The Daily Show With Jon Stewart is something I watch religiously. Like the clowns in medieval courts, Jon and his colleagues tell truth to power through humor, wit and outrage. I am a fan because they are usually dead right in their take on things. So, while still laughing, I cringed when they recently took on People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals. PETA is a group famous for their use of street theater to make serious points about the way we treat animals. Whether they throw blood on fashion victims still wearing fur or get famous people to ‘pose nude rather than wear fur,’ PETA is expert at creating controversy, and equally good at moving the bar in how we treat animals. If you doubt this, remember back when rabbits were blinded to test mascara and what an outrageous idea it was to ban this practice. This and many other animal cruelties are no longer done due to PETA’s work. The organization has helped us evolve our view of animals.
PETA’s latest gambit was to sue SeaWorld for violating the 13th amendment of the constitution which prohibits slavery, claiming SeaWorld was ‘enslaving’ orcas to work for them. The PETA suit says animals should be protected under the 13th amendment, something The Daily Show mercilessly lampooned with the use of Wyatt Cenac, an African American comedian who took satirical offense to the comparison of the orca’s situation with American slavery. The PETA representative, who seemed like she had been poked in the head with a stun gun, was incapable of mounting a defense when Cenac compared her having a dog with using orcas for entertainment. The whole thing was funny and outrageous, and I laughed in spite of myself. But it was absolutely on the wrong side of the issue.
The Daily Show took sides with the powerful (SeaWorld) instead of the powerless (the orcas), and ignored a much bigger truth: pets are not wild animals deprived of life in the wild. Dogs and cats are domesticated animals who live like kings in the houses in which they end up. Most people view their pet companions as members of their family, and treat them as such, spending 50 billion dollars a year on them in the United States alone. They curl up with you at the family hearth because they have been doing so for 10,000 years. It is now in their nature to live like this rather than in the wild.
Orcas are exactly the opposite. They are wild animals with complex familial relationships. They are smarter than your toddler and are meant to swim for hundreds of miles a day. What they are not meant to do is live in a tank and be trotted out for three shows a day so that a company can make millions of dollars off them. It is against their nature for orcas to live this way. Likewise, the chickens in their cages featured in The Daily Show’s satire live lives of torture: de-beaked, unable to move, and living in constant light, which drives them insane. They are unable to be chickens. The pigs featured in the piece are also unable to move, to root, to fulfill their nature as pigs.
This is the bigger truth Jon Stewart ignored: animals need our protection so they can live lives that are inherent to their nature. Humans need to change the conversation about how we view and treat animals, whether they are wild, domestic or grown for food. This is what PETA is trying to do. For even though animals aren’t human, it has been proven that they can suffer, communicate and form deep emotional bonds with both humans and themselves. It is our ethical duty to end their suffering. To make fun of an organization that is dedicated to helping animals, as wide a target as PETA might sometimes be, intrinsically aligns you with the corporations that exploit animals. It’s cheap and easy and not taking on the truly powerful in this equation. The object of satire should be the company that claims it is ‘helping’ the orcas with outreach and education to humans, while consigning them to servitude. The performing animals in Barnum & Bailey’s Traveling Circus, elephants who are forced to live in cattle cars and tortured into doing things no elephant should do, have the same situation on land.
It amazes me that the most venal of humans has the power to do almost anything to the most magnificent of wild animals, from elephants to wolves to whales. Orcas aren’t people, and the suit was rightfully thrown out. But they are slaves, whether it’s convenient to see them as such or not. Orcas are held captive in a situation against their nature and they are forced to work in order to make money for their masters. What else could you call it?
Jon, use your bully pulpit not to take down the excesses of PETA, but to expose the excesses of the powerful companies that inflict untold misery on animals, who have no voice and no power to protect themselves. That is a better use of your powerful satire.
— Arthur Jeon, Global Animal co-founder