I am fortunate to have a reference point from which to chart that change. The picture on the left was taken over thirty years ago while on a family vacation visiting an old university friend of my Dad’s on Victoria Island in BC, Canada. I had just caught a twenty-five pound salmon. I was thrilled. My excitement was only possible, though, because my experience of the animal was very different than it would be today.
The salmon’s struggle and suffering for the twenty minutes it was fighting on the other end of the line were invisible to me. I thought nothing of clumsily bludgeoning it multiple times on the top of the head until it eventually stopped struggling – and I felt no empathy or compassion as I did so. It did not occur to me that the fish was anything other than an insensate lump of meat whose sole purpose was to give me pleasure. It was an exciting and beautiful object in the outside world which, by being caught, was transformed into “mine,” to do with as I willed.
This particular memory allows me to more broadly examine my past consciousness. I did not used to connect the sliced muscles that were presented to me as food with the animal that had been slaughtered; or the shellfish with the exoskeletons from which they were unceremoniously stripped so that I could buy their carapaces at a seaside store for fifty pence; or the mammals that were variously stuffed, beheaded, and de-furred with the artifacts presented for my viewing pleasure. I did not – was unable to – attribute to such creatures “life” in the same way I did my family and my pets. I treated life outside my small sphere with little or no respect, and as a corollary recall no feeling of responsibility for their environment or for what I now see as global warming and pollution.
I find it astonishing how dramatically my perspective has changed.
This is not a treatise on the wrongs of killing animals. Nor am I writing to hold myself out as an enlightened sage whose views are superior and correct. My current view is not only horribly flawed, but it is constantly shifting, and I am a hopelessly fallible human being who is constantly – usually blindly – hurting the people I love and harming the world. No, this note is written for the following reasons:
- I want to draw attention to how limited any person’s perspective and understanding is, and how malleable even within this short lifetime;
- I am hoping to help bring awareness to, and thereby raise the possibility of each of us offering greater for respect for a broader universe of life than we generally see.
I am reading a book by Rupert Sheldrake that examines our incredibly intimate connection with pets – dogs and cats in particular. But we are not of those species, and they are not even particularly smart representatives of the animal kingdom. Surely we should consider the possibility of similar and maybe greater emotional intelligence in and between more species (and maybe also in people who are not like us!)? Many species of bird mate for life; many mammals mourn the loss of their young, and will give their life for them (related: if you have not seen it, take ten minutes to watch Battle at Kruger); and according to a recent article in Scientific American, lab rats prefer the company of other lab rats who exhibit behavior that looks like laughter.
Native religions, as captured in the movie “Avatar,” have traditions of gratitude and worship for animals that they killed, and many peoples took on animal names and avatars for themselves. Tradition in the Torah and the Bible is of taking the choicest parts of sacrificial animals and offering them to God – a similar tradition existed in ancient Greece and I believe most Mediterranean cultures of the time. Our religious and spiritual history has the memory of the value of all life, and has traditions to recognize and pay respect to that. We regard such traditions as barbaric, and understandably so, but does pushing the our livestock into invisible factory farms where they see no natural light and often cannot move, then sanitizing their slaughter and butchering so that we see nothing of their life or slaughter, only the “end product,” a steak on a diaper in the refrigerator section of a supermarket, make it humane?
My own experience is that by seeing more fully the life in other beings, I am open to a vastly greater sense of the wonder and joy of my own life.
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