An Eye Is Upon You - 223: Puppy Love

Published: 26 March, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 223, April, 2013

My last column talked about valid consent and how it must be informed, given freely and with full understanding of the consequences. By definition, children and minors cannot consent but there is also another voiceless, powerless, group that has been subjected to tattoos without consent, animals.

Humans have long used visual markers to display ownership of animals - varying from coloured dye splashes on sheep to cat collars with engraved tags. Whilst not common in the UK, in the US the tattooing of dogs is promoted as an alternative to micro-chipping, considered by many to be safer (without risk of implant migration) more practical (no specialist scanning equipment necessary) and more secure (the visibility of the owners mark may act as a deterrent to thieves). Dog registry service Tattoo-A-Pet asserts, “The current tattooing method is painless, safe and provides permanent identification. It takes 5-10 minutes to complete on an average dog, no anaesthesia is required and the dog feels no pain at the site”.

These practical tattoos, designed to safeguard, are executed by registered pet tattooers, often vets, in controlled situations either whilst the animal is under anaesthetic for another procedure or with appropriate assistance in order to restrain, quiet and comfort the animal. Undoubtedly, the owners that have chosen to I.D. tattoo their pets have carefully considered the gain in safety against the risks and pain involved and believe it to be in the animal’s best interest.

However, no matter how well intentioned, or how practical, the accepting the identifying mark makes the idea of the decorative mark easier to swallow. For if tattooing an animal does not harm it and indeed, even vets participate, then why shouldn’t an animal be tattooed with an aesthetically interesting design, rather than simply a series of numbers or letters? Isn’t the animal’s experience the same? Is tattooing a pet for its owner’s pleasure, really any different from tattooing a pet for the owner’s convenience?

The practice of tattooing human beings dates back at least 5000 years and there are many other ancient rites of adornment too - human beings love to pierce, decorate, augment and alter their appearance, from lip stretching to bindi spots to painted nails, we’re just not content with our naked, blank, selves. Perhaps our need for marks is inherent or genetic - maybe we are suffering from a kind of ‘marking envy’’. After all, humans come in many shades and hues but mostly just in solid colours. Our moles and birthmarks don’t measure up to the tiger stripes, Dalmatian spots and pony piebald’s of our fellow mammals, let alone the colours and patterns seen in insects, amphibians and birds.  

This envy is perhaps evidenced by the casual appropriation of fur, hide and feathers in fashion - from minks to monkeys, alligators to ocelots, humans have rarely rejected the opportunity to literally try on the skins of other animals. Thankfully, many of the species once considered desirable for coats and handbags are now protected and we more often simulate fur rather than harvest it.  

Even so, humans have many other ways of utilising animals - tattooed pigskin is something many of us are familiar with, its often used by apprentices because it affords a better approximation of human skin than commercially available synthetics, yet without the associated risks and issues of starting out on a living, breathing, twitching person. Besides, many butchers treat pigskin as a waste product, is it not better used than discarded, an argument that non-meat eaters sometimes make for wearing leather?

Wim Delvoye, a conceptual artist, has exhibited tattooed pigs, both alive and dead, most notably at his ‘Art Farm’ in China (Delvoye is Belgian but stricter animal rights laws exist in Europe) and in highbrow galleries around the world. Delvoye’s use of pigs for art has been roundly criticised in the press, but is it really so different from what we humans do every day?

The popular press has also featured horrified stories on tattooed hairless cats and dogs, describing it as a “worrying trend” and although there is no evidence to suggest that stories are any more than isolated occurrences it’s certainly true that we’ve started to apply our human desire for decoration to our pets - even if it more usually only amounts to dressing them up.

Our need for decoration might be inherited from our ancestors, it might stem from a more personal root, it might even be a part of the human condition, but no matter what, we must never force it upon the voiceless. We must let dogs be dogs, cats be cats and children be children, for that’s all they need to be.


Text: Paula Hardy-Kangelos