Earlier this week, a police horse was allegedly attacked by Ganesh Joshi, a BJP MLA, in Dehradun, during a protest. While the videos don’t show the horse being hit directly, there’s enough evidence that the horse suffered multiple fractures because of the mayhem at the scene. What followed was outrage – at the horrific cruelty, the inappropriate headline by India Today (which broke the news), and of course realms of political trolling online. Although the ensuing media focus on the trending hashtag #ShaktimanSuffers is primarily political in nature, at least it’s mobilising action.
Because let’s face it, a horse’s broken limbs wouldn’t have grabbed headlines if it didn’t come with a splash of politics. The videos, while grainy, show a despicable truth – a shouting mob, a man brandishing a stick and charging at a horse, a horse being yanked down. Whichever way you see it, it’s an appalling act of animal abuse. “Animals claim no political sides. For them, there are no voting rights, just our mercy,” said Bhuvaneshwari Gupta, campaigns advisor at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals India, an animal rights NGO. “The horse’s leg is absolutely mangled, as can be seen in photos online, and the abuse has shocked the entire country.”
PETA India, Humane Society International-India and other NGOs are now petitioning the police, Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah to investigate and take action.
Shaktimaan’s story is not an isolated incident of cruelty. Everyday animal abuse is all around us – owls are stoned down from trees because they are considered inauspicious, fire crackers are burnt on a cat’s face because that’s someone’s idea of a sick joke, dogs are being poisoned or abandoned in cities. However, few of these incidents make it to the news. Rarely are they as hotly debated on national television during prime time as Shaktimaan was. Even on slow news days, animal welfare takes the lowest of priorities.
This is ironic when you consider how social media is overflowing with people cooing over #catsofinstagram, #owlsoftwitter or #funniestanimalsonfacebook. Of course, there are journalists who diligently write about animal rights and do fine stories, but it’s not even close to being a respected beat.
“The media has played an important role in talking about many animal issues,” said NG Jayasimha, the managing director of Humane Society International-India. However, he agreed that it is easier to get media support for issues that are already popular with the public and create headlines. “The difficulty with this approach is that bigger issues such as factory farming and animal testing that are not sensational, don’t get enough media attention,” he added.
It’s not surprising then that animal rights activists have dressed up as crippled chickens to draw attention to battery chickens in the poultry industry, donned a pig costume in the sweltering May heat of Delhi to make a point about cruelty in pig farms, and roped in celebrities to give voice to their issues. “We don’t have the big budget of large corporations to help us reach out to people—like the millions of US dollars McDonald’s reportedly spends on advertising each day,” said PETA’s Gupta. “And with so many kinds of stories for media to consider every day, we have to compete. We instead ensure a high standard of our research and investigations, and rely on our own creativity to share information about animal rights in an eye-catching way to grab the media’s attention.”
Too often, if animals do make it to the news, the media whips itself into a frenzy, framing headlines such as “Sink Teeth into Stray Dog Menace” or “Where Streets are Thronged with Strays Baring Fangs” (don’t miss the quote in the last article – “Stray dogs are dangerous not only because of their teeth but also because they help ticks and other parasites thrive”). Irresponsibly, the media doesn’t challenge the wisdom of statistics such as this one: “Dog bites in Mumbai accounted for more deaths in 20 years than the combined toll in two deadly terror strikes in the city-the 1993 serial bomb blasts and 26/11 attack”.
The Indian media has encouraged everyone to take sides when it comes to man-animal conflicts, traditional animal sports, and dog biting. Yet, connecting the dots, presenting both sides of the story with solid research isn’t that hard. Nuanced journalism, such as this article which sensibly says “Killing isn’t the answer: Kerala must learn from Jaipur how to control stray dogs”, is not just possible, but critically important. “We believe that animal welfare issues cannot be looked in isolation and a balanced approach which looks at the issue in totality is needed,” said Jayasimha.
In some ways, social media is in its own way building pressure on big media, by drawing attention to animal rights violations. In the USA, a study by PETA showed that “animal causes and social media seem to be made for each other” and that there’s increased interest in not only cute animals, but also their natural history and in condemning cruelty. Jayasimha also said that social media is quite animal-friendly and posts about animals do go viral quite easily, especially when they’re accompanied by photographs. “Animal rights is increasingly becoming a priority with the media and public as we can see from the national reaction to the recent horse cruelty case,” said Gupta. “This will certainly help reinforce the fact that nobody should be able to get away with cruelty to animals.”
Where big media becomes important is that it can be less sensational and more balanced in its coverage than social media. It can draw upon science and hard facts. Leave aside the sensationalism, the Shaktimaan case shows that Indians are also concerned about animals abuse and it may have garnered the all-important TRPs, even if animals don’t watch TV or read the news or if there isn’t a political controversy involved.