Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Starving a dog as "art" brings pressure on Nicaragua to adopt a humane law

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2008:

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras--Costa Rican shock artist Guillermo "Habacuc" Vargas may become a real-life Central American counterpart of the Ancient Mariner, whose fictional excess and punishment helped an entire society to consider how to respond to cruelty toward animals.

More than two million people have signed Internet petitions denouncing Vargas. Thousands have pledged to ensure that he will not escape his past.

"As part of an exposition in Managua, Nicaragua, in August," summarized Rod Hughes of Costa Rica News on October 4, 2007, "Vargas allegedly found a dog tied up on a street corner in a poor Nicaragua barrio and brought the dog to the showing. He tied the dog, according to furious animal lovers, in a corner of the salon, where the dog died after a day. The exhibition included a legend spelled out in dog food reading 'You are what you read,' photos, and an incense burner that burned an ounce of marijauna and 175 'rocks' of crack cocaine. In the background, according to reports, the Sandista national anthem was played backward.

"According to the artist," Hughes continued, "his 'art' was a tribute to Natividad Canda, a Nicaraguan burglar killed in Costa Rica by two Rottweilers guarding property he had entered at night."

Hughes' account was largely translated from the newspaper La Nacion, of San Jose, Costa Rica, which added, "The dog died the day after the exhibition, as was confirmed to La Nación by Marta Leonor Gonzalez, editor of the cultural supplement of La Prensa in Nicaragua."

The severely emaciated condition of the dog has been documented in numerous published photographs of the exhibit, many of them close-ups of the dog, others showing the dog in the background while focusing on other parts of the gallery.

"We heard about this three days after it happened, and the poor dog had already died," McKee Project administrator Carla Ferraro told ANIMAL PEOPLE.

The McKee Project, the leading dog-and-cat sterilization program in Costa Rica, was only one of many Costa Rican pro-animal organizations to respond--but Vargas was beyond prosecution. The dog was tied and starved outside of Costa Rican jurisdiction, while Nicaragua has no humane law.

"Vargas, 32, said he wanted to test the public's reaction, and insisted that none of the exhibition visitors intervened to stop the animal's suffering," reported Gerard Couzens, Madrid correspondent for the London Observer, after the furor followed Vargas to an appearance in Spain. "He refused to say whether the animal had survived the show," Couzens added.

"Juanita Bermúdez, director of the Códice Gallery," where the Nicaraguan exhibition was held, "insisted Natividad escaped after just one day," Couzens continued.

Claimed Bermudez, "Natividad was untied all the time except for the three hours the exhibition lasted, and was fed regularly with dog food that Habacuc himself brought in."

"Our attempts to discuss the matter with Vargas' representative were met with silence," posted the World Society for the Protection of Animals. "When Vargas was invited to enter the VI Central American Visual Arts Biennale, to be held in Honduras this year, WSPA met with Empresarios por el Arte, one of the sponsors of the Honduras Biennale."

The outcome, WSPA announced, was that "the Biennial organizers have agreed not only to make the Honduras Association for the Protection of Animals and their Environment official observers but also to include new competition rules that prohibit abuse of animals."

In addition, WSPA said, it and a Nicaraguan member society "are supporting a campaign, led by the Commission for Natural Resources and Environment of the Nicaraguan Assembly, calling for legislation to protect animals in Nicaragua."

If Nicaragua adopts a humane law, the Vargas case will parallel the influence of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a way largely overlooked by literary critics.

Samuel Coleridge published the first edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798, 22 years before Britain had a humane law--but Coleridge was aware of the need for one, and moved in the same circles as some of Britain's most prominent early animal advocates. As The Rime of the Ancient Mariner gained popularity, parallel to the efforts of William Wilburforce and "Humanity Dick" Martin to push a humane law through Parliament, Coleridge produced updated and expanded editions in 1800 and 1817.

The central character of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a sailor on a ship that is led out of treacherous Antarctic waters to safety by an albatross. The Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross. Catastrophe follows. All of the crew die except the Ancient Mariner, but not before he is punished by being forced to wear the remains of the albatross around his neck, to remind himself and the world of his deed.

One of Samuel Coleridge's descendants, Stephen Coleridge (1854-1936) acknowledged The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as his inspiration throughout a long tenure as president of the British National Anti-Vivisection Society.

Stephen Coleridge's 9-point "Animals' Charter" is believed to be the earliest incarnation of the document now called the Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare, promoted by WSPA in hopes of getting the United Nations to adopt it as an international convention.

Costa Rican president Oscar Arias Sanchez on March 5, 2008 became the one millioneth person to sign a petition seeking passage of the Universal Declaration. Costa Rican vice president Laura Chinchilla, environment minister Roberto Dobles, and education minister Leonardo Garnier signed the petition at the same ceremony, and then passed the petition among the audience to collect further signatures, said a WSPA press release.

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