Walter Potter was a taxidermist in the Victorian era who created dioramas of mounted animals, like kittens and bunnies, participating in tea parties and weddings. Though the public flocked to see his “whimsical” creations in 1861, by the time of his death their popularity had significantly waned. Though once a highly successful exhibition, Potter’s heirs couldn’t even give away his collection once the public’s tastes changed and charges of animal cruelty were brought to the fore.
Lots of things were different in 1861. There were no vets; spaying and neutering cats was not a thing. So farmers often killed large quantities of kittens for population control. People lived with that reality. Museum placards claimed that the animals in Potter’s collection died of natural causes, and the public was probably all too happy to swallow that lie, even though it’s not believable. I grew up in farmland and I’ve known a thousand kittens in my day. Only a few have died of “natural causes”–I can probably count them on one hand. A case of distemper, a motherless stray. Certainly, it would be exceedingly unlikely for a dozen matching ginger kittens of the same age and size to all die at once of natural causes. Several times over. But the Victorians were a denial-addled bunch, having just left the scientifically-advanced, education-loving Enlightenment for organ-squashing corsets, sexual repression and charges of female hysteria. Sounds familiar–I guess these things go in cycles.
When I come across something heinous and disturbing in the world, I often try to put myself in the shoes of its practitioners, to help me sort of process the whole thing. Potter lived in a world where kittens couldn’t be saved anyway. Perhaps he started in his vocation by preserving beloved family pets. Perhaps he was already desensitized by his occupation, and indeed by the culture in which he lived, by the time he began his curious hobby. He was an artist of sorts, and I imagine that the task involved a certain amount of craft and engagement. He probably wasn’t killing kittens; they were probably already dead when he received them. And to be honest, one could argue that if the kittens were going to die either way, Potter’s behavior wasn’t even strictly unethical. Just icky.
Still, whatever else was going on, this was a man who skinned kittens.
All the time.
If you wake up one day and find that you’re skinning kittens for a living, I submit, your life may have taken a wrong turn. If I were Potter, I like to think I would have said, “Nah, man. I get that it’s all very confusing and ethically murky. But I will not skin kittens.”
“Skinning kittens is not something I do.”
Culture gets confusing. Ethics get confusing.
But if your culture and your ethics tell you to acquiesce and indeed, to cheer, when a twelve-year-old girl wants to have her breasts removed, perhaps your life has taken a wrong turn. If you don’t protect her with all your might, tell her she’s beautiful, try to keep her intact, side with her over the forces who make her believe she isn’t adequate as she is, perhaps your life has taken a wrong turn.
If your activism centers on hating women, even some segment of them, and rejoicing in violence perpetrated against them; if you can’t find something better to do with your time than to badger lesbians, or others, into sleeping with people they don’t like; if your cause de jour is berating rape victims for seeking asylum from males;
perhaps your life has taken a wrong turn.