Why Do We Value Some Species More Than Others?

Artist Joseph Grazi is known for his eccentric shows, extensive research and balancing his fine art career with his Orthodox Jewish background, as documented in the film Primal Heritage


In his latest exhibition, Cecil: A Love Story, on view at Joseph Gross Gallery in New York, Grazi uses a variety of media, including drawing and taxidermy, to examine the public debate surrounding Cecil the lion, whose killing by Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist, sparked global outrage.

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Cecil lived in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, where he was a beloved local icon and was being studied by the University of Oxford. (image: Sheila Hammer/Shutterstock)

Grazi creates a dialogue surrounding how we process atrocities committed against animals deemed beautiful versus those considered ugly, and delves into the rose-tinted lenses of Western privilege. At the same time, the artist explores the suction of internet activism with the consideration of easily digestible narratives such as, “Wealthy White Male Kills Defenseless Lion.”

I spoke to Grazi about how he used the artistic process to explore Cecil’s story.

Alexandra Fanning: What did you initially think and how did you react when you first heard about Cecil the lion’s death?

Joseph Grazi: My initial thoughts were ruined by the public outcry, because I read about it first just like most everyone else probably did, which was through an angry friend posting it on Facebook. So my first reaction was to the reaction rather than the event itself.

AF: What encouraged you to explore this event in your artistic practice?

JG: I actually never thought about it artistically at first. Morality and aesthetics have always been a part of my work and I executed a few lion pieces before I realized that it was all really just one thing, almost perfectly contained into one news story and public reaction.

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Artwork by Joseph Grazi (image courtesy Joseph Gross Gallery)

AF: How does your work explore and respond to the public’s reaction to Cecil?

JG: I like to explore what we as a species find aesthetically pleasing and what we do not, and it’s easy to see a strong correlation between what we like and what we assign life value to. The ladybug vs. the cockroach, the eagle vs. the bat, the lion vs. the pig. We tend to assign value to animals based on completely superficial aspects of the animal's life.

If you ask someone to tell you what is so special about a lion, they will use words like "majestic" and "noble," which scientifically don’t mean anything—certainly not to the point where it would make a certain animal’s life worth that much more than others. The incident fit so well into my own personal artistic narrative that it seemed the obvious conclusion to completely merge the two.

AF: People had a pretty intense reaction to Cecil, who despite being a Zimbabwean icon was unknown prior to his death. 

JG: Cecil is arguably now the most famous or discussed actual lion to ever live at this point. But a tiny percent of public knew of his existence. In fact, his death is the only reason most people ever found out about him in the first place. The media picked it up so readily because it had such an easy narrative for most people to rally behind: a subjectively “beautiful” and “innocent” animal gunned down by a rich, white dentist who paid handsomely for the privilege. It was a gift by the gods to the world of cyber-shaming. We love to cyber-shame, and this was a narrative that both conservatives and liberals could easily get behind together, something that doesn’t happen often in America anymore.

AF: Do you think Cecil’s death and the intense media focus that followed was the start of something big for animal rights, or do you feel like it was only a hashtag trend?

JG: Well, only a year or two ago out it’s hard to tell, but I would say it certainly was something "big" that happened in the world of animal rights and I definitely don’t think it was a bad thing. But it’s hard to know if it was progressively good. The best thing that could happen from this would be to inspire more people to take safaris. To eliminate trophy hunting would require an influx in eco-tourism. But safaris are extremely expensive and reserved predominantly for the wealthy, so it is more difficult to push on the general public.

AF: Tell me about your fascination with animals, dead or alive.

JG: Always had pets growing up and gravitated towards animals in general. Although I can’t tell you 100 percent why. Though many non-human species have “culture,” there is something about the bareness of animals’ appearance and behavior—no clothes, no laws—just pure existence. I definitely found something tranquil in that. 

AF: How did you get into taxidermy and how do you acquire the animals for your work?

JG: I was actually inspired by one of the intros to Christopher Nolan’s "Batman" entries. There was a scene where millions of bats flew around and for a split second formed the bat logo. I felt a compulsion to capture that scene and set out to see if I could. It wasn’t till I got my first bat that I become so engrossed with them aesthetically.

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Artwork by Joseph Grazi (image courtesy Joseph Gross Gallery)

AF: What is the difference between ethical and unethical taxidermy?

JG: I think that taxidermy is just a byproduct and doesn’t weigh into the discussion of ethics. The discussion is about whether or not killing is ethical or unethical, and if we’re going to kill, then how, and if we’re going to keep them alive, then how. Ethics evolve to dictate these things, but once an animal is dead, I don’t see the difference between a rug, a belt, a purse, or a full taxidermy piece.

AF: Is there a special way to deal with the animals you taxidermy?

JG: Once they’re in the piece they’re there not to be touched and just to be looked at. Good taxidermy lasts a very long time, and a hands-off approach is always best.

AF: How do you think people’s perception and opinions of animals change once they’re dead versus when they were alive? We only cared about Cecil in death.

JG: It often depends on how “alive” they look. Nobody will be freaked out by a leather purse, but they might by seeing taxidermy—even if they acknowledge that it is the same thing. In fact, people get angry about taxidermy way more then they get about bones and skeleton displays, even though they are quite similar in scientific representation. There are certain visual cues that make us uncomfortable.

We know that meat was once alive. The biggest food chains in America are all meat-oriented. The vast majority of Americans eat meat and are fine with it. We know where it comes from, but if you show someone with a gun and a dead deer, we get angry. We want to eat meat and that is easier to do for us if we don’t ever have to see the animal alive. Seeing that it was once alive can manifest into discomfort, which can manifest into anger.

AF: Was the public outrage about Cecil’s killing appropriate?

JG: We shouldn’t let anger get misplaced—it takes away from the times we should be angry. And to think more about the cultural phenomenon of cyber-shaming, and the fast rate that it can spread. How hate can spread like wildfire whether it’s warranted or not.  And how contagious anger can be, whether it is justified or not. And when America is angry about everything, then nothing gets done. We should be angry when there is a call to be angry. We get just as fired up about a terrorist attack than we do about Harambe the gorilla. And just like a little kid, if we complain about everything, our parents are going to eventually ignore us, even when the complaint is warranted.

Let’s not be a society of boys that cried wolf. And let’s call the Cecil incident what it is: a person killing an animal. Nothing more, but also nothing less. It is something that we do every day as a society, but in much more cruel ways via factory farming.

Cecil’s life compared to the life of a chicken or pig in a factory farm is not even comparable. One lived a life of being purely wild up until the day; the other is literally tortured to death over long spans of time. Yet only the first induces mass rage. I hope my work helps viewers to look further inward at the inconsistency of these behaviors and perhaps, over time, adjust for the better. 

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Artist Joseph Grazi (image: Max Noy Photo)

AF: Does your artwork provide a unique way for people to get involved in issues, as opposed to merely reading or watching the news?

JG: I’m actually hoping that my art inspires people to read more and watch more news—and not just the headlines. So much rage is misplaced due to a lack of information. Trophy hunting is an extremely complex issue that the majority of people enraged by it do not fully understand. Reading more helps that. I also hope my artwork gives people a new and unique way in which to see animals that they previously disliked as well. The bat, for many, is an animal that evokes initial discomfort. My work aims to show them in a way that hopefully dispels that fear.

AF: What is the main takeaway you'd like people to have after seeing this work?

JG: That if a lion is on a pedestal, then a pig should be next to him. Life is life. And death is death.
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