Who do you think the FBI ranks as America’s number one domestic terrorism threat? The KKK or other white supremacist groups? Nope. Those gun-toting “survivalists” who yearn to bring down the government? No again. Believe it or not, it’s animal rights activists. Let me say that again: animal rights activists are the FBI’s top-ranked domestic terrorism threat. Does that blow your mind? It blew mine. This startling true fact is the jumping-off point for Your Mommy Kills Animals, a superb documentary that shines a light on the dark realities of the animal welfare debate in the United States.
Wanting to prevent animals from abuse or injury is a noble thing, yet there’s little denying that some of the groups that aim to do this are a bit…off. Animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) certainly seem to have their hearts in the right place, yet their tactics are often confrontational and aggressive. They harass people wearing fur, invade the front yards of scientists who engage in animal testing, and break into labs, sometimes even setting them on fire. The film has incredible footage of some of these groups in action, storming labs and protesting at the homes of researchers.
Such activists feel they are morally justified in doing this, since animals are not able to stand up for themselves. Other people view the activists as ignorant and naïve bullies – individuals who don’t understand the enormous benefit animal testing has had on modern medicine. At its most basic level, the argument revolves around how far the rights of an animal extend. The hardcore activists believe animals have the same right to life as humans; the scientific community feels that sacrificing an animal to potentially save a human life is reasonable and conscionable.
Director Curt Johnson (whose short film Thoth won a Best Documentary Short Subject Academy Award in 2002) remains incredibly balanced, giving equal time to all sides of the debate. We hear from the activists, who attempt to justify their actions by detailing the types of cruelty they abhor. We hear from scientists and consumer advocates, who rail against what they perceive as the hypocrisy of the animal rights movement. (One leading animal rights activist is a diabetic, and the insulin she injects herself with daily was certainly tested on animals at some point.) We even hear from a family of mink farmers who have been targeted with death threats for carrying out their business. At various points, they all make sense, and at other points, they all seem to have flaws in their rationale. It quickly becomes clear that this is not a black-or-white issue at all.
One of the key points made in Your Mommy Kills Animals (which derives its name from a PETA-produced comic book aimed at children) is that there is general ignorance about what animal rights groups really do. The public tends to hear the words “save animals” and grant unconditional approval, without looking at what really goes on. The film shows us footage of stars such as Moby, Drew Carey, James Cromwell, and Joe Mantegna appearing at a PETA fund-raiser. Do those stars know that statistics indicate PETA actually euthanizes around 80% of the animals they “rescue?” Or that two PETA members were arrested for rescuing a bunch of puppies, cruelly euthanizing them in the back of a van, then tossing their remains in the dumpster behind a store? And if those celebrities did know, would they continue to support the organization? Would the rest of us?
The debate over the rights of animals figures prominently into the documentary, but there is another deeper, more troubling element looked at as well. Two of the people we meet are Kevin Kjonaas and Josh Harper, members of a group called Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty. Johnson follows them in the days leading up to their trial for acts of domestic terrorism – a trial that threatens to land them in prison. We eventually learn that Harper’s big act of terrorism was to basically waste the toner and fax paper of an animal testing facility. One of the many other interviewees points out that people like Harper (who harmed no one) face jail time, while anti-abortion activists (who sometimes murder doctors, blow up clinics, and harass women who are about the make the most difficult choice of their lives) are not considered a domestic terrorism threat. That same subject goes on to suggest that this double standard is at least partially politically motivated.
Watching Your Mommy Kills Animals, it is impossible to not have your views and ideas challenged. There is more to the whole issue of animal rights than meets the eye. It is intensely political, and with the “terrorism” label now being applied, it is about more than just saving some dogs from having shampoo rubbed in their eyes. I will never view the issue the same way again; I now feel like I have been armed with an arsenal of information that brings the complexities of it into clearer focus.
There is a question many of you will want to ask, and it’s a valid one that I asked the filmmaker myself before viewing the movie: Is there a lot of disturbing animal abuse footage here? I’m a real animal lover; the sight of animals being harmed or injured affects me deeply. Johnson assured me that such footage was minimal and was only used when absolutely needed. I acknowledge that I had to avert my eyes a few times over the course of the movie, but Johnson was correct. The small bit used here is justified. The worst of it comes in the opening credits. I saw a scientist start to take a swing at a beagle and quickly covered my eyes. Then I heard a horrific sound of a dog in pain that was haunting enough. The movie then quickly moved on to its interview subjects.
Later, there are some police photos of dead dogs after the PETA slaughter and some tragic footage of animals that were killed in Hurricane Katrina. If you choose to avert your eyes during these times, you can do so easily without losing the thread of the film. And, in fairness, I have to say that I didn’t feel the footage was exploitative or excessive. In fact, as disturbing as those images are, they help convey the motivations behind people such as Kjonaas and Harper. These are not bad people; they are people who don’t wish to see animals be harmed. Whether their methods are justified or not is up to you. When the movie’s over, you will definitely have an opinion one way or another. Just don’t let the fear of witnessing these moments deter you from seeing what is an important documentary for anyone who loves and cares about animals.
What I look for in a documentary is a fresh perspective; I want to see something I’ve never seen before, learn something I never knew, or understand something in a way I hadn’t previously. By that criteria, Your Mommy Kills Animals is a great documentary because it takes something you think you know about, then shows how things are going on under the surface that you would not have imagined. You walk away shocked, angry, sad, but also informed and even hopeful. (Johnson makes sure to spotlight groups like the Kitty Liberation Front – founded by the Barbi twins - that really do work to protect animals via uplifting methods.) Your Mommy Kills Animals is eye-opening in the truest sense of the word. I was riveted from start to finish. This is one of the year’s best films.
( out of four)
Note: Your Mommy Kills Animals opens July 20 and will roll out wider from there.
Your Mommy Kills Animals is not yet rated but would likely receive an R rating due to language and some graphic imagery. The running time is 1 hour and 46 minutes.
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