Let's take a typical scenario. Someone adopts a kitten from an SPCA and returns home to type "kitten" into the computer's search engine to find out more about the furry feline's needs. But up pops a link to a web site called "Bonsai Kittens" and with one click of the mouse, grotesque images of cruelty fill the screen. This web site caused quite stir in the animal welfare communities world-wide as well as infuriating animal lovers. There are visuals on the site plus "explanations" of how kittens can be kept for weeks in jars to ensure success.

A thorough investigation by the FBI revealed that the site was a hoax. No kittens were harmed. All images are computer generated.

The United States Supreme Court ruling in 2002 is significant. Simulated pictures of a crime, including those of child pornography, cannot be banned. Actual photographs can be banned because to produce them, a crime must have been committed. But to produce simulated, computer generated "photographs", no actual crime need be committed. This includes the depiction of animal cruelty.

It is heartening to note that in South Africa, there is recourse as far as the depiction of animal abuse, cruelty to animals or violations of the Animals Protection Act are concerned, at least in terms of advertisements. Several years ago, the NSPCA complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about a commercial for RADIO SONDER GRENSE which, according to the NSPCA depicted violations of the Animals Protection Act. They weren't real sheep. They were dummies or puppets. The ASA ruled in favour of the NSPCA and instructed that the offending advertisement be withdrawn in its existing format, stating that even though no animal was actually harmed during the making of the ad and imitation sheep were use, "To the viewer, perception is reality." In a further landmark advertisement, the ASA ruled that a radio advertisement for COURTYARD HOTELS must be withdrawn even though there were no animals in the ad. It depicted cruelty through sound effects.

The issue is the depiction of animal cruelty, irrespective of whether cruelty takes place. The USA has a "Crush Act" which defined "the depiction of animal cruelty" as "Any visual or auditory depiction, including any photograph, motion-picture film, video recording, electronic image or sound recording of conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed, if such conduct is illegal under federal law or the law of the state in which the creation, sale or possession takes place, regardless of whether the maiming, mutilation or killing took place in the State." Now that's interesting! It effectively means that people are prohibited from knowingly creating, selling or possessing depictions of animal cruelty with the intent to gain from them. Sadly, there's the catch. Unless the materials are in your possession for commercial gain, you can't be prosecuted. But it's a good start.

An element that needs to be added to the argument here is that the filming of animal abuse and the possession of material depicting cruelty to animals isn't restricted to people with ghoulish tendencies or malicious intent. SPCA personnel take visual evidence of incidents of abuse to use as proof in Court, to substantiate their case and to support their affidavits. It is powerful and admissible evidence. If being in possession of material depicting abuse and contraventions of the Animals Protection Act were offences, then it examples of possession of this nature should be taken into account.

Another example or possible model is a law in Illinois which makes it a crime simply to possess depictions of animal cruelty, irrespective of their intended purpose and certainly is not limited to depictions intended for commercial gain. But exceptions are made for depictions that have religious, scientific, political, educational, artistic or historical value. We just wonder if that isn't leaving things wide open indeed when we consider what abuses to animals and atrocities have taken place in the name of science, art / culture or education. The mind boggles at what a wide range of exceptions could be argued. Cynics might say that all that's left is the category we could easily call "malice".

The law also specifies that it does not apply to law enforcement or humane investigator training. So organisations like the SPCA in the USA may use footage of animal abuse or cruelty to train their own Inspectors and, of course, they are able to take footage at the scene of crimes to be used in their cases where charges are laid. It's called collecting evidence.

Back we come to the issue of simulated cruelty, especially as it is extremely difficult even for experts to determine whether visuals are simulated or genuine photographs. It took trained law enforcement agents long enough to conclude that the Bonsai Kitten web site photographs were simulated and even then, nothing could be done. The web site could not be closed down.

The advent of Internet and e-mail has served to make matters worse. We all know how quickly a message can be sent out to everyone in your computer's mail box. The NSPCA was inundated with protests at the web site we mentioned. It took time and considerable effort to convince people it was a hoax and to beg them to stop sending e-mailed messages of protest. They served no purpose. Nothing could be done. The NSPCA shared the anger and disgust of people at the depiction of animal cruelty - simulated or otherwise - but to ask the NSPCA to put a stop to something being generated by a computer on another continent was asking a bit much.

Can anything be done if you come across the depiction of cruelty to animals? Firstly, please report it. The NSPCA or your local SPCA may know about it but they also may not. Rather then venting your undoubted feelings of fury or outrage, try to save time by concentrating on detail: - when, where, what etc. The source needs to be investigated.

The public can also help enormously by supporting the efforts of the SPCA movement to minimise and hopefully eradicate the unacceptable treatment of animals as depicted in the media, especially on reality television programmes but also in serials. We recall a dog being kicked in an episode of an SABC "soapie" some years ago. This was pointed out as a violation of the Animals Protection Act and undesirable. When the matter hit the media, the NSPCA was ridiculed and not all members of the public supported it stance. But the acceptance of any depiction of cruelty even with the worn-out justification that it was "tongue-in-cheek" is a step towards accepting more serious depictions of animal abuse - or at least of setting precedents that by not objecting there is tacit acceptance.

Here's hoping that with NSPCA vigilance and continued lobbying with public awareness and public protest, the day will come when you can type "kitten" into your computer and the only images to appear will be cute and cuddly.

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