Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Ethics of Iggy: Ellen Degeneres, Celebrity Bullying and the Irresponsible Use of Power

Despite what you may have read, the Iggy Saga is not about pet adoption policies, heartless enforcement of rules or young girls in distress over the loss of their dog. It is about the unethical abuse of power. Because the ethical offender here is Ellen Degeneres, a celebrity performer l known for her amiability, niceness, and general likeability, it is apparently difficult for journalists and the public to see the controversy in those terms. But that is the truth. This is 100% Ellen’s fault, and no one else’s.

To summarize a story that sounds like an episode of “The Brady Bunch”: Ellen’s spouse, actress Portia de Rossi, adopted an adorable terrier puppy from a pet adoption operation called Mutts & Moms. Responsible pet adoption agencies check out the homes and life styles of those wishing to adopt dogs for the animals’ protection, because thousands upon thousands of dogs and cats are abused and neglected by their owners. The adoption contract stipulated that the dog was being entrusted to de Rossi and Degeneres only, and could not be passed on to other owners. But Iggy didn’t get along with Ellen’s cat, so Degeneres handed the dog over to Cheryl Marks, her hairdresser, or to be precise, her hairdresser’s young girls, 11 and 12. But Mutts & Moms doesn’t allow adoptions to owners younger than 14, and Degeneres broke the adoption agreement. So it removed Iggy from his new home and gave him to someone else.

Ellen then appeared on her syndicated TV talk show, not dancing and joking as is her wont, but sobbing uncontrollably. The little girls were heartbroken over Iggy’s departure, and she begged the (mean, cruel, rule-obsessed) pet adoption agency to “please, please, please” return the dog to them. And then she sobbed some more. Poor Ellen! (We like Ellen!) Poor little girls! (How can anyone be so mean to children?) Poor Iggy!(Torn from the arms of the children who loved him!)

Bad, bad agency!

And thus, celebrity Ellen Degeneres painted a large target on Mutts & Moms before millions of Ellen, puppy and child fans, many of them lacking perspective, restraint and intelligence. The results were wholly predictable: hate mail, blog attacks, talk show insults and even death threats aimed at the blameless agency and its owners, Marina Baktis and Vanessa Chekroun.

Yes, blameless. Various commentators have opined that Mutts & Moms were being overly doctrinaire, and the whole mess could have been avoided if they had been willing to “compromise.” Wrong. The agency has a very protective policy, but that is entirely their choice, and the policy is a reasonable one regardless of how many competitors give media interviews saying that they are more lenient. Swell: de Rossi and Ellen should have gone to one of those, then. Why should the agency compromise when this couple breaks the adoption agreement but not in other cases not involving celebrities? The “compromise” argument is tantamount to saying, “Change your policy. Let people who couldn’t manage taking care of a pet themselves choose who is qualified to adopt a puppy; never mind your own requirements.” There is little evidence that Degeneres took any special precautions to ensure that the Marks household was an appropriate home for Iggy—what if her hairdresser were, say, Michael Vick? All we know about the Marks household is that the little girls loved the puppy—what a surprise—and there is no reason to believe that Ellen knows much more than that. For all she, we or Mutts and Moms know, the girls use Iggy like a Frisbee. Ellen, famous as she is, doesn’t get to choose the next home of the dogÂ…not her dog, not her expertise, not her call. Mutts and Moms were correct to take the puppy.

Ellen’s using her show to pressure the agency, as well as the manner in which she did it, was unethical in many ways:

1. She used her talk show for personal purposes unrelated to the interests or the entertainment of the audience. A conflict of interest.

2. Though she did say “this is all my fault,” she nonetheless put the burden of fixing the problem of her making on Mutts & Moms, and managed to make them the villains in the eyes of her viewers. Lack of accountability and fairness.

3. Degeneres focused unwanted public attention and ire on a private business. Irresponsible.

4. She exploited her celebrity to bend non-celebrities to her will, making them change policies that were reasonable and theirs to make and enforce. Bullying; abuse of power.

5. By her own admission, Degeneres did not read the terms of the contract of adoption signed by her partner on behalf of the couple. Again, irresponsible.

6. She did not perform professionally on her show, instead allowing her personal emotions to stop her from doing her job, which is to be funny, not hysterical. Unprofessional and incompetent.

7. If fire fighters come to work after a puppy adoption incident, they are still expected to do their jobs. Doctors must operate during personal crises, and if they can’t they don’t come to work. The duties of professional performers are no different. Red Skelton did his live TV show the day his son died, and delivered. Ellen Degeneres couldn’t fulfill her professional obligations through a pet adoption fiasco of her own making.

8. Finally, Nice Ellen’s plea showed no concern for either the new, agency-approved owners of Iggy (who may also have some young, puppy-phile children) or the dog itself, which has now had to endure five moves, four abodes, three sets of masters and a couple of hostile cats in a short period of time and probably would like to unpack and get on with its career in sleeping, eating and scratching. Lack of empathy, caring and consideration for others.

To her credit, and undoubtedly because she is a good person who just had a bad ethics day (as all of us do), Degeneres told her viewers during her next show that the Iggy matter had “gotten out of hand,” and she would discuss it no more. But the damage, at least for Mutts & Moms, had been done. Celebrities have an obligation to understand their own power, absurd as it is, in this culture. And they have an obligation not to abuse or misuse it. Ellen Degeneres forgot that.

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