“The Bystander Effect; What the Murder of Kitty Genovese can Teach us about How we Eat”


On March 13, 1964, a 28 year old woman known as Kitty Genovese was stabbed and killed outside of her New York City apartment building. A story appearing in the New York Times in the weeks following the incident reported that 37 people had witnessed the attack, looking out the windows of their own apartments into the courtyard where the attack occurred. Not one, the article reported, had done anything to stop it. After Genovese was initially stabbed, her attacker fled. But he returned to rape her and inflict the fatal stab wounds. The entire attack took place over the course of 30 long minutes. The story, some of the details of which have since been called into question, generated international interest and spurred researchers to study what they termed the “bystander effect.”

Researchers studying the Genovese case concluded that the one factor above all else influencing whether a witness or bystander will come to the aid of a victim is how many other witnesses are present. The more witnesses there are, the more people are likely to assume that someone else will address the problem, or even that what appears to be a problem is not in fact a problem at all. So for example, in one study, when people were alone, those who saw smoke coming from under a door reported it 75% of the time, but when there were others nearby, only 38% of subjects reported the smoke. Those who did not report either thought someone else would report it, or they figured that since no one else was responding, there must not have been a real problem.

Is this why we as a society look away and keep quiet as massive animal torture and murder goes on under our own noses? Globally we kill 70 billion land animals every year for food. That’s six million animals every hour. These are not animals who lead a good life and die a painless death. We read the reports. We see the undercover videos, and we know that what is happening is horribly, unconscionably, wrong. So why do we do nothing?

Hasn’t almost everyone seen some of the undercover footage of conscious pigs being beaten and cut up while still alive? The baby chicks, the males of the egg industry who are considered no more than “by-product”, tossed into machines which grind them alive, the mother cow rampaging and crying as she tries to prevent the dairy farmer from stealing her calf? The overgrown chicken genetically manipulated to produce as much meat as possible and unable to support the weight of his unnaturally large body on his frail thin legs? The battery caged hen with her broken wing lodged in the wire of her dirty cage, or even the deceptively labeled “organic” hens, their beaks seared off without anesthesia, the “free-range” hens who never see the light of day and who have no legal protection at all, not even the minimal humane slaughter protections given to the other land animals we kill for food.  Haven’t we all seen some of these by now? Don’t we all know at least some of this? And what kind of action do we take to combat the immense violence? What do we do to dismantle a system based on the suffering and exploitation of billions of living beings just as smart, just as capable of pain, as our beloved dogs and cats? What are we, the bystanders, the witnesses, doing to stop these crimes against nature, decency, compassion, and dignity?

Personally, when I first saw one of these videos and first learned of the horrors of animal agriculture, especially industrialized agriculture, I boycotted the industry and went vegan. But then a funny thing happened. After a year or two, I concluded that the problem must have been fixed. I reasoned that if I, a 17 or 18 year old high school student at the time, knew about the abuse, then the government had to know about it as well. And if the government knew about it, then obviously they would put an end to it. Arrest the abusers. Fix the system. Like if I witness a woman being stabbed and I call the police, I assume they will come and help her. That, by the way, is what a much later investigation into the Kitty Genovese story indicates, that someone or maybe even several people did call the police when Genovese was originally attacked. But in fact the early calls to the police were not acted upon, maybe because the police presumed it was a case of domestic violence, which at the time was primarily seen as a private matter. But anyone calling the police that night could not be blamed for assuming that the police would respond immediately and help the victim of a brutal attack. That is after all what the police are there for. And similarly, this was my own assumption. The government is there to protect the innocent, to prevent violence and harm. The government had been alerted, and they were certainly handling it. Or so I thought, and then I went back to eating cheeseburgers for another 15 years.

How many of us see the undercover slaughterhouse videos and say to ourselves, “Well if these behaviors, this unconscionable cruelty, were really widespread, someone would be doing something about it. So, therefore, there must not actually be a real problem. The smoke must not actually indicate there’s a fire.”

Kitty Genovese died. Where there is smoke, there is fire. In this case, it’s a fire engulfing 70 billion land animals and upwards of 1 trillion sea animals globally every year for our food. There are almost no laws protecting these animals. The laws that exist offer only the most minimal protections, are hardly ever enforced, and exclude birds, (who make up 90% of the land animals we eat ), and fish entirely. The cruelty we see is real. It is the norm. No matter how cruel a practice is, if it’s done to a farmed animal, and it’s practiced widely enough through the industry, it is legal. With the backing of the industry and the full protection of the law, egg hatcheries kill 200 million baby chicks every year. And even though the Humane Slaughter Act requires all animals (excluding birds and fish) to be rendered unconscious before slaughter, the industry’s obsession with the bottom line coupled with consumers’ demand for mass quantities of cheap meat, eggs, and dairy mean that animals are fattened up quicker, and sent to slaughter earlier, where kill lines get faster every year, and the number of animals who are still conscious while they are being dismembered only increases. And yes, the government knows. (See e.g. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/usda-plan-to-speed-up-poultry-processing-lines-could-increase-risk-of-bird-abuse/2013/10/29/aeeffe1e-3b2e-11e3-b6a9-da62c264f40e_story.html).

Maybe the cops that night in 1964 were sitting at the precinct eating donuts. I don’t know. Maybe they thought

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it was a private matter. Maybe the politicians have too much to lose by getting involved. Animal agriculture is after all a multibillion dollar industry, one of the largest in the world, right up there in terms of money and influence with the oil industry and Big Pharma. Agribusiness executives have salaries in the millions. They have lobbying budgets in the millions. The revolving door in Washington between government and agriculture is turning more than ever. ­­

A vegan or vegetarian saves somewhere between 371-582 animal per year, and more to the point, they prevent immense suffering for these animals. (http://www.countinganimals.com/how-many-animals-does-a-vegetarian-save/). Every time we share the message of compassion with others, we have the potential to multiply our own impact, and the number of lives we help grows exponentially.

When we hear the story of Kitty Genovese, don’t we all think to ourselves something like, “How terrible! I would have called the police! I would have run over and saved her. I would have done something to stop that horrible unnecessary crime! That poor woman and those terrible people who did nothing!”

The animals are being brutalized right now. They are being stabbed. They are screaming for our help. Each one of us can be the person who does something. We need to be the person who does something. No one else is going to do it.  So what can we actually do? First, we can look into our own lives and acknowledge our role in these industries and stop supporting them. Stop buying the body parts of living beings. Stop supporting the politicians who are in bed with this hellish industry. Eat plants, not beings. Organize. Talk to people. Speak up for the animals. Support groups like Vegan Outreach, Mercy for Animals, Compassion over Killing, and ARC who are working for social justice for the animals. Get involved. Be the change. Politicians and multi-national corporations are running this country, and it’s time we take it back. As a collective of individuals empowered by the courage of compassion, we can put this fire out. Rather than looking back on history and saying “I would have helped,” we can help the beings being attacked right now. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

3 thoughts on ““The Bystander Effect; What the Murder of Kitty Genovese can Teach us about How we Eat”

  1. This article is an insightful and creative take on our complicity in the suffering of countless sentient beings, mostly for no other reason than habit and cultural indoctrination. Well done, as always, Tracey Glover and ARC. Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you my dear sister Tracey. Beautifully written and very encouraging to me that any and all efforts can help bring about change to this impossible industry of suffering on so many levels 💜🌀


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