I am in transition. Everywhere, all around me, I am moving to a simpler life. I have a new agent, a smart and nice man in a small but classy literary agency. He has time to talk with me and plan my creative life with me. We have moved to a new home, a small and manageable place, a sensible place. I am learning to be less wasteful, more thoughtful. I am finding my voice, my truth and learning to speak it.
I am freeing myself of the shackles of fear, concerns about what others think. I am stretching my boundaries, exploring e-books, children’s books, e-book photo essays. I am making good decisions, I can feel it. My life is changing, and sometimes I worry that I am over, that my time has passed. But I don’t want to go to that room. I am finding my strength, becoming clearer about who I am and what I want to do, in a world where speaking openly is increasingly rare
I have been planning for this transitions for years, often unconsciously. Now it is upon me, the next thing.
In 2005, I faced a complex ethical dilemma – to keep spending money and investing time in my border collie Orson after he had bitten three people and I had spent nearly $15,000 on traditional and holistic veterinary care, behaviorist’s, specialists, MRI’s and calming medicines from China among other things, to bring him under control. I had an awakening of when I visited a neighbor who was dying of cancer down the hill and who had no food, hot water or electricity. I asked myself how I could possibly justify spending so much time and money on a trouble animal when so many human beings were in need. There are many good people who believe no expense of time or money is too great when it comes to the welfare of animals.
I am not one of those people.
Many people disagreed with my decision to euthanize Orson, arguing with great passion that I should have done more and that I gave up on him too soon. Looking back, my only regret is that I did not take action sooner, before I spent so much money and he hurt any other people. Perhaps I could have made my neighbor’s last weeks much easier and more comfortable.
Thomas Aquinas wrote that the reason we need to treat animals well is that it shows us how to be human, teaches us how to be better to other humans, to love and empathize. Animals do not possess a consciousness about their care. They suffer, but they are not aware of suffering as a moral idea. This is Aquinas’ point, the very reason we need to be good to them.
I am seeking to connect with people, animals help me to do it. Animals led me to Maria, to my farm, to an awareness of my need to be more patient, more open, more empathetic. Simon led to Rocky. Rocky led to Red. The Orson issue does not really ever go away. It comes up all the time. It leads to dialogue, conflict, support, criticism and understanding all of the time. It is not one argument, but a continuing challenge to my ideas of animal ethics – from shooting my nasty rooster, to the fox attacks on the chickens, to the old sheep to the barn cat’s fate to Rocky’s future. It is an epic ethical issue, one well worth discussing and talking about it, as difficult and frustrating at that can be. These are not separate issues, they are one issue, a continuum. Every day I get messages beginning with the statement that “I know you don’t want advice, but here is some…” It is rarely good advice for me. I need to make my own decisions, not follow the experiences and decisions of other people.
What are the limits of time, money and energy when it comes to helping, rescuing and caring for animals? How do we justify no-kill shelters when we execute and mistreat humans every day? How do we explain the many billions of dollars we spent on gourmet food and health care for animals when so many people are hungry, struggling and in need of assistance? Why do hundreds of thousands of people scour the country and the world for animals to rescue when the very idea of rescuing the humans who live next door is almost heresy?
The notions that animals are piteous and dependent has become so powerful a prism that the true nature of animals and their lives seems in danger of being overwhelmed by bathos and clouded perspective. So in these very challenging times, I am receiving many messages from people offering to send me money to build a separate fence and pasture area for Rocky, who is being challenged by Simon. People have always wanted – needed perhaps – to see Rocky as piteous and abused because he is old and blind. I hope I do half as well as Rocky when my time comes to face the final chapter of life.
Money is not the only issue when it comes to Rocky’s future. People who live with animals know there are many other issues facing a farm owner with animals – grazing, fencing, water, confinement for medical care. There are issues relating to the room for the animals to move, the amount and availability of fresh grass and shelter. It seems simple from afar – build a fence. It is not simple. A farm is an eco-system, not a backyard kennel. Rocky is not a troublesome dog that can be easily confined. He needs space to move, access to water, solid shelter from superstorms. He must fit in here, just as the donkeys must. The issue isn’t whether I can afford it but whether I should afford it. It seems to me, following Aquinas’s argument and my beliefs, that this is the week to send money to the American Red Cross trying to help the many thousands of people trapped in cold homes without hot water, electricity, gas, warmth or food. So here I am back to the Orson dilemma again.
And once again confronting this burgeoning and uniquely American idea that animals must be brought to paradise and never suffer the travails of real life. Like humans do every day. I live on a farm with real animals but most of the people reading my blog and my books don’t. So there is an inevitable disconnection, inevitable and in many ways, healthy. We always learn from one another.
Animal ethics. Personal ethics. Accept money from people to build a fence for a pony while houses are awash in water and sewage. Really? I would not feel very good about myself opening those checks this week and I would hope people would think of human beings as well as old ponies and send their money where it is needed.
I am not building a separate fence for Rocky, and I will not ask for or accept donations. For me to become a charity at this point in the world – just check the photos from New Jersey – seems unethical at best. My idea of animal responsibility is not having animals you can’t care for. And if needed to build a fence, I could certainly find the money to do it.
Being human is a struggle that never ends, and I will not quit on it. Animals do not live in a paradise disconnected from the rest of humanity. It is all of a piece. They are tied with us, and us with them. Loving animals for me is learning how to love humans. The animals are not the endpoint, they are the beginning, part of the process of humanity. I will not use animals as a license to turn on people or disconnect from them. People come first for me, always. That is my path to self-respect. For me, it is hollow love and shallow humanity to care for animals at the expense of human beings in need. The goal for me is a balance, is perspective.
I will continue to find ways to acclimate Rocky and Simon that do not involved disrupting my entire farm, taking money from people – I will not keep animals I cannot care for – or ignoring the human catastrophe just to my South. That might mean that Rocky has some difficult moments while we sort it out. This week, my checks are going to the American Red Cross.
This discussion keeps coming up because it is important, not easily resolvable. I expected to be having it as long as I have animals and as long as I share my life with them. I want to care for my animals. But more than anything, I want to learn how to be a human being.