The actual blog link
I bought a copy of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation about fifteen years ago, but I haven't been able to bring myself to read it. I'm too afraid. Every time I pick it up to take a peek I seem to open right onto the page with the photograph of the rabbit that has been maimed by laboratory testing.
I think it is almost never okay to knowingly, intentionally inflict pain on an animal. We have no right. We humans are not innately "superior" to any other species. Our best efforts should go toward avoiding causing animal suffering when we can, because it is unethical and immoral not to. Just because a creature has so-called limited intelligence, it shouldn't be thought of as any less deserving of generally kind and sensitive treatment.
Would you kick or slap a mentally retarded person for not behaving the way you want him to? For being slow/dim, in your eyes? For thinking differently than you? Would you hit a baby? No? Why is it okay to hit a dog? Both the dog and the baby have brains that are less developed and complex than you with the power to potentially inflict punitive (or just mean) blows. Can you not see the similarities between dogs and babies?
I am not trying to say that no one should ever kill an animal. I know there is a food chain and I know that all species kill, I think. We all need to look out for ourselves in order to survive. I'm not saying that everyone should be a vegetarian. (I myself used to eat meat, when I was a kid. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time — when I was still growing, and before I developed an emotional and psychological aversion to the idea of eating dead animals and before I developed a capacity for empathy.) I'm just saying that how animals are treated, and how animals — dead and alive — figure into our lives is something to think about. There are day to day decisions we have to make which ought to involve questions of morals and ethics.
For example, if you are going to eat chicken, are you going to eat the chicken that you know has come from the factory farm in which the chickens quite possibly suffer constant discomfort and maybe agony and even terror, if you have a choice not to?
I know that some of you laugh off the whole subject. You say: "They're just chickens." Or: "They're stupid, dirty animals." Well, someday we may discover that there is life — a different, highly-developed, highly-intelligent, physically-bigger-than-us species — on another planet; a species that looks at us humans as some of us humans (not me) look at, say, chickens. "They're just humans. Stupid, dirty humans" they might say as they shove us into small dark cages in which we can't stand up or turn around, as we crap and pee on ourselves, and scream and tear our hair out, pleading for answers, for an explanation as to why this foreign species is giving us no indication of what the hell is happening to us or why it is happening or what they are going to do to us.
Does it not bother you a tiny bit when you realize that the animal you are eating might have been, in a sense, tortured — so that it could become food on your plate? And if it doesn't bother you at all, why doesn't it bother you? I'm genuinely curious to know what goes on the brain/heart/soul of a person who has zero empathy for the human-caused suffering of creatures that are weaker than us. Because that attitude ("They're just chickens") is incomprehensible to me. Any speciesists out there — feel free to respond and explain and defend your position.
And are you going to consciously decide to wear fur from animals that you know were trapped in traps and were maybe left for hours with their legs crushed and bleeding, stuck in the metal vices, dying slow, agonizing, unimaginably painful deaths for the sake of money and fashion? It would be one thing if you lived in Siberia or Mongolia or some Eskimo land where your main source of food and warmth is, like, the yak — the life-sustaining yak that you and your family depend upon for its meat and its fur. But if you wear fur in, say, New York City, or L.A., or really even in most of the United States, which is overall a pretty temperate and wealthy region (by saying "wealthy," I mean that we aren't forced to kill furry animals and wrap their fur/skin around us in order to stay warm in the wintertime), you have to be prepared to withstand the dirty looks of random strangers on the street. (Well, if you live way up in Fargo and you work outside all day in the sub-zero winter, then maybe fur is sensible and maybe you could even call it a necessity, depending on the type of work you do — I mean, an argument could maybe be made.)
I start bawling, immediately, every time I come upon that rabbit photograph and I have to close the book and try to block out the image and the idea that people are deliberately, methodically putting harsh, blinding chemicals into the eyes of small innocent defenseless animals. It hurts me so much to think of it. It's unbearable.
I have the same extreme reaction when I come across that Animal Planet TV show about animal police who rescue abused and neglected and abandoned animals in different cities. Or when that Sarah MacLachlan PSA about the ASPCA comes on, showing various still shots of adorable, wounded-looking shelter mutts looking sadly into the camera while MacLachlan's heartbreaking "Angel" plays in the background. I literally can't take it. Any of it. I am overwhelmed with pain in the depths of my heart and I immediately start crying and change the channel as fast as I can.
Where does my intense and extreme empathy for animals come from? I don't know. Maybe I was an abused animal in a past life. (That would explain a lot about me, actually.) I know that animals, in the natural world, suffer and die or are killed all the time. That's life (and death). It's very hard to avoid confronting this truth because this truth is all around. But I find myself constantly trying to erase the reality from my mind.
But recently I had a breakthrough. I suddenly came to terms with the fact of life and death. At least for a few minutes.
As spring was blooming into green in Massachusetts and animals were coming out of hibernation and birds migrated and built nests, I was, as usual, hyper-aware of it all. In the course of one short up-and-down-the-block walk of my dog, I encountered three incidences of bird death and/or suffering (like in "For The Birds"): Just outside my door there was a bird's wing — a single torn-off starling wing — lying on the brick sidewalk. At the end of the block, in the spot in the dirt at the back of a parking lot where my dog likes to do her morning business (I always pick it up, of course — who was it that said that the true test of a man's character is how he conducts himself when he thinks no one is watching? I always — always — clean up my dog's doo, even when no one is looking and no one would know if I left it on the ground, because it's the right thing to do, in the city, especially if it's in a place where someone could step in it or be grossed-out by encountering it), there was a dead headless sparrow. The head had been devoured, already, and bugs were swarming around its body. Then on the walk back to my building I noticed a small young grey bird making little hopping motions on the sidewalk. Its feathers were sort of mussed, like it had been roughed-up in some kind of a tussle. As I approached this bird hopping forward on its little feet an inch or so every few seconds, I wondered why it didn't take flight away from me, as birds usually do when a human walks toward them. As I came close I saw that the bird was missing part of both of its wings — the back/outer part of each wing seemed to have been ripped off. Only the front part of its wings, close to its body, had survived whatever the bird had been through. It was hobbling around, looking unsure and confused and disoriented.
I tried to look away and to put it out of my mind because it was too painful for me to bear. (I am the opposite of a rubbernecker [a "stiffnecker"?]. I don't look toward destruction and violence; I look away. [All I could think while watching the new Batman movie was that there were kids — little kids — all over the audience and there was SO much violence in the film — guns, knives, beatings, horrendous facial burns, horrible car accidents. I couldn't help but silently question the parenting skills of all the people in the crowd who had brought their little children to witness all the slamming and punching and knifing and shooting and blood and blowing up and killing. Mightn't those kids be scarred for life from seeing all that violence or is it now a given that everyone born in the late-20th and early 21st centuries has been inured to violence and blood and cruelty and destruction from birth?])
That evening, just after dark had fallen, I took my dog for another walk. We went back behind my building where there are a couple of big old trees and some holly and hydrangea bushes. I heard a strange and unfamiliar sound above my head. It was not a human sound, I didn't think, but an animal sound, but not like anything I had heard before. It was a kind of screeching cry. I was pretty certain it wasn't any bird, because it sounded bigger, heavier, more substantial than that. I looked up at the branches of the big tree next to me, thinking, "What the hell is making that sound?" The repetitive cries of apparent distress continued. I kept searching with my eyes up in the thick tree leaves until I saw it — a small raccoon. A young-un. It was stuck on the edge of the roof of the building next to mine while its mother and another little one had apparently already jumped from that next-door roof onto a branch of the tree towering over me and were making their way up and across the branches away from the roof next door and to wherever they were going.
The stranded one kept scurrying back and forth along the edge of the roof and I could tell it was scared — it kept screaming — and wanted to follow in the safety of its parent and sibling, but couldn't find its footing (or courage) to make the jump. It was very windy and all the leaves and branches were shaking around. Was that part of the problem? The young raccoon's fear was palpable (and audible) and its panic and helplessness and its abandonment were very upsetting to me. The mother raccoon and other young raccoon just kept on going, up the tree and away from the stranded one.
I went inside, finally, to try and put it out of my mind, hoping for the best — needing to believe that the stranded little raccoon child would eventually make her way to her Mom and sibling and the rest of her family, and to happiness and contentment. I hoped I wouldn't find the little raccoon dead on the ground the next morning, having fallen in a fearful shaky tentative jump from roof to tree branch or been blown from the roof.
A couple of days later, I was in the suburbs all alone in a house I sometimes visit where there is a rabbit that lives in the big back yard. She is often out there, munching on plants and flowers, hopping around, living her life.
That day I went outdoors and I saw, at the edge of the driveway, a small creature roll onto its back. I thought, "Oh, a chipmunk. How cute! It's scratching its back on the pavement…or…something." As I got closer I saw it sort of roll from its back to its front and then onto its back again. It was…weird. Not normal chipmunk behavior. And it wasn't a chipmunk. And it didn't run away when I got close, as chipmunks always do.
It was a baby rabbit — a little bunny, just a bit larger than a chipmunk. It was trying to roll itself from the pavement into the bushes at the edge of the lawn next to the driveway. It had been injured somehow and apparently couldn't use its feet or legs and was doing a sort of grotesque hurling of its body — the only way it could move itself to relative safety.
There was a little pile of wet rabbit dung on the pavement next to the bunny, like it had shat itself in pain/fear.
It looked like something had poked deeply into its side — there was an indentation there. I couldn't see any blood but there was that wound hole and some ragged matted fur had been torn away from the spot.
I froze as the truth of what was happening became clear. It was too horrible: Animal suffering. My worst nightmare. The one thing I cannot bear. I thought, "What do I do? What can I do?" Right then I noticed the grown rabbit (who lived somewhere on the property) sitting, very still, in the middle of the yard, about fifty feet away from me and the injured bunny.
Maybe, I thought, if I pick up the injured bunny and carry it to the mother (I assumed it was the mother…or at least related. Because what are the chances that a grown rabbit and a young rabbit hanging out in the same suburban back yard weren't related? Let's just say the grown rabbit was the small rabbit's mother, for the sake of narrative cohesion.) or at least carry it closer to the mother, and place it in the grass where the mom can see it, the mom will come and help.
It seemed the mom wasn't aware of the young one's injury or even its presence over there at the edge of the driveway near the low bushes, or she would have come and tried to help, right? And carry the baby to their hole or wherever they lived? Right?
I ran inside the house and grabbed a pair of woolen gloves (I'd heard stories of a deadly infectious rabbit-borne disease that was killing people on Martha's Vineyard a few years ago. Plus, the injury could have involved blood and/or pus/guts that I couldn't see from where I'd stood looking down at the bunny — and which I'd rather have not gotten on my hands.)
Then I went back outside and I gently picked up the bunny and cradled it in my hands and walked slowly toward the grown rabbit. I didn't want to scare the big rabbit away so I lay the bunny down in the grass about fifteen feet from the mom. The grown rabbit then hopped away from me toward the fence on the other side of the yard. I went inside, hoping that with me gone, the mom would run back to help its wounded baby.
I watched, unseen, from inside the house as the mother rabbit proceeded to casually feast on plants growing all around the base of a big maple tree. Five minutes went by during which I thought, "What are you doing, rabbit? Your kin is hurt. Go help her! Stop stuffing your face and go save her! Bring her to your lair and nurse her back to health, you selfish coldhearted bitch! What the hell are you doing? How can you be munching away, with not a care in the world, at a time like this??"
But the rabbit seemed totally unconcerned or at least unaware of the suffering baby. So then I thought, frantically, "Should I call the vet? The animal rescue police? Should I try to help the bunny myself?" It was 6:30 p.m. and I knew the local animal hospital was closed already for the day and I wasn't sure who else to call, locally, and if I did call, would they laugh at me and refuse to come? Would anyone think it was legitimate enough an emergency to try and save a very seriously wounded baby rabbit? "They'll probably tell me there's nothing they can do. They won't care. It's just a bunny, they'll say. 'Sorry,' they will say. 'We have bigger fish to fry/pets to save. Let it go. Lat nature run its course.'"
I ran out to the yard, to where I had put the bunny down in the grass. It was lying there in the same spot I had left it in. I picked it up again, gently, thinking, "Maybe I can save it. Should I feed it some milk? Isn't that what they do with sick baby animals? How? Is there a dropper in the house? Where? Probably not. Why would they have a dropper? And do they have any milk?"
I sat down in the grass, not knowing what else to do, with the bunny on its side in my woolen gloved hand, the wheels in my brain frantically turning: "What can I do? How can I help?"
The bunny gasped for air. It wasn't breathing in a regular in/out pattern. I looked for a visual heartbeat pumping under the fur and I couldn't see one. Then I counted. One one thousand, two one thousand…every four seconds the bunny would tilt its head back and open its tiny mouth wide and gasp for air. Every four seconds. Four long seconds. I sat there for about ten minutes with the bunny laying in my hand. This bunny was dying, I realized. I began to cry. My panic was turning into sadness and something like resignation.
But part of me still thought that if I cradled it and spoke soft, kind words to the bunny, I could make it feel less afraid and alone, at least — it might think my glove's warm wool was a friendly nurturing animal.
Right then the bunny squirmed and with every ounce of energy it could muster, it rolled its wounded little body off my hand and onto the grass. Apparently it didn't want to be held by me. I wasn't helping.
I looked down at the bunny. It was still gasping for air once every four long seconds.
I had, earlier that very day, heard an interview on NPR with a man who was talking about his recently-deceased father who, on his deathbed, acknowledged that he was ready to go and was looking forward to it; that he wasn't scared of death. The father was sick of being in pain and he thought it would be a relief for the suffering, the sickness, the deterioration, to finally end.
Who knows what it feels like to be dying? No one that I knew ever died a slow, drawn-out death. They went quickly, unexpectedly, suddenly. So I've never had the chance to ask anyone how it feels. I imagine it is a very solitary experience, facing your end — turning away from the world, and the people in it. One must begin to ease out and away, to somewhere else, where other people (or your kind — rabbit, human, dog, whatever) are no longer necessary. Maybe others are even a nuisance in the way of the path to the new place.
I went inside the house again to think. I had apparently not gone fully into acceptance mode. "But maybe, though," I thought, "if the bunny rests for a while, its wound will heal! Maybe if it lies there it will get better! Maybe it's not so bad. Maybe it just needs to rest and then it will regain the strength to walk away. Maybe when I leave here to go back to the city, the mother rabbit will emerge and take the baby away and nurse it back to health."
After about twenty minutes of this delusional force-fed hopefulness I went back outside to where I'd left the bunny lying in the grass. I crouched down and watched, looking for signs of renewed life and a stronger heartbeat. I counted: one one thousand, two one thousand, etc. Now the strained opened-mouth gasps for air were coming every ten seconds. This bunny was most definitely dying.
I left the house to go back to my apartment.
I called the next day and asked the owner of the house to go and look to see if there was a dead baby rabbit in her back yard. I told her the story and then I directed her, on the phone, to the spot in the yard where I had left the bunny. I hoped she wouldn't find the bunny, so that I could believe it had survived; recovered enough to go back into the woods. I had my fingers crossed that she would say, "Nope, there's no rabbit lying anywhere around here. All I see is grass."
But then, "Oh! Here it is," she said.
"Is it dead?" I asked.
"Yeah. There's already flies on it. Poor thing."
I asked her not to put the bunny in the garbage can in the garage (because she is the kind of unsentimental woman who might've done that). I asked her to put it in the woods somewhere, where it could become part of the natural environment, and maybe feed some other animal.
She said OK and that she would grab a shovel and scoop up the dead bunny and carry it out to some spot in the woods at the edge of the yard.
I contemplated going back out to the house and burying the bunny, but placing its body on top of the dirt seemed just as good a resting place as a hole in the ground. Besides, I'd already held a private funeral in my head as I'd held the bunny in my hands. I prayed for it to be free of its suffering and to be peaceful and happy after life and for its soul to rest without any more pain or fear, ever.
I had a rare moment of clarity and acceptance and understanding when I held that dying bunny: There comes a time when it is impossible to deny that it is time to go. And maybe our experience of suffering, as observers of that suffering, doesn't correlate with the experience of the actual sufferer. No one knows what it feels like to die except the people (and creatures) who have died. We don't know if it hurts like we think it will. And maybe the dying just want to be left alone. Maybe the dying don't need us (like we think they must) to comfort them. We just don't know.
I am tougher than I thought I was. I didn't fall apart completely when I came upon that injured rabbit. I didn't even avert my eyes. I looked straight at it, and I learned something by doing so.
After this experience back in the spring, I started volunteering at an animal shelter. I walk the dogs, clean up after them, play with them, feed them, treat them with kindness. I used to think that working in a shelter would be too sad, too painful — all those strays, abandoneds, abuseds, neglecteds; the given up, the put out, but it's not sad — it's great to see a whole new crop of dogs every week (a whole new crop of dogs coming in means that a whole crop was adopted).