July 29, 2009
Race, Gender and Animal Cruelty Collide in the Bronx
Earlier this month, 17-year-old Cheyenne Cherry was sentenced to one year in jail for burning a kitten alive in a 500-degree oven. Harassed outside the courthouse by animal rights activists and by one woman who traveled from Long Island to witness sentencing, Cherry did nothing to endear herself to the public. Smirking, sticking her tongue out, and yelling, “It’s dead, bitch!” sealed her fate according to some reporters, who have labeled her just one more offender in a line of recently convicted teenager animal abusers. Called “a heartless kitty killer” by the New York Daily News, some newspapers found this sensationalized story worth editorializing while other prominent outlets like The New York Times ignored it altogether.
There are some excellent conversations going on about the intersections of this issue: gender, race, the media, and animal rights/welfare. Notably left out of many stories is the detail that in addition to being a low-income young woman of color, Cherry is a lesbian; the target of her malicious act was her former girlfriend.
There hardly seems to be public consensus about Cherry’s case. Many progressives decry the sentencing of any person, regardless of the crime, and cite this as one more example of a jailed young person of color who will not be rehabilitated but simply locked away. On the other side of the debate, there are angry outcries that her sentence is too short and will be ineffective. Few have sensitively addressed the myriad issues in this case: Cherry’s difficult personal history, the intersection of oppressions between Cherry’s own life and her harm to the kitten, or the parallels between Michael Vick’s media treatment and her own.
To me, it’s a little confusing why people parse the difference between killing house pets and the slaughter that happens in the name of dinner. People love to decry the burning of a kitten – a horrendous act, to be sure – but why are cuddly animals given priority over those who live (and die daily) on farms all across the country? The New York Post even made the unironic connection -- explaining that Cherry “roast[ed the cat] like a Thanksgiving turkey” -- in their coverage. Call me humorless; I fail to see why brutality and sadness – that enacted by or upon Cherry – should be depicted as witty.
I also wonder why Cheyenne Cherry seems to incur such wrath when men like Michael Vick are offered public rehabilitative support from high profile organizations. Vick’s agreement to work with the Humane Society of the United States is all well and good, but the media’s search for remorse among convicted abusers is startlingly shortsighted and biased. I’d love to see a more thoughtful approach in cases like these – and I’d love for reporters to explore the humanity in Cherry, despite her despicable actions. Without pathologizing Cherry, one has to wonder which came first: her oppression of others or the oppression she has survived.