Sniffy the Rat

I have seen cats, dogs, reptiles, poisons, sticky tape and metal traps kill rats. Although perfectly legal, all of these rat-killing methods strike me as rather painful. Which of course, begs the question, ”Is there a painless way to kill a rat?”

After doing a bit of research, I found the answer and sent this announcement to the news media:

On Saturday, 6 January 1990, artist Rick Gibson will crush Sniffy, a live rat, between two pieces of canvas in front of Vancouver’s downtown library. The purpose of this free art lesson is to show shoppers how rats and other small animals can be cheaply and humanely killed for the sake of art.

Sniffy will be instantly crushed by a specially designed art-making machine. Gibson says, “I have invented an artistic technique that I want to share with shoppers. I checked with the Vancouver SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and I was told that my machine is both legal and humane. Sniffy won’t know what hit him and the result will be an artistic diptych.”

The artist got Sniffy from a pet shop which sells rats as live pet food for snakes and lizards to eat.

The art machine was mobile. It had four wheels and it could be pulled with a rope. It also had signs that hung from a black shelf. One sign read, “FREE Art Lesson soon” and another sign read, “This rat is going to die.” A piece of white canvas lay on top of the shelf. Sitting on top of the canvas was a clear plastic cage, and running around at the bottom of the cage was a live rat.

PICTURE: black and white publicity photo of Gibson standing beside the rat crushing art machine.

Suspended above the cage was another piece of white canvas attached to the bottom of a concrete block. The heavy block was held in place by a clamp. If the clamp was released, the concrete block would slide down a steel pole and crush the caged rat between the two pieces of canvas.

Dangling from the top of the pole were rat traps and rodent poisons.

Shortly after receiving the press release, the Vancouver Province newspaper published this news story:

Animal lovers are vowing to stop the killing of a rat in the name of art.

Controversial Vancouver artist Rick Gibson, who has run into trouble with the law before, plans to crush Sniffy the rat in front of the Vancouver downtown library at Robson and Burrard streets.

But Ingrid Pollak of the Vancouver Humane Society said yesterday the society’s lawyer is already trying to stop the killing.

“It’s not only ridiculous, it’s definitely sick,” she said.

John vander Hoeven of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) admits he is powerless to charge Gibson unless the animal suffers.

“We are totally and utterly opposed to it, but if the animal is killed instantly it is legal,” said vander Hoeven. “There are certain animals that can be killed, and the rat is one of them.”

The same newspaper later reported Michael Weeks, the director of Vancouver’s SPCA, as saying:

“There’s no official way to stop Gibson. But I don’t think it will happen. I don’t think the people will let it happen. There are people driving from Seattle and flying from Toronto to stop this event.

“I have personally received more than 50 telephone calls from outraged animal lovers. A number of individuals have said to me, ‘I’ll personally smash the guy’s face in, I won’t let it happen.’ This is the sort of thing where people take the law into their own hands.”

Animal rights activists are also angry that the SPCA has not taken any action to stop Mr. Gibson.

Mr. Weeks said that “although the perception is that it’s totally inhumane, the reality is it is probably a humane way of killing a rat.”

However, Peter Hamilton, the director of the Lifeforce animal-rights group, said:

“If Gibson plans to drop a brick on the animal, he’ll have to drop a brick on me too. We have a moral obligation to protect an animal that can’t defend itself.”

Hamilton said his group will move in to stop the killing. “As soon as Gibson steps onto the street, we’re going to stop him,” he said.

In my defence, I was quoted as saying:

“I got the idea for this performance from the SPCA, which humanely euthanizes unwanted pets every day. I wonder how the public would feel if the SPCA started to kill those animals in buildings made of clear glass.”

The Washington Post further added:

The city police have said that they will not attempt to stop Sniffy’s death. “We don’t anticipate any action unless there is some suffering by the animal,” said a police spokesperson. “We don’t deal with the emotional aspects.”

And in the same newspaper, Ingrid Pollak, from the Vancouver Humane Society, pointed out that:

“Vancouver is a very peaceful, quiet city. I think, for a lot of the people who have phoned us, it’s not so much an issue of animal protection as the security of our community standards. What has appalled people is the lack of willingness of our city officials to come out with strong statements that this kind of brutal spectacle should not happen on our Vancouver streets. Instead, our officials have simply shrugged their shoulders.”

As the event day drew closer, public hostility towards me grew to a point where I became concerned about the rat’s safety. Hence, as a precaution, I secretly gave the rat to a friend who lived close to the downtown library. Our plan was for my friend to safely return the rat to me on the day of the event.

However, on the morning of the event, while I was loading the art machine into the back of a truck, several people rushed towards me shouting, “We won’t hurt you.”

Acting on instinct, I went inside the house and closed the door. I then heard these people go into the back of the truck and take the art machine.

After they left, I went outside, looked at the empty truck and phoned my friend who still had the rat. I told my friend that, since the art machine was gone, I couldn’t guarantee the rat a humane rendering. So we changed our plan: the rat would stay with my friend while I went downtown to end of the event.

Since I no longer needed the truck to take the art machine to the library, I used public transit. When I exited the Burrard SkyTrain station in central Vancouver, I unexpectedly met Paddy and Susi (Directors of the Pitt Art Gallery), who generously offered to walk with me to the library.

PICTURE: black and white photo of (left to right) Paddy, Susi and Gibson walking with linked arms.

While we walked, they told me that Peter Hamilton had announced that “Lifeforce inspectors” had taken my art machine. Upon hearing this I said that I also wanted to make a speech.

When we got to the street in front of the library, we were met by a large crowd.

PICTURE: black and white photo of Gibson surrounded by journalists and a large crowd at the northwest corner of Robson and Burrard in front of the old Vancouver Central Library.

After pushing our way through the crowd, Susi and I climbed on top of a street planter.

PICTURE: black and white photo of Susi and Gibson standing on a street planter and overlooking the crowd

Then, with all of my voice, I yelled:

This morning, as I was getting ready to come here, I was ambushed by some animal-rights activists, who I believe are concerned with saving Sniffy. I no longer have Sniffy. I have returned him to the pet store where I rented him from.

If those people are still concerned with saving the life of Sniffy, they should go to the pet store and get him. He is there now. Because maybe now as I speak, he is being purchased by someone to feed to their pet snake. So for those people who are interested in saving Sniffy, he is currently at the pet store on Davie Street.

After finishing my speech, and hoping that my friend had returned the rat to the pet store as their part of the revised plan, I stepped down from the street planter and into a crush of police officers, journalists and protesters.

PICTURE: black and white photo of Gibson (foreground with back of head to the camera) encountering a large crowd of police, journalists and protesters.

As Susi, Paddy and I tried to push our way out, we sensed that the police wanted us to leave, but the protesters and the journalists wanted us to stay and fight.

In fact, one protester pushed up to me and said: “We should be getting you. The idea to kill a small mouse. You are a monster who should be sent to a camp and eliminated.”

To which I replied, “That’s fine, but go save Sniffy and all the other Sniffys in the pet store.”

PICTURE: black and white photo of Rick Gibson talking to protester.

While the protester and I talked, the crowd became more violent and started to grab, punch and kick Susi, Paddy and me.

PICTURE: black and white photo of Paddy, Gibson and Susi being grabbed by protesters.

That's when we ran. And while we ran, we talked about running to the Hotel Vancouver, entering its lobby and exiting out a side door. We hoped this tactic would slow down the mob that was now chasing us.

With a burst of speed, we ran to the hotel's entrance and pushed against its doors. But the doors didn’t open because these were “pull-to-open” doors. So now the three of us were flat up against the doors with a violent mob upon us. (And I think it’s about here where I wondered, “How did I get to this point in my life?”)

Next I remember being grabbed from behind and pulled away from the doors and towards the approaching mob. But then the doors miraculously opened and I was pushed into the hotel lobby, pulled around the reception desk and dragged into an open office where the door was slammed behind me.

Inside the office I saw Susi, Paddy, and two guys wearing baseball hats and plaid shirts. I soon learned that these guys were plain-clothes cops and their job was to get me out of Vancouver.

After the introductions, the plain-clothes cops in the office radioed the police in the hotel lobby to ask if it was safe for us to leave the office. But a police officer in the lobby replied, "No. The lobby is full of protesters." So we had to wait until all the protesters had left the hotel.

PICTURE: black and white photo of two protesters holding signs in the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver.  The sign on the left reads - Now Showing Revenge of the Rat at Libraries everywhere - and the other sign on the right reads - Save Sniffy.

After waiting for an hour, the all clear signal was given, and I was escorted out of the hotel and into a waiting police car, which drove me to the central police station.

At the station I was happy to learn that the crowd had dispersed peacefully and that no one had been hurt and nothing had been damaged. I was also told that my friend had successfully returned the rat to the pet store.

This news was soon followed by a healthy lunch and my promise to never do that event again. Then I left the police station and went home.

The next day the Vancouver Province newspaper reported:

Gibson returned the rented Sniffy to the pet store in central Vancouver, where it faced the grim prospect of becoming snake food.

“Probably half the rodents in a pet store are food,” said the pet store owner. “If God is a rodent, the owners of pet snakes are heading for the rocky flames of Hell.”

The store owner then said, “Peter Hamilton of Lifeforce came into the store and asked for Sniffy. He said, ‘I am Peter Hamilton from Lifeforce – I want to buy Sniffy.’ So I sold it to him.”

Later that day, the Washington Post added:

Today, Sniffy is alive and well, residing in the home of an anonymous Lifeforce member.

“The person who is taking care of Sniffy has had rat companions in the past, so she is quite capable of taking care of them,” said Peter Hamilton of Lifeforce.

The newspaper then quoted me as saying:

“What Mr. Hamilton saved was Sniffy the celebrity. What he should have done was bought every rat in the pet store. There are still lots of Sniffys in that store.”

The article also noted;

The Vancouver police are reportedly recommending that Gibson be charged with obstructing a sidewalk because it was on his instigation that 400 people gathered in front of the library. Police are also exploring theft charges against Lifeforce and are considering assault charges against the people who pushed Gibson before he reached the Hotel Vancouver.

“We think that, considering the circumstances, it was a ridiculous waste of our manpower,” said a police spokesperson. “In our view, both sides acted in what the police consider a silly manner.”

A day later, the Vancouver Province newspaper published this editorial:

Sniffy the rat is safe and so too is the artist Rick Gibson. It was perhaps a closer call for the man than the rat.

We never really believed Gibson would kill Sniffy. At first, we thought it was pretty lousy of him to even threaten it, just for the publicity. But then of course we had to question ourselves for giving him the publicity.

As a result, Sniffy’s fate quickly became an international story. Animal rights activists planned to come from as far away as Seattle to save the rat. Violence against Gibson was hinted.

We began to wonder if all this concern was misplaced. Rats, says one encyclopedia, “rank among the most serious animal threats to people.” They carry the germs of diseases and cause billions of dollars of property, crop and livestock damage. And domestic rats are killed during scientific experiments or, as Gibson kept pointing out, fed live to pet snakes.

We would have been sickened had Gibson killed Sniffy. But how far would people have gone to protect this rat?

The following week an editorial in the Ubyssey student newspaper said:

What Gibson really succeeded in doing, whether he meant to or not, was to expose the enormous amount of hypocrisy we are willing to accept in our daily lives. Many feel morally safe condemning Gibson but not many recognize the contradictions between their outrage at Sniffy’s premature death and eating meat. They make no connection between the cow on old McDonald’s farm and that Big Mac at McDonald’s.

But, some people said that Sniffy’s death was uncommonly inhumane and cruel. Bullshit. All they need to do is to take a short glance at factory farming, the source of most of our meat.

And finally, the Seattle Weekly newspaper wondered:

Did Gibson ever believe that he would go to downtown Vancouver and kill Sniffy the rat between two canvases with a concrete block? Probably not. Even if he had gotten to the point of holding the block above Sniffy, someone would have physically intervened. Gibson could have killed Sniffy only if the police had formed a tight ring around him. And that would have been too insane even for this event.

About a month later, a policeman came to my house with the art machine in the trunk of his car. He said he had retrieved the machine from Lifeforce and he'd return it to me on one condition: I had to promise him that I would not criminally charge Lifeforce with theft. Otherwise, he needed to keep it as evidence in case there was a court trial.

After briefly thinking about it, I said, “I’ll take it now,” and then we carried the art machine back into my house.

The performance ended when we waved goodbye.