PETA criticizes The Dark Knight for its treatment of animals

You can harm dozens of innocent bystanders but don’t lay a finger on a dog

bat dogNearly every Batman movie, comic book, and television show includes the obligatory references to bats. Directors can be forgiven if they dwell on the flying rodents, either in a literal sense (by giving them regular appearances in caves and flashbacks) or figuratively (personifying their traits and applying them to Bruce Wayne). But in the most recent film adaptation, The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan chose to give much more screen time to another animal: Dogs.

“The Joker’s just a mad dog. I want whoever let him off the leash,” District Attorney Harvey Dent says to crime boss Salvatore Maroni. In another scene the Joker threatens to feed a mobster to his own dogs, saying, “We’ll see how loyal a hungry dog is.” There are at least two instances in which Batman does battle with Rottweilers and after Lucius Fox designs a new bat suit Wayne asks him how well it will fend off dogs. In the final scene Batman is shown fleeing with a number of police dogs in pursuit.

I didn’t connect these dots at the time, but as I was walking out of the theater, a friend of mine — who happens to own a Rottweiler — said that her least favorite parts of the movie are when Batman fights the dogs. I asked her why so.

“Because they’re totally pushing a negative stereotype about Rottweilers,” she said. “They’re reinforcing the idea that they’re these vicious creatures.”

Apparently, she’s not the only one who felt this way. Yesterday, PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — posted an item on its website criticizing the movie for having its hero beat dogs. I spoke to the writer of that post, Christine Doré, in a brief phone interview today. She said that the film could have handled the scenes in a different way.

“Basically, while I personally thought it was a fantastic movie, it was a little disappointing, that part of it,” Doré said. “I think, you know, that it’s funny that this superhero genius that everyone loves, who has all these fantastic gadgets, who never uses guns, that he doesn’t have access to a tranquilizer or other deflecting device.”

I asked her to elaborate on this, but she then tried to reroute me through PETA’s official media department.

David J. Schwartz, film critic for Strange Horizons and author of Superpowers, a novel about a group of young superheros, called the dog beatings “uncool” in his blog while other reviewers argued that the animals were meant to symbolize obedience and loyalty.

Jim Henley is much more ambivalent on the issue. Henley writes about comic books for science fiction publisher Tor, and in a phone interview today he said that Batman’s combat with dogs was justified in this instance.

“Within the context of the movie, the context of the scene, it was an act of self defense,” he said. “My understanding of mainstream animal rights theory — which I’m not by any means completely hostile to — self defense is an understood concept. For instance, you’re allowed to shoot the wolf that’s about to eat your baby.”

He pointed out that the movie is murky as to whether any dogs actually die during the fights — they were typically thrown off camera, and in one instance over a railing — and that’s because directors are typically hesitant to show any graphic violence involving animals.

oskar“Americans are very sentimental about Spot,” Henley said. ” … You’ll see horror movies where people get disemboweled, have their heads sawed off, use staple guns to stick themselves to plaster board. My experience is that you don’t see any of that happen to animals onscreen. I’m happy not to see dogs tortured, but it’s interesting that you’ll see really bad things done to people, and not really bad things done to dogs. Even in The Dark Knight, there’s a reason why it’s a little unclear what happened to the dogs that Batman was fighting. They weren’t going to show the dogs splattering on the street or anything like that.”

I asked my Rottweiler-owner friend what she would have had Batman do in those situations.

“I just really think Batman should have had a gadget that releases treats and distracts dogs,” she said.

While this would certainly be cute, I’m not sure that it would fit the dark theme Nolan was going for.