When I first moved to the country, a ewe gave birth to a critically ill lamb during an epic snowstorm. He was dying, and also in great discomfort and pain.
His mother had abandoned him, and he could not even stand after a few minutes.
I called the vet, but they could not come, and I knew no one else.
I was in a panic; this was a scenario I never foresaw. In my previous life, help was always a phone call away.
But I was on a remote farm with sheep, donkeys, dogs, lambs, and chickens.
I asked the vet if there was anything I could do?
Do you have a gun? the vet asked. Yes, I said, shaken. It was the first inkling I had of the awful thought that I would have to kill the lamb.
I had purchased a rifle for killing rabid raccoons and possums. In the country, there is often no 911. Some sheriff’s deputies patrolled the country; they were few between and far apart. And they didn’t handle sick animal calls.
I understood for the first time what an awesome responsibility I had towards these animals, and there was no one but me in that blizzard to deal with it. Should I wait a couple of days for a vet to come and pay him or her to kill my lamb?
Or did I take responsibility and do it myself? An essential question for a city boy living in the country.
I went into the house, loaded my rifle (I had taken shooting lessons) went out to the barn, removed the lamb from his mother, and shot him twice in the head. I took him out into the woods and left the body for the coyotes, who had to be hungry in that brutal weather.
I was surprised at how quickly he died and how painless it was. And I went into the house and threw up. Later, I saw the trauma the large animal vets often caused the animals, no matter how hard they tried to be gentle.
They were strangers; they had lots of equipment; the process took 10 or 15 minutes; the last minutes of the animals were often fraught and traumatic. And they were expensive.
The lamb was dead in seconds.
I wrote about shooting the lamb on the blog (not the vomiting), and I spent the next several days responding to hundreds of outraged e-mails.
People called me amurderer and vowed never to read me again. I understand some people think I’m too strong and too sharp, but blessedly, you don’t have to read the hate messages I have had to learn.
Some people put up websites accusing me of killing puppies and eating them. Some sent many ugly expressions of disappointment and rage at my brutality.
This scenario happened to me again and again. There is a vast space between disagreement and hatred.
On top of the pain of losing an animal, I felt I had to justify it to strangers over and over again.
This made the process so much worse:
When I sent the old sheep back to their farmer to die; when we euthanized Rocky rather than subject him to another winter and more of Simon’s rejection; when we put Simon down after his stroke.
The very idea of killing animals was a supercharged subject, especially if I was doing the killing. It was made more intense by the growing disconnection of Americans from animals and the natural world, and the rigid and often unknowing ideology of the animal rights movement.
We have become a left and right world, each side finding more and more reasons to hate and fear the other.
Pet owners had serious and understandable difficulty with the idea that it could be more humane to shoot a sick or dying animal than to pay $300 to have strangers come and do it with IV tubes and giant syringes.
It was a new idea for me also.
But it was different with Zelda. I did not receive a single hostile or accusatory letter; nobody called me a murderer or stormed off the blog in righteous fury — no new websites picturing me as an Animal Nazi (some still up).
A lot of people who messaged me said they could not be comfortable shooting an animal.
They said it made them uneasy.
They also said they understood my thinking and my explanation and understood I was doing the best I could for my animal.
The tone was completely different. We had each hung in there and learned to communicate with each other.
I felt especially good about this.
I feel the dialogue that needs to happen between people with pets and people with animals is finally underway. And it is happening right here. I come from the world of compromise, dialogue, and negotiations: hateful arguments are not my natural way of communicating.
I am proud of my commitment to explain my sometimes different ideas about animals and compassion, the different realities for people with pets and people with farm animals. I never gave up on you; you never gave up on me (most of you.)
Some people couldn’t abide by my way of thinking about things. They rarely left quietly, but always stormed off in a righteous huff. I have no apologies to make for them.
We don’t have to always agree with one another, but I am pleased to see that it is possible for us to listen to each other and respect each other and learn from each other.
I will never give up being accountable and open, trying to explain my ideas and motives. So far, the people who read my books and my blog have never given up on listening to me.
I have sometimes been accused of being nasty, even vicious in my responses to criticism.
I accept that some of those criticisms have been true.
There’s a lot of anger in me, I grew up being attacked, and am only now getting mature enough to handle it correctly and with a healthier perspective. I accept the challenge of being more thoughtful and careful in my own words. And my anger is fading away, growing old is good for me.
But I believe I have always been willing to engage thoughtful and heartful challenges and criticisms. I think this week supports that idea.
I am proud of the dialogue you and I have had over these years about the rights of animals, the meaning of mercy and compassion, the hard decisions of a farm, the difference between pets and other animals, and the moral bankruptcy of the animal rights movement.
I am sad for this movement. It has so thoughtlessly blown its great opportunity to advocate for animals rather than find new ways of hating people.
Animal rights organizations are not about listening or having dialogues.
They are now notorious for demanding and attacking. This is a movement that seeks to be feared, not heard. Arrogance and righteousness are not proper tools for dialogue.
I believe I have always responded respectfully and vigorously to people who challenge and disagree with me. Many people are not afraid to do that, fortunately.
They send me challenging messages every day, and those messages are welcome.
It seems I’ve had trouble differentiating at times between the haters and the challengers. It’s no excuse, but it is a wild frontier out there, it’s my responsibility to figure it out.
It is sometimes difficult for me to read all of these electronic messages accurately.
And rest assured, there is plenty of disagreement in my life, on my blog comments, on Facebook, in my inbox.
So many of those people have responded to me respectfully and vigorously.
I’m just not sure I qualify as a scary monster.
We often don’t agree with one another, but we never walk away from each other or stop listening. I continue to believe that the people who storm off in a huff most often don’t belong here.
They are, I believe, going to be happier somewhere else.
We need a wiser and more mystical understanding of animals.
The well-meaning people who lobbied so hard and long to get the circuses to ban their elephants don’t seem to have paid much attention to what comes next for the elephants.
They aren’t protesting the killing of the hundreds of elephants who lost their often good jobs with loving people because there is no other work for them.
There are few remaining safe habitats on this planet.
So they are disappearing from our world, and in the name of protecting their rights. Is this the outcome we want? Might they have a right to survive?
Hundreds of them are dead already. They are not grazing peacefully on all of those promised “preserves.” This is the thinking that endangers animals – that shooting an animal is cruel, that pulling a light carriage for a draft horse is abuse – that costs so many animals their lives.
We have to find a middle ground of animals are to remain among us, visible and in our lives. From now one, most children will only know elephants from YouTube. Is that really what we want for them?
But I see we animal lovers are making progress.
Once we realize that we have so much more in common than not, perhaps we can become a powerful force to help save animals, rather than drive them away.
Zelda and her death have given me hope, a final contribution from this remarkable ewe.
The death of Zelda is the first time not one person has assaulted me online or hating me for doing what I believed to be right. Perhaps we are finding a wiser way to understand animals and keep them on the earth.
For me, that is a landmark, a hopeful thing. It shows the value of words and the value of listening. I think I’ve done my job, I believe you have done yours. On a farm, and in this world, this work is never done, I’m sure I’ll need my rifle again soon.
On a personal, not theoretical, level, you and I have hung in there together.
It is hard to shoot one of your animals and sad. Instead of bracing myself for assault, I welcome the understanding, compassion, and respect for my decision to shoot Zelda. It helped a lot; it made me feel better and more grounded.
As the country continues to be torn apart by labels and partisanship and demagoguery, I feel our dialogue is essential. I think the love of animals is a powerful force for uniting, listening, and caring.
As always, thanks for listening.