In all the world, there is nothing more natural than for people and animals to live, work and love together, for all that the relationship is sometimes difficult, painful and uncertain, as all relationships are. We cannot promise them a perfect life, any more than we can grant that to ourselves. But without animals, our world is out of balance, as we are beginning to see. Emile Zola wrote that the fate of animals was of greater importance to him than the fear of appearing ridiculous; “it is,” he said, “indissolubly connected with the fate of men.”
And the fate of animals is being threatened as never before. The worlds of animals are being relentlessly destroyed by human greed and profound natural change, and by a new and powerful and very wealthy social movement that believes the connection between people and animals should be dissolved and that people can no longer be trusted to live with them. Animals, they argue, should be removed from the everyday lives of people. And so the ancient and mystical bonds are being dissolved.
Everywhere there are animals living with people, there are efforts and demands to remove them: the carriage horses, the ponies giving rides to children, the elephants in the circus, the animals in Hollywood movies, sled dogs, chickens and cows on farms.
The animals are being taken away from us, a mistake that can never be undone once it is made. Animals sent away from people never return, they can never be seen again, they can never uplift us or help us heal. That new and chilling reality has forced many of us who call ourselves animal lovers out of our myopic slumber. We are awakening, slowly but surely, blinking in wonder at the hatred and intimidation and fear and tension that has suddenly permeated the lives of animals and people, and polluted it with poison.
We have decisions to decide, choices to make. I am making mine.
My visits to Blue-Star Equiculture Friday always remind me once again that we are at a crossroads, those of us who love animals and wish to keep them in our homes and farms and cities, in our world and everyday lives. We have a clear choice to make, about ourselves and the kind of people we wish to be.
We can choose the path to compassion and empathy, we can live in harmony; or we can choose anger and judgement and tear one another apart, as people in the animal world have begun to do.
This is the meaning of my life with animals, and especially my beloved donkey Simon, who taught me the true meaning of cruelty and compassion both.
“If you send out goodness from yourself,” wrote the Irish poet John O’Donohue, “or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”
And that is the story, really, for me. Compassion is now a controversial idea, it evokes outrage and shock. The term abuse is tossed around like penny candy these days, it has come to lose much of it’s meaning and truth. When I first saw Simon, starved, frozen, infected, near death, I understood what it really means to abuse an animal. And what it is does not mean.
I wondered about the farmer who treated Simon so cruelly, who let his skin rot, his eyes go nearly blind, his gums rot from infection, his hooves growing out like wings, nearly crippling him. Who left him for dead in mud and ice without food or shelter, covered in lice and sores. I realize that most of the people in the world who use the term abuse have no idea what it really means, it has become an opinion, no longer a crime of common understanding.
And in the animal world, which is by nature created to be suffused with love and work and connection, compassion and empathy seems to be dying as well as truth and perspective. Sometimes I think that all of the things the animal world represents are being perverted in a great outburst of exploitation and hypocrisy.
A few months after we got Simon, and he could stand up, and we saw he was going to live, I went out to see the farmer who hurt him so badly, to meet him.
I knocked on his door. Up to that point, I was hating him, judging him, hoping he would be jailed, I was showered with praise and affirmation for healing Simon. I went to see the farmer in the spirit of the movement that says it speaks for the rights of animals and believes that they should not be entrusted to people. Wasn’t this what they are always talking about?
I felt righteous and superior, I was the savior, the hero, the selfless one, the farmer was evil, less than human, outside of the moral community of people. The farmer had no supporters, no defenders, no helpers, for who in our world would ever show compassion for a man who starved a donkey?
He had become a non person, an Orwellian “unperson.” He had been dehumanized, his face in every newspaper.
He deserved no empathy or compassion, only the judgment that I and so many others was happy to pour upon him. And that was what he got. His animals were taken from him, he was shunned and shamed.
In the culture of the new secret underground animal police, the army of the righteous and the holy, there are only judges and juries, there are no priests. I wasn’t sure then why I went to see the farmer, perhaps it was to judge him, show my contempt, demand some answers. But even then, that was not who I wanted to be. I believe in compassion, even when I struggle to practice it. I believe we are all human beings, most of us trying to do our best.
It is not for me to forgive him, I am not a God or judge, but it was for me to remember that he was a human being, to try and understand him. We are both human beings.
I do not feel superior to other people, I do not sit in judgment of them, I am no better or worse than them, I have stumbled and fallen too many times in my life to count. I am so rarely the person I wish to be, I am forever grateful to the people who showed me mercy and compassion, they saved me more than once.
When the door opened, I looked into the eyes of the farmer who treated my donkey so horribly, and all I saw was my own reflection.
I realized as I knocked on his peeling front door that I was not a righteous man, just another hypocrite. Another human being feeling better than another human being. And there are so many more hypocrites in our polarized world than righteous men and woman, hypocrisy is almost a faith in the animal world.
“What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one,” wrote the moral philosopher Hannah Arendt. “Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is rotten to the core.”
And what is a hypocrite but a person who pretends to have superior virtues, morals and beliefs, but in fact does not; who is cruel, dishonest and enraged.
I did not see a devil when the door was opened in the farmer’s house. I saw a tired and soft-spoken and hollow-eyed man, a man mired in hard times and dirty jeans and mud-caked boots. His soul was nearly dead from struggling, from poverty, from brutish work and no success. There was nothing soft or easy in his life, I saw it in the eyes of his son and his wife, as hollow and worn and empty as his own, in his house and farm, in his fumbling words.
I don’t know what happened, he told me, I couldn’t pay to feed him, I couldn’t admit that I couldn’t take care of him, I couldn’t make the call. I put him out of my mind, there was nowhere to go for help, anybody who I called would come would arrest me, I would be ruined altogether, as it was, I was just getting ruined slowly. I don’t defend it, I just couldn’t deal with it, I just looked away. I’ll take my punishment, I’m sure to lose my farm.
I wanted to tell him that the righteous do not believe in redemption or resurrection, there is no statute of limitations for the unpeople, they are marked for life and cast out of the community of respectable people. I think he knew that already. In a way, he was dead to the world, there was no pathway back. In our world, empathy is a sound bite on cable news.
The farmer was not asking for forgiveness or understanding, and clearly was not expecting either. Nor did I offer any.
We talked for an hour or so, and I saw there was nothing much else to say. He seemed battered to me. The light had gone out in his soul, a part of him was already gone, battered, I think, out of existence. He was neither a good man nor a bad one, just a man struggling alone with a life that was bigger than he was. He seemed to small to hate, too beleaguered. And he had a family to feed. There is no excuse for him, he said by his own admission, yet what is compassion for, if not for those we don’t like and aren’t strong?
This is why I have come to love Blue-Star Equiculture, they rescue the big horses from most horrible of circumstances – animals that are blinded, that are tortured, ill, starving, abandoned, injured and bleeding and broken, animals that are hard to even look at, animals as bad as Simon and much worse. I hear the stories of these animals and just shake my head, speechless, a rare thing for me. You can look at their wounds and hear their stories and find every good reason in the world to hate people for good. You will never hear one word of hatred there.
In fact, I have never heard a hard word come out of the mouths of Pamela and Paul as they struggle to care for their horses, treat their wounds, nurse them back to health, nurture their spirits, feed each one their own food, groom them and train them and heal their wounds every day, from before dawn to after dark.
I have never heard a word of judgement, or self-righteousness they do not inform secretly on people, feel superior to anyone, proclaim their virtue, or harass and intimidate them, or drive them from their lives or work. They are careful not to exploit their animals, they do not pity them or themselves. Neither do they look away. And they have helped more animals than almost anyone I know, they do it every day.
And they help people every day as well. Theirs is a Kingdom Of Love, their love is returned to them a thousand times a day.
Their world is surrounded by people, all of them welcome and accepted, supported when necessary. People who love them stream onto their farm all day long. People who are disabled, sick, young, old, poets, artists, painters, rich and poor, troubled and happy people, they come to see the horses and be part of an experience that is loving and nourishing, not angry and hurtful.
Animals are helped, but never at the expense of people. The horses are never used to hate human beings.
The weak can never forgive, said Gandhi, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
The people and the animals are not different things but one thing, they must be seen in the same way. Together, they are the children of the earth, partners in our time here. They forgive everything that was done to them. Simon never sought revenge, judged others, felt self pity. I knew that if he returned to the farmer, he would love him just as much as he did when he was lying in the mud, because that is the nature of the animals, they do not judge other living things.
I am inspired by Paul and Pamela. They have compassion and empathy for every person and every animal in the world, they always offer to help and heal and support, in every way that is possible. They understand our common humanity, the true meaning of compassion and love. They share that which is happy and good, and you can see it every day there, it comes back to them in a steady stream, a thousand times over.
They live in soulful contrast to the other path, the other choice, it is filled with righteousness and rage, secret informers, accusations, fear, cruelty and harassment, people and their lives are torn apart, their way of life destroyed, their reputations shattered, their animals are taken away to vanish or die – I hear the stories every day now, they are as chilling as Simon’s story was.
Simon helped me be clear, helped me understand which pain I was going to be on, the choice now of every person who loves an animal. When I left the farmer, I felt no rage, no anger, I did not wish him in jail or ruined further. He had suffered plenty, long before Simon was taken off of his farm. I am no better than him in any way, perhaps luckier.
The farmer was just as much a victim as Simon, he never had a chance, and does not have one now. It was not jail and another fine he couldn’t pay that he needed, it was something much more. When I last saw him he was staring at the ground, almost in tears. I called a Presbyterian pastor to tell him about the farmer, he went to his house to tell him there was a person in the world who cared. The farmer lost his farm, he is working in a different kind of job in a different place. I wish him peace and compassion.
So that is the choice. We can jeer at compassion and drown ourselves in the moral rot of hypocrisy, saying one thing, doing and feeling another. Rage and judgment are the banners of the weak and damaged. There are those who say that animals like horses and elephants and ponies and dogs do not belong in the everyday life of people, only in the wild. Yet none of them can say where these animals will go when they are gone from us. There is nothing more natural than for people and animals to be together.
For me, for you, a new way, a Third Way. We can look at animals differently, we can look at people differently. We can make the lives of animals better and safer and keep them. We can support and understand the people who live and work with animals so that they can care for them well. Animals should never be used to batter people, it is violation of their very existence.
At Blue-Star, Pamela and Paul have made their choice, they have chosen love and compassion. For animals. For people. They seek to keep animals in our lives, not drive them away. They seek to support humans and animals, not batter them into the ground.
That, say the Native-Americans, is the message of the horses, of the animals. We are at a crossroads, we will either come together in harmony as human beings or perish together in a bleeding world. As we do to the animals, we do to ourselves.
That’s my choice, and I hope you will check it out and make it yours. Everyone must make up their own mind, I would rather be compassionate than righteous, I would rather listen than rant, understand than condemn. If someone had offered a hand to the farmer, perhaps Simon could have been spared his awful troubles.
This is the salvation of animals, keeping them together with people, not tearing them apart. This week, Paul and Pamela hope to adopt a blind horse that no other rescue group will accept. I hope to go with them to get him.