So the story goes like this.
Zion (a pit-bull mix)’s spleen needs to be removed. While she is under the effect of the anaesthetic his guardian, a tattoo artist (Alex), tattooed her with “a red heart impaled with an arrow, Cupid-style, with the first name of the inker and his wife”. Afterwards he uploaded a picture of his dog’s new tattoo to Instagram and, as you may suppose, all hell broke loose.
The New York Post reports that a lot of people on Twitter got mad (nothing unusual there); that the owner of the tattoo parole where Alex used to work stated that the tattoo was not done in his shop and that he is an animal lover (implying that what Alex did was wrong?); that animal-rights advocates criticised Alex (as you might expect); and that someone from the ASPCA said that such actions were not something that the ASPCA supported. A spokeswoman from that association said: “The tattooing of an animal for the selfish joy and entertainment of its owner, without any regard for the well-being of the animal, is not something the ASPCA supports”.
There was a lot of clamour and anger (death threats included) around the story, so I thought it would be a good idea to explore and explain quite why cosmetically tattooing a dog is wrong.
Let’s start by saying that tattooing a dog is not inherently wrong. According to the RSCPA identification tattoos are an adequate form of animal identification. They mention that some the reasons for encouraging them are that:
- Identification is the key mechanism for reuniting ‘lost’ dogs and cats with their owners.
- Identification helps ensure that responsibility for an animal’s behaviour can be correctly attributed, for example in the event of a dog attack.
- Visible identification discourages cruelty, theft and fraud, thus helping safeguard the welfare of the animal.
- By clearly connecting owner and pet, identification can reduce the likelihood of abandonment and encourage owners to take responsibility for their animal’s behaviour.
- Identification can be an essential component of legislative systems that seek to ensure owners take adequate responsibility for their animals.
This being the case, some could claim that there is no difference between Zion’s tattoo and other types of dog’s identification tattoos. This would mean that if the people that perform identification tattoos on dogs do not do anything morally wrong, then Alex also did not do anything wrong when he tattooed Zion.
Even when some could find this exculpatory reason compelling I think that there are two problems with it: a problem about how identification tattoos function, and a problem about tattooing itself.
First, if what morally justifies dogs suffering the experience of getting an identification tattoo (that involves a painful procedure, discomfort, the risk of infections, and where the site of the tattoo can take up to three weeks to heal) is that such branding will help them be reunited with their owners, then it is not clear that Zion’s tattoo could be defended on this grounds. Why? Because Zion’s tattoo cannot be considered as an identification tattoo- it does not fulfil two necessary characteristics that an identifying tattoo should possess: i) lasting visibility and ii) adequacy to the norms of a unified registry.
Zion’s tattoo is not located in a place that fulfils the lasting visibility requirement. It should be obvious that her shoulder hair will grow back to its original length and will make the tattoo less visible or not visible at all (although only time will tell). Having this in mind the RSPCA recommends that identification tattoos are done either in the inside surface of the ear pinna or the inside thigh of a rear leg.
Second, and more importantly, Zion’s tattoo is arbitrary in the sense that there is no way in which someone could use it to go to a register and find who is Zion’s owner and how to contact him. It is true that Zion’s case is popularly known but this is not a warranty that someone could actually find Zion’s owner in the case that she gets lost (there is no full name, address and telephone that can be retrieved by only searching her tattoo in a registry). In point of fact the RSPCA warns that: “Owned companion animal tattoos can often be arbitrary or illegible marks, with no useful function for identification.” Identification tattoos only work because there is a standardized numeric or alphanumeric system and a centralised registry that keeps the information associated with each number. Being this the case we can conclude that the lack of lasting visibility and the tattoo arbitrariness means that Alex cannot justify his actions by suggesting that Zion’s tattoo is an extravagant type of identification tattoo.
Artistically (or cosmetically) tattooing a dog is wrong because it is an unnecessary procedure that causes discomfort and pain for no other reason than the joy and entertainment of a person. It is unnecessary in the sense that the tattoo does not promote the dog’s interests but only brings harm to it. It should be obvious that it is morally wrong to wantonly cause suffering to sentient beings.
Someone could defend Alex’s actions by saying two things: first that actually Zion was under the effects of the anaesthetic while being tattooed and therefore she did not suffer and second that people that perform identification tattoos also cause pain to those who are being tattooed and we do not think that they are doing something morally wrong.
Let’s grant, for sake of argument, that Zion did not suffer while being tattooed. I think that even if we grant this Alex’s actions are still wrong because the pain caused by being tattooed is not limited to the tattooing process, but it extends to the healing period (as anyone with a tattoo knows). This means that while Zion’s new tattoo was healing (over up to three weeks) she was enduring unnecessary pain and discomfort (additional to the pain and discomfort caused by the surgery).
In order to address the second point it is important to remember that we have said that the moral justification for tattooing a dog (considering all the welfare implications that we have mentioned) is that the pain to which it is subjected while being tattooed is outweighed by the benefits that an identification tattoo brings about. It is a really good trade-off for a dog to suffer the whole tattoo process in exchange of easy identification and reunion with his owner; instead of being locked in a shelter and afterwards euthanized (if not rehoused rapidly). Alex’s actions cannot be justified on the previous terms because Zion’s tattoo would not help her be reunited with him.
What was wrong with Alex’s action is that Zion was subject to a lengthy, painful and discomforting recovery (that involves risk of infections) only for the joy and entertainment of its owner, and this is clearly a terrible trade-off for the dog. As Zion’s guardian Alex should have known better that putting his joy and entertainment before Zion’s interests. If Alex wanted to express his creativity using Zion as canvas then he could have used something that did not harm the dog as a tattoo does. For example, he could have used a washable colour spray for painting dogs like the one that PetPaint, offers.
Finally it is important to realise and bear in mind that I am not saying or suggesting that Alex is a really bad person who does not care for Zion. For example compare Zion’s history with Petey’s, who apart from being tattooed was neglected and abused. I think that someone who spends thousands of dollars to keep his dog alive and well is commendable. What happened in Alex’s case is that he made a bad decision, that in fact is morally reprehensible, but that does not say that in general he is a bad guardian.