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Looking Death in the Eyes

Thoughts on a Culture Psychologically Divorced From Death

Photo: Snake charmers

Photo: Snake charmers (View larger version)

Photograph by NGT

By Abigail Rodriguez, Associate Producer

Published

When I first started working on the series Animal Underworld with Henry Rollins, it seemed like it was going to be just another one of those TV shows that highlight the weird, weirder, and weirdest of the animal and human world. But pretty quickly it started raising deeper questions as well–ones without easy answers.

As I started talking to anthropologists, professors, and the characters of our film I was surprised to find myself rethinking and reconsidering how I thought (or didn’t think) about how we interact with animals. The saran-wrapped styrofoam trays at the grocery store that don’t resemble anything like living creatures say it best: we are a culture psychologically divorced from death. Most of us reject anything that reminds us of it. So how to deal with people who aren’t afraid to look death–whether it's their own, or an animal's–straight in the eyes? What about the people who even seek it out: whether it’s a guy like Clinton Holt, who got his head clamped in the jaws of a gator while he was practicing the Seminole sport of gator wrestling; or Dennis Borba, who puts himself in the ring with bulls; or Arthur Clayton, who keeps a room full of venomous snakes and a croc named Nigel as a pet; or people in Vietnam who gather in their backyards to watch two chickens fight to death? Most of us want to just dismiss these guys as “fringe”, or “crazy”, or “inhumane.” But what, exactly, merits those labels?

Within minutes of picking up Henry at the Alexandria, Louisiana airport for our first shoot, I knew we had the right host for the series. This was a guy that could tell you the scientific name of pretty much every snake on the planet, had memorized all the amendments to the US Constitution, was disarmingly formal, polite, and professional–but wasn’t afraid to ask some uncomfortable questions. (Added bonus: he’s a native of Glover Park, coolest neighborhood in DC.)

And as we started filming everywhere from the bayous of Louisiana, to the suburbs of Miami, to the backyards of Vietnam–there were definitely plenty of uncomfortable questions to be asked. In our minds, we like to put people and practices in neat comic-book-style compartments: evil villain, noble hero, barbaric practice, adorable pet–but the reality is much messier and more complex.

Take cock fighting. Most of us have no problem with someone whacking the head off of a chicken, given the probable contents of our refrigerators–so what’s the big deal with families who had raised chickens in their backyards for cockfighting for generations? At the end of both the dinner or the fighting-ring scenario the chicken is dead. But most Americans condone one and condemn the other. Why?

Or take pets. We don’t bat an eye at people who treat their dogs or cats like human children–but what if you want to keep an animal that’s more dangerous like a croc or a big cat or a venomous snake? Where’s the line between the reality of animal instinct and our constant cultural anthropomorphization of animals? How far should the law go in outlawing people’s thrills and preferences? Meeting one of our characters, Arthur Clayton, caused me to take a second look at what I saw every day around me. Watching people with their pets on my way to work with new eyes caused me to realize if I was an alien just landing on planet earth and seeing these human beings being dragged around on leashes and picking up excrement for their canines, I would definitely think the pets were the masters and the people were the property.

Hopefully this Animal Underworld series–and especially this episode–will make you take a look with new eyes at what you consider normal and consider why that is, and ultimately, if it is normal after all.

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