A DISCUSSION OF LAW AND JOURNALISM

Tag: butterfly exhibit

Butterflies: Animals or Art?

Britain Damien Hirst

By LASIS Staff

Artist Damien Hirst has never found favor amongst animal rights activists. He earned his reputation through his exhibit of a formaldehyde-soaked shark and sculpture of a severed cow’s head.

But some organizations have felt that his latest exhibit, “In and Out of Love” at the Tate Modern in London went too far.

On October 14, The Telegraph announced that the 23-week art retrospective had led to about 400 butterfly deaths per week, for a total death toll of over 9,000 butterflies, many which were squashed or stepped on when they came into contact with museum visitors.

The American organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) took issue, calling butterflies “beautiful parts of nature and should be enjoyed in the wild instead of destroyed for something predictable and unimaginative.”

A representative for Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), went further, stating, “There would be national outcry if the exhibition involved any other animal, such as a dog. Just because it is butterflies, that does not mean they do not deserve to be treated with kindness.”

The museum itself has defended Mr. Hirst’s exhibit, stating, “The butterflies used in this work were all… selected from varieties known to thrive in the conditions created. The butterflies lived out the final state of their natural life cycle inside this room.”

The Daily Mail also reported that Mr. Hirst claimed he employed a butterfly expert for his exhibit at “considerable cost,” and that the living conditions created at the museum were “perfect,” resulting “in many butterflies enjoying longer life spans due to the high quality of the environment and food provided.”

We weren’t sure where we stood on this. On the one hand, butterflies are nowhere near as developed a life form as man’s best friend, so the RSPCA’s argument didn’t resonate with us. On the other hand, the survival rate for the butterflies in the exhibit as reported by The Telegraph — a couple of hours to several days  – measures poorly against the butterflies’ actual lifespan in the wild—which is several months.

So we wondered. Would butterflies be considered “animals” under animal rights laws? Could someone succeed in a lawsuit under some sort of theory of “animal cruelty”? LASIS took up the case.

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