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November 18, 2002
Graphic slaughterhouse footage and message about
society's double standard on ABC's The Practice
On Sunday, November 17, ABC's drama series, The Practice, included graphic animal cruelty footage. I have never before seen anything like it on national TV, even on a news program. The storyline, called "Small Sacrifices," involved Ellenor defending a Santeria priest who was caught on videotape sacrificing a goat. When such stories hit the papers a few months ago I was struck by the irony of the outcry against the killings which are little different from those taking place by the thousands throughout our country every single day. Apparently one of the writers from "The Practice" had similar thoughts, and more. Last night's episode was an exploration of society's somewhat arbitrary schism with regard to acceptable treatment of nonhuman animals.
The viewer is not left with the impression that what happened to the goat was fine. Sympathetic mainstream characters call the act "disgusting" and "repulsive." The priest says he knows that Ellenor finds the ritual "repugnant." Rather, we learn, and are shown footage to clarify, that similarly disgusting, repulsive and repugnant acts are legal and take place every day. We are told that those of us who eat meat not only tolerate but also proliferate them.
The episode had two lead story lines. I have transcribed the animal cruelty section almost in its entirety; I wanted my subscribers to understand my excitement and to know exactly what was said on the issues rather than just learning my impression of the episode:
The show opened with a conversation between the Santeria priest, named Stanley Jolie, and Ellenor Frutt, (played by Camryn Manheim) one of the attorneys in the fictional legal defense firm on which The Practice is
Stanley Jolie: "We've been doing it in this very church for 17 years Ellenor."
Ellenor: "The problem is that it made the news and it is open season on aberrant religions."
Stanley: "Our faith is partly Roman Catholic. It's not nearly as aberrant as..."
Ellenor: "Sacrificing animals is out there Stanley, at least in the eyes of mainstream America; let's just be clear about that."
Stanley: "I was just saying that we all have our rituals. Look at Christianity, they drink the blood of Christ and they eat his body."
Ellenor: "That's symbolic. You actually killed the animal."
Stanley: "I don't understand. The exact same issue the Supreme Court already ruled on and we already won."
Ellenor: "The difference here is that the law is facially neutral; it is not targeted at religion but only to stop cruelty. Look, I think we should consider a plea."
Stanley: "Fine. I will admit to the facts. I did what they say I did. But I will not stand up in a court of law and acknowledge any form of guilt."
"That's not going to do it. Public opinion is very against you here."
Stanley: "But if I say I am guilty, it is the equivalent of apologizing for my religion. Add to that, they can shut our doors. We need a victory hear Ellenor."
Ellenor: "I can't promise it."
Stanley: "It is a goat for Gods sake. They can put me in jail for killing a goat?"
Ellenor: "That's what I am telling you; they will."
We move to a conversation between Ellenor and her boss, Bobby, played by Dylan McDermott.
Bobbie: "He is insisting on trial?"
Ellenor: "I tried to dissuade him trust me."
Bobby: "Why do we seem to getting so many cases about religion?"
Ellenor: "Hey, if I could make this about religion we'd win. Unfortunately the statute goes to cruelty and the language is neutral."
We move to a court scene and learn that a news reporter, named Danforth, has filmed the slaughter of a baby goat. Ellenor objects to the footage being shown.
Ellenor: "We have stipulated that my client causes animals to be sacrificed as part of religious worship. This tape is only being introduced to inflame the jury."
The judge allows the footage.
We see a group of people surrounding a baby goat. The goat is crying out loudly.
Danforth: "OK, you can see he has a baby goat in his hands."
Prosecutor: "And it's alive."
Danforth: "Not for long it isn't. Keep watching."
As the goat's throat is about to be slit, the camera shifts to Ellenor and to the jurors all of who look very uncomfortable; some look away.
Prosecutor: "What is he doing now?"
(We see blood draining into a bowl.)
Danforth: "He is letting the blood drain into a bowl. It is pretty disgusting."
Ellenor: "I saw your news piece. You seemed pretty outraged Mr. Danforth."
Danforth: "I was. I found what your client did to be outrageous."
Ellenor: "I see. Do you eat meat?"
Danforth: "Do I eat meat?"
Ellenor: "Yes. Ever have a hamburger?"
Danforth: "Yes, I eat meat."
Ellenor: "Do you know how cows are killed?"
Danforth: "I believe they are slaughtered."
Ellenor: "Would it surprise you to learn that their throats are slit, much in the same way as this goat died?"
Danforth: "I am not a fan of slaughterhouses but at least the animal is killed for sustenance. We eat cows."
Ellenor: "So it's not the manner in which the animal is killed but it is what it is killed for?"
Danforth: "Look, I am not going down this road. I just filmed it. It is up to you people to decide if it is illegal."
Ellenor: "Fair enough. By the way, do you know what became of the goat after the ceremony? They ate it. Does that make a difference?"
In the next scene Stanley, the Santeria priest is on the witness stand.
Stanley: "It is basically a traditional religion with elements of Roman Catholicism.
Ellenor: "But the reason we are all here is because of one particular ritual. Can you tell the jury - why sacrifice animals?
Stanley: "It is a way of honoring the Orisha, which literally means head guardian. In simplest terms, the animal's blood is altered - the sacrifice is said to please the saints and bring purification and forgiveness of sins."
Ellenor: "You have to acknowledge, Mr. Jolie, this does seem a little barbaric."
Stanley: "We know that American culture rejects it.
And we therefore try and be as discreet as possible, even secret. We have never tried to impose our rituals or beliefs upon the public. And in fact, the only reason we are here today is because the media invaded us."
Ellenor: "Does the animal suffer?"
Stanley: "The sacrifice is almost always quick and as humane as possible."
Stanley, the priest, is cross-examined:
Prosecutor: "So it is your testimony that what we all saw on the television screen, in your eyes, there was no animal cruelty?"
Stanley: "We try to be as humane as possible."
Prosecutor: "And you do that with lambs, goats, turtles, guinea pigs, sheep? All of those animals - you slit their throats and offer the blood to your saints?"
Next we see Ellenor talking over the case with another lawyer in the office.
Ellenor: "He did well, considering. But he couldn't undo that videotape Eugene. How could he? That footage? That's what the jury is going to take back to that room - that squealing goat.
Eugene: "Well Ellenor, if it is a tale of the tape, then get yourself some tape."
Ellenor: "What do you mean?"
Eugene: "I mean this is America. You think Santerians are the only ones that kill animals?"
In a further conversation with Eugene, Ellenor says,
"This isn't exactly what I went to law school for Eugene - fighting for serial goat killers."
Eugene talks about the importance of the constitution, particularly of freedom of religion. He says, "But that amendment - it says that at least in principal, this country stands for tolerance. And Ellenor, of all the constitutional liberties that need protecting today? Freedom of religion."
Ellenor: "But... I like goats."
Next we are in the courtroom again. Ellenor has called another witness.
Ellenor: "Ms Elder, as a member of the American Humane Society, you have had occasion to document the footage we are about to see."
Elder: "All of the footage is accurate and has been verified."
Ellenor: "Can you narrate Ms Elder?"
Ellenor turns on the video player.
Elder: "That is a cow being killed at a slaughterhouse in Texas."
We, and the jury, see two huge animals, each hanging by one back leg (their weight no doubt causing many of their joints to dislocate) kicking and struggling as their blood drains out.
Elder: "A pig"
We see two pigs hanging upside down, but one shakes free and drops to the floor where we see him covered in blood, kicking and convulsing in death throes.
Jurors cover their faces.
We see a man throwing, and stuffing the birds into a crate. One gets dropped and struggles on the floor.
Elder: "Examples of trapping." (The jury is presumably seeing footage but
the viewer does not.)
Elder: "Laboratory testing."
We see primates with metal devices stuck in their skulls. The camera focuses, close up, on one of their faces.
Elder: "Baby seals - this is Canada not the US."
We see man with a gun, or spear or club (I can't tell which) running after a baby seal who is trying to slither away on the ice.
Ellenor: "The question becomes Ms Elder, are these isolated incidents?"
Elder: "Isolated? Certainly not, it goes on every day."
Elder is cross-examined:
Prosecutor: "Ms Elder I am curious, did you get a chance to see the tape showing what goes on in the defendant's church?"
Elder: "I did."
Prosecutor: "In your opinion did you find the defendant's actions to constitute animal cruelty?"
Judge: "She can give a lay opinion."
Elder: "He slit a goat's neck and let the blood drain out. It was repulsive."
We move to closing arguments.
Prosecutor: "This isn't a case about religion. It is about cruelty to animals. You saw the tape. This man dangled a baby goat as people danced behind him and he slit its throat. He does it with pigs, sheep, turtles, chickens, doves; he pulls out his knife or box-cutters..."
Ellenor objects to the false mention of box-cutters and its innuendo.
The prosecutor continues: "We are not here to pass judgment on the Santerian faith. All of us, every one of us, are free to choose our form of worship; of course we are. But the exercise, the practice of religion has never been absolute. Whether it is public health or safety, or yes, even morals, the state can step in and say, 'Whoa - can't do that.' Here they torture and mutilate animals in an open and notorious manner. We as a society don't tolerate that. How could we?"
"We don't tolerate it? What society is he talking about? We live in a society that slaughters animals for food. We kill them for fur coats. We poison them to test new drugs. We torture animals all the time. We even murder them for sport - we hunt, we fish. We walk up to deer with shotguns and we blow off their heads.
We yank fish out of the water and we let them suffocate at the bottom of our boats. If you want to convict my client for being cruel, fine. But don't you dare do so under some cloak of humanity that we as a society don't torture animals. And I would submit that if we say it is OK to hunt them down and to maim them for recreation, for vanity, or even for Thanksgiving, how do we say no for worship - a traditional worship that dates back over a thousand years? Personally, I don't like what they do. But you cannot condemn this man under some theory that killing animals isn't tolerated by the United States of America, because it is.
Every time you eat a hamburger, you not only tolerate it, you proliferate it."
The jury brings back a finding of not guilty. Since we have seen how upset the jury has been by the footage, we do not get the impression that the finding is based on the opinion that no wrong has been committed. Rather, we are led to believe it is based on the avoidance of the double standard pointed to in Ellenor's closing. The jury seems to realize the hypocrisy of the condemnation of this act by a society that, for now, condones animal cruelty - some almost identical forms, and others even more torturous.
The bulk of animal suffering stems from that double standard. We accept cruel treatment for those species we have arbitrarily designated as food, or in some equally arbitrary forums. The Practice deserves our heartfelt thanks for encouraging viewers to look at their own complicity in causing suffering. The choice to air slaughterhouse footage on mainstream prime time dramatic television was courageous and, to the best of my knowledge, unprecedented. Please thank the producers.
The ABC website says, "E-mail regarding ABC's Primetime and Daytime shows...can be sent directly
to our Audience Relations Department at firstname.lastname@example.org
(I would like to send a big thank you to Joyce from IDA who emailed me
late last night, making sure I caught the show and could tape and share it with all of you. I am on Pacific Time and can often catch what those on the East Coast recommend. I always appreciate those timely tips.)
Yours and the animals',