru, with its headless goat carcass, was the main attraction.” In this competition, eight people riding horses “try to scoop up an 80-pound goat carcass off the dirt…. Any player who manages to wrest the carcass away gallops downfield to fling it into an elevated goal about the size of a kiddie pool.” There’s also “bone tossing,” whereby the competitors use “a chunk of cow bone to dislodge two-inch pieces of sheep bone from a large dirt circle,” and hunting with eagles and dogs. Guests of honor at the Games include c-grade action star Steven Seagal and Ankara’s pseudo-sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. First-rate endorsements by anyone’s reckoning.
This is good stuff, according to MacFarquhar, who twice reminds us that Kyrgyzstan is trying to reclaim its national and cultural identities after being robbed of them by the Soviet Union—a point necessary to underscore in the context of our New Cold War with the diabolic, democracy-destroying Russkis. The Times isn’t alone here. In its own glowing review of the Games, The Guardian quotes the event’s announcer as proclaiming, “If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d want to be here.” Akin to advertising a social club by boasting that Caligula would patronize it.
I had to visit an obscure travel blog to get a journalistic account of the World Nomad Games. Surprise, surprise. The Dromomaniac.com reports that each game of kok-boru (“the main attraction” of the event, per the Times) uses a fresh goat or sheep carcass. Thus, the live animals are crowded into a pen somewhere on site, where they wait to be slaughtered, decapitated and thrown around like a rugby ball. The blog post includes a grisly close-up of a horse’s mouth, bleeding badly from a bit that had torn into its flesh during the competition. The post’s author writes that, while talking with one of the American participants, he inquired about the physical welfare of the horses. Shaking his head, the American replied, “No comment.” The author speculates that most participants would dismiss charges of abuse by citing a deep love of their horses. I speculate that he’s right. Lest you forget: no one loves the bull more than the person who tortures and kills it.
So The New York Times is a shameless promoter of extreme animal abuse. This is not so confounding at the end of the day. We’re talking about the newspaper that helped set the stage for George and Dick’s wanton destruction of Iraq. One variety of bloodlust typically leads to another.