He Shot Dogs, Didn't He?: Pet Lovers Dig Up Tom Otterness's 1977 Canine Snuff Film to Protest His New Public Art Commission

He Shot Dogs, Didn't He?: Pet Lovers Dig Up Tom Otterness's 1977 Canine Snuff Film to Protest His New Public Art Commission
"Patience" and "Fortitude" are the nicknames of the two lions that hold court in front of the New York Public Library's main branch, and Brooklyn-based sculptor Tom Otterness would do well to try to embody these two virtues as he tries to ride out a new controversy concerning his own set of bronze lions with cubs for the Battery Park City Public Library. What is so offensive about Otterness's characteristically cartoonish cats? Well, nothing, except that they reminded representatives of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — and dog-owners throughout the city — of one of the artist's youthful indiscretions: In an infamous gesture, the artist once killed a shelter dog on camera. 

These days, Otterness is best known for his bulbous bronze people and creatures — hardly shocking public works — which cutely populate the nooks and crannies of New York, including a fanciful, crowd-pleasing installation of little bronze gremlins at the 14th Street A/C/E subway station in Manhattan. The artist described his recent artistic style to ARTINFO in a 2006 interview as being, "a simple language; it's a cartoon language; it's smiley, button faces. [With my work], people aren't thrown off by a language they don't understand. It's not a visual language you need a BFA to get." Yet this was not always the case. In 1977, he was up to something a little more, er, avant-garde, with his "Shot Dog Film," for which Otterness, then in his twenties, chained up a small black-and-white dog he had recently adopted, and then killed it.


In 2008, the sculptor apologized for his animal abuse, telling the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, "Thirty years ago when I was 25 years old, I made a film in which I shot a dog. It was an indefensible act that I am deeply sorry for. Many of us have experienced profound emotional turmoil and despair. Few have made the mistake I made. I hope people can find it in their hearts to forgive me." But some three decades after the crime in question, PETA spokeswoman Colleen O'Brien took to the pages of New York's Metro daily to denounce the new commission: "Any man who would adopt a dog and then film himself shooting the animal needs a good psychiatrist — not another art show."


The new sculptures are being offered free of charge to the library by an anonymous donor who spent $750,000 to commission the works. Community Board 1 voted a resounding 23-7 in mid-April to approve the project, though the installation has been delayed as logistical issues are sorted out. NYPL spokeswoman Angela Montefinise told the New York Post that any holdup in placing the works — a five-foot-tall lion and lioness modeled on Edward Hicks's "The Peaceable Kingdom" painting accompanied by cavorting cubs, chewing on books and money bags, with one cub inside the building, peering out the window — at its North End Avenue branch was due to the fact that the library is "concerned about maintenance and liability," and is "not in a financial position to take on these responsibilities." Battery Park City's Broadsheet Daily reports that Otterness has estimated maintenance costs at around $2,000-3,000 per year.


Such issues, however, are not what is on the mind of Peter Murray, a NYC dog-owner. "I think if he shot a dog, he should be shot," Murray recently told WSBT when the radio station went to an Upper West Side dog park to ask  about the controversy.

Otterness has not spoken up about the resuscitation of the 30-plus-year-old dispute, but if he stands by his 2006 statements to ARTINFO, perhaps he will, with a little fortitude and patience, come to embrace the public debate his 1970s work continues to inspire: "Public art substitutes for the town square, the area where we're supposed to have our communal debates and discussions and exchange ideas," he told us five years ago. "That's when I consider my work successful. If it's instigating discussion between us, then it's happening between other people as well, and maybe there's some conversation happening across party lines, so to speak. And that's a good thing."