Apprenticeships in kindness

Posted January 24, 2010 by brebisnoire
Categories: animal rights, animal welfare, history, human-animal bond

The Roman poet Ovid said “cruelty toward animals is the apprenticeship of cruelty against men”. (I know this because I subscribe to a quote site that sends me a linguistic gem every day or so.) I don’t know when he said or wrote those words, but Ovid was a much older – and much less ascetic – contemporary of Christ. While the golden rule of moral behaviour was described by Jesus as doing unto other (humans) as you would have them do unto you, Ovid said it first and said it better: think about the animals because they share our world. If the Roman record of spectacular and unconcealed cruelty toward humans and animals has not been exaggerated, he had ample opportunity to observe the truth of his dictum.

From what I’ve learned in formal and informal settings, including a seminar given by a lawyer of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, physical abuse and degradation of animals is a well-documented precursor and partner crime to the physical abuse of fellow humans. So much so that it’s essentially become self-evident, and while I’m sure that there are many murderers and assaulters of humans out there who have never attacked an animal, it’s easy to see how a child could learn (most often by example, sometimes by being the victim) to inflict cruelty to animals prior to becoming a serial abuser of both humans and animals.

Still, and thankfully, I don’t have any direct experience with that kind of individual extreme. The kind of abuse I’ve had more personal experience with is the normalised and occulted type of abuse that we’ve concocted for animals in factories and slaughterhouses; the type of abuse that’s been removed as far as possible from general view so as not to disturb our consciences or appetites. And even that has become pretty much self-evident, thanks to the work of writers and activists over the past couple of decades. (I’m reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals right now, which could be the subject of so many posts…but instead I encourage everyone to read it; he really says it all and from so many different viewpoints.)

While this focus on cruelty is important, I also find it emotionally and physically draining to dwell on it passively. It is briefly horrifying, then permanently depressing, to think that as humans, we have always excelled at cruelty, whether it be through wars, unjust politics, plunder of civilisations and habitats, or the scale and efficiency of the system we have devised to raise and kill our animals.

So I’d like to turn Ovid’s clear-eyed observation around. I say that kindness toward animals is the apprenticeship of kindness toward men. Taken that way, kindness is both a learning process and an end in itself. There is no pitting of animal interests against ours, no hierarchy of concern except to observe that it is in fact easier to be kind to animals than to humans – it’s something that you would teach a child to do before he can learn the more difficult task of being kind to other humans (l’enfer, c’est nous autres…)

I have a new apprenticenship in kindness that I started last September. I’m still very excited about it, and I wish I’d had the energy to devote to writing about it as I went through the very beginning stages. In the coming days and weeks I hope to be more of a faithful scribe.

Soon this space will be too small

Posted January 6, 2010 by brebisnoire
Categories: Uncategorized

That’s the title of one of Lhasa’s songs, one that I remember well from her 2004 concert tour. When I heard her sing that song up on stage only a few feet away, I thought for the the first time, “wow, here is somebody who really isn’t afraid of death.” At the time I imagined Lhasa growing into a wise and very old woman – her incredibly sensual and passionate presence was her way of fighting off melancholy with every word she sang into the mike. I never thought she would leave so soon.

A few days before one of her concerts in February 2004, I was given her personal phone number to call for an interview. It was during the two-year period when I was experimenting with freelance journalism, while translating and gingerly working my way back into vet medicine after a soul-destroying year of farm practice. Writing for the local English daily, the Sherbrooke Record, I was regularly asked to do pieces on arts and culture. I didn’t feel like the right person to write about those subjects, and would’ve preferred to stick with the wildlife/pets/environment and health beat I’d tried to carve out for myself, but after several months of talking to artists and performers, I started to enjoy the interviews that gave me a new view of life. When my editor asked me if I’d be interested in doing a piece on Lhasa de Sela to stimulate interest for her concert, I was fairly intimidated, as unlike most of the artists I’d interviewed, she was suddenly getting a good amount of publicity. As part of the bargain, I was offered two tickets to the concert (which were actually worth more than what my piece would pay, in dollar terms).

I called her and we talked for what seemed like a very long time. I could hear her washing her dishes, and that helped me imagine I was chatting with a friend. We talked about her musical influences, her background, her languages, and her views on life. I discovered a person whose philosophical outlook was remarkably similar to mine, even though our backgrounds and personal essence could not have been more different for two people who had grown up in the same generation and part of the world. She sounded ageless,with a lifetime of thought and experience behind her as well as the simplicity of a highly intelligent and unspoiled child.

It took me a few days to dig up the article I wrote on that interview – it was missing from the pile of all the others I’d written and was never available online, so I had to go to the paper’s offices and ask for a copy. I’ve decided to put it down here so that I won’t have to go looking for it again.

Juno and Felix award-winning artist Lhasa de Sela has a singular voice that perfectly matches the peripatetic life she’s led since birth: unforgettable and intoxicating.

In 1998, Lhasa won the Juno for Best Global Artist with her first album, La Llorona, produced in Montreal with the help of Yves Desrosiers, and sung entirely in Spanish.

Her new album, The Living Road, was released in late 2003 and contains original songs in Spanish, French and English. While writing them, Lhasa spent four years in France – in between stints as a travelling circus performer – reflecting on her kaleidoscope life.

Lhasa’s mother tongue is English: born of an American mother and a Mexican father who taught and wrote in Spanish, her very first stop was a tiny village in the Catskill Mountains.

She didn’t stay there for long – her parents were also modern-day gypsies, preferring to follow the road from upstate New York to Guadalajara, in spite of the fact they would eventually have 10 children. There was no television, no formal school, unrelenting travel in the family bus. In the evening, the children would prepare shows for the family’s entertainment.

Today, nine of those 10 children are performers, artists to the core: musicians, tightrope walkers, clowns, acrobats and jewelry designers.

Lhasa had a brief experience as a regular schoolgirl in the mid-1980s in San Francisco. There, for the first time in her life, she didn’t feel like she fit in, and there was also where she began to find her voice, through the inspiration of 1940s blues singer Billie Holliday, and the memory of the soundtracks she had listened to for years – a medley of American, Mexican, Middle Eastern, European and Asian music provided by her parents.

Fast forward six years or so and she finds herself in Montreal. She was accompanying her circus performer sisters to the national circus school and the Cirque du Soleil.

“I just ended up living in the francophone part of town – one thing led to another, I made friends and among them was Yves Desrosiers.”

For close to five years, they made the rounds of downtown bars and created enough original material for La Llorona. That album sold nearly a half a million copies in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, where she has a cult following, especially in France and Germany.

Her present tour includes concert dates that are already sold out in those countries.

The languages she uses represent “different parts of my life. It’s so natural for me to sing in three languages. Changing from one to the next isn’t meant to be shocking or disturbing – some people are surprised the first time they listen, but then they accept it.”

With their ear for the natural rhythms of language and their abilities in mimicry, many singers are able to perform in more than one language, but Lhasa is one of the few who has written all of her songs as well.

“That was what gave me the courage to do this. It holds together, it’s one person – myself – who is being truthful about who I am: not Mexican, not American, not Quebecoise, but a whole.”

Human identity is at the heart of The Living Road and Lhasa, in her early 30s, is at a point in her life where she’s acquired not only the maturity to explore her own past, but has also had the time to develop friendships. Through her friends, she’s realised that many people are in a situation where their identity has little to do with ethnic or linguistic origins. “My friends in Montreal are from Lebanon, Russia, Ukraine, France, all over the world…everybody’s a mix – that’s the human story; and if someone’s not a mix, then that’s a story too – like what is it from their past, from their parents’ or grandparents’ lives that made them come from one place instead of several places?”

Lhasa’s deep, rich voice comes even more alive when she speaks about her musical influences.

“There were a lot of voices. A lot of ways of singing that influenced me. My first love was Victor Jaras, a Chilean singer. And Billie Holliday, she was amazing. One of her songs was called “Strange Fruit” and she sang it so intensely. It’s about the lynching of black folks in the South – the black folds hanging from the trees were the strange fruit…she was so courageous to sing about that in her time, and it was what pushed me to become a singer.”

She also cites Chavela Vargas, a Mexican singer, as well as Fairouz, from Lebanon (“a sweet, beautiful, deep voice that makes you want to cry”), as current favourites.

Artistically, and by extension, politically, Lhasa makes a stand for diversity.

“What really bothers me in the world is the say that people are treated like they’re numbers, consumers, and their only usefulness in life is to buy things, to make the economy run…they’re “consumers” of health care, or this and that, the surveys talk abou the average person…but there is no average person. Life is an incredible voyage for each individual on the planet. Doing what I do is all about honouring my voyage – I will not be a number.”

“The world doesn’t adjust itself to the soul: the beauty, the magic of the soul is what I want to bring out. My job is to do it my way.”

This is the third time Lhasa will visit Sherbrooke, the third stop on her new tour. In the next few months, she will be performing in Toronto and various venues in Europe.

Lhasa will be performing at the Granada Theatre in Sherbrooke on Saturday, February 21. Tickets are still available by calling the theatre at 819-565-5656.

Lhasa, I was so sad to learn you left us on January 1. You once wrote a song about the end of the world or the coming of a new year. And you sang about how soon this space would be too small, and how you would go outside, strong as a ship and wise as a whale. I am grateful you shared these songs with us, that you shared the beauty of your soul.

Twenty years ago today…

Posted December 6, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: Feminism, history, human rights, veterinary history, veterinary medicine

Tags: , , ,

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I was a first-year student in a Quebec university. Early in the evening of December 6, 1989, I had a class in the 7 to 10 pm slot, and that was where I must have heard about the Polytechnique massacre. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard, maybe on the radio, where details were emerging in snippets of panic and disbelief. A man shot a bunch of students, then himself, in a classroom? This was years before classrooms were to become familiar but still outrageous sites of bullets and blood, and the intense shock of the Polytechnique aftermath drove my spirit into hiding, just as I suspect it did for other women students of my age. Anglophone that I was, it took me several days to even piece together that the École Polytechnique was the engineering faculty of the Université de Montréal.

When Polytechnique the movie was released in early 2009, I made a point to see it through in a movie theatre and address the residues of that shock. There were four of us sitting in the seats when it started, and only my friend and I were left by the time it was over. Harrowing, shot in black and white, and not overly graphic, Polytechnique is a sober film that deals with composite characters and documented facts. I’m glad someone had the courage to make it, if only to serve as an archival piece about what happened on December 6, 1989.

The stress, styrofoam coffee cups, typical 80s music and informal group study sessions of university exam periods felt very familiar; there were no cellphones, iPods, laptops, or PowerPoint presentations – just textbooks, course notes and acetates shown on overhead projectors. There may have been a few of those funny convex mirrors posted at blind corners, just so students could avoid head-on collisions. The photocopy machines were always busy. Knowing that this scene would soon be interrupted by multiple shooting deaths was almost unbearable.

One of the most heartbreaking moments was when one girl from the classroom group sequestered by the murderer protested his labelling them as feminists. She shouted “we are not feminists, we’re just living a normal life!” And that was when he sprayed the group with a hail of bullets, and they all fell. But it was true, they’re weren’t really feminists. Even young women engineering students of the time, a very small minority among the young men, didn’t consider themselves feminists, or trailblazers of any kind. The trail had been blazed already, you’d have been crazy to pretend you were a pioneer of women’s rights by entering any professional degree program in 1989. Anyways, we had to study hard; there was no time to learn about feminist history or gender theory. Apparently we didn’t even have time for the basics back then, we were in such a rush to fend off the competition and earn a cherished spot in a professional program or a plum internship – and unless blatant discrimination was being applied, the most serious competition was from the perfectionist drive of the other women students.

I didn’t have the same excuse, however. In the fall of 1989, I was studying literature; this was before I reoriented my study program to focus on sciences, with the goal of studying veterinary or human medicine. And in early December 1989 I was reading The Diviners, a classic novel in Canadian literature that carries a good description of what life was like for women before women’s rights were part of the landscape. One day in class we were discussing the novel, which intrigued me, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, the constant setbacks and impossibly contentious roads chosen by Morag were incomprehensible to me. My sole comment on the novel in class: “Well, she doesn’t seem very happy, does she?” I offered that up with a mix of contempt for this woman who couldn’t find her way in life, who had difficult relationships with the people closest to her, and self-satisfaction because I wasn’t a feminist, and thus rejected struggle and wilfull unhappiness.

After the class, Charles, a senior student, came straight over to where I was sitting. From his severely receded hairline and grayish temples it was obvious that Charles was older than most of us; his contributions to class discussions put the rest of ours to shame because he had the authority of personal experience to back up his opinions. He looked me square in the eyes and said “you don’t know much about the history of women, do you?” I’m not sure what I said in reply to that, perhaps I didn’t say anything at all and just looked at him with my best deer-in-the-headlights face. He gave me a very brief but pointed description of what life had been like for women in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, that Canadian women had been severely limited in their personal and professional choices until something like the mid-1970s, and ended his speech by suggesting that I open my eyes and ears for the stories I wouldn’t hear from my contemporaries.

I was mildly insulted, but his words worked on me, and in the years ahead, I did pay attention to history, to what older women said when they talked about about their lives, and to the experiences of older generations. I learned about how women in Quebec had been valued for their ability to bear vast numbers of children, and that as soon as they were no longer obliged to do so, they threw off the yoke of the Church of Perpetual Childbearing and mobilised an entire society to sweeping changes – changes that were enacted while I was a child and which my generation accepted as our birthright by the time we entered university. Did we imagine that if things hadn’t always been that easy, they couldn’t have been all that different?

Last year during a symposium at the Ontario Veterinary College on women in veterinary medicine, I learned that in 1972, Title IX legislation in the United States led to a massive inpouring of women students in veterinary medicine and other professional programs. It was such a vast and sweeping change that from one year to the next somewhere in the mid-1970s, there were more graduating women veterinarians in a single year than there had been in all the years taken together since veterinary programs were first created in the late 19th century. I don’t know if Canada had to enact similar legislation, but the same sweeping changes occurred here and in other countries on the heels of that major piece of feminist-inspired legislation.

By the time I entered vet college in 1995, 75% of my classmates were girls, in a profession that had once seen women excluded on the basis that we were too delicate and sensitive to study anatomy and perform many of the tasks vets had to perform. I still have a hard time imagining which ones, because I’ve done most of them, a few times with men standing helpless at my side. I’ve seen men turn a whiter shade of pale at the sight of blood and smell of pus; sights and smells that to me signal nothing more than a problem to solve.

Animal medicine has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as I’ve seen how often we use the bodies of animals as means to our own ends, with perfect callousness – as a kind of mirror to the way women were treated for so long. On the other hand, I wake up most days excited about the knowledge and skills I was allowed to learn, and couldn’t imagine my life without them.

For me, that’s been the experience of living a normal life. Too many women in different times and places have been prevented from living anything I’d consider resembling a normal life, and 14 women engineering students in 1989 were prevented from living their lives at all. It’s not ideological to observe that it was due to a young man’s anger and frustration at feminism (plus the easy availability of an automatic weapon) that women were slaughtered on December 6, 1989. It’s not the fault of feminist “ideology” that other women have pointed out that violence against women is almost uniquely carried out by angry and frustrated men; it’s not ideological to draw incredibly obvious parallels between December 6 and violence against women in homes and around the world.

Sometimes it just takes several years of personal and collective experience, while paying attention to history, to accept these hard facts.

As for myself, I finally learned to credit feminism with allowing me to live a normal life. And yes, I am a feminist, for as long as it will take.

Thinking about Skinny

Posted August 30, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: cats, euthanasia, human-animal bond, Uncategorized

Tags: ,

I was feeling very alone yesterday. I was trying to get some work done at the tail end of a chaotic summer while the kids spend their last weekend before school starts at the country house with their dad. I was supposed to be focused on work, but instead I could only think about myself. So alone, I felt like inviting the cat we call Skinny, one of the three black and white cats around here, inside the apartment, just for some company. The other two black and whites are fat and glossy, and run away when the kids try to make friends, but Skinny doesn’t even wait for us to come to him. It takes him forever to walk over to us, he never runs, just picks his way over the gravel and sits down for a chat and some patting. Lately, the kids have been giving him food while I pretend I know nothing about it.

Fatty and Glossy appear to have homes, but I’m not as sure about Skinny. The guy in the basement apartment has placed an old wooden chair, a blanket and a bowl for food beside the door (it’s always empty), and Skinny can often be found there, though not looking quite as if he owned the place. I don’t think he ever goes inside; and I’ve never even seen basement guy – I think he’s a hermit. Skinny is often wet, he’s no more than skin and bones – probably has chronic renal disease – and has the thick claws and appalling teeth of an elderly cat. The claws are only on his hind paws, the top of the front toes have been amputated. It’s what we still call declawing, something I deeply regret having done to one of my own cats, many years ago.

I need to find out more about Skinny. I’ll have to be the cat-home police, and go knocking on basement guy’s door to ask questions. Is this remotely any of my business, I wondered yesterday as I contemplated inviting Skinny inside. Not a great idea – he’s dirty and has a runny nose, and my three cats will come to live here soon…

When it suddenly got cool and started to rain, I figured I should make it my business, so I went outside and and downstairs to see if he was there. When I reached the basement apartment door, there was Glossy sitting on the chair. He saw me coming and ran away to hide under (his?) porch. I couldn’t find Skinny.

It’s raining again tonight, as it has been most of the summer, and I’m thinking about Skinny. If he’s homeless, he won’t last through the fall (and I don’t think he’ll last through the winter even if he does spend it inside) so I do need to at least find out if he belongs to basement hermit guy. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure yet what I’ll do. It wouldn’t be right to take him to the SPA, because an elderly cat like that is not adoptable, and he never gave his consent to spend the last of his days in a 2 X 2 foot metal cage, even if the deal includes regular meals and a warm place to sleep. And that would be the best option to hope for – it’s more likely a medical evaluation would consider his chronic disease to be a motive for euthanasia.

Ah, it’s just another homeless cat…

Animal euthanasia

Posted August 2, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: animal rights, animal welfare, euthanasia

Tags: ,

So I arrived at the clinic yesterday morning, it was my Saturday for the month (there are four of us, we take turns). Saturday mornings usually extend well into the afternoon, with non-stop appointments. The two young techs immediately informed me that Bad Things were waiting in the cages at the back. Namely, a very sick but still powerful and aggressive Bernese Mountain Dog, and two abandoned cats plus six kittens scheduled for euthanasia because no one would even consider taking them in: they had fleas, ear mites and cat flu.

Great. Just when I had been reflecting that the ratio of euthanasias for unwanted and generally healthy versus terminally ill patients had been noticeably decreasing over the nearly 10 years I’ve been working as a vet, this happens. I like to think I’m in a transitional position as a member of the class of 2000: I’m just old enough to remember the bad old days when the general public considered pets to be infinitely disposable, young enough to see the shift in attitude, and yet not quite young and unburdened enough by experience to act as if such disposal is completely unacceptable. I’m also in a rural region where we have only the barest of resources to take care of abandoned animals: municipalities still rely on the vet clinic to dispose of found animals, and I’m always afraid that one day we will euthanise someone’s animal before it can be traced. It’s happened, I’m sure. Everyone who works at the clinic has adopted at least one found animal in recent years. This past year, I’ve taken in two fosters, but only managed to have one of them adopted out. So besides my three house cats, there are now five cats in the barn competing for affection and warm spaces. Sometimes, too, we will let a particularly appealing stray kitten or cat wander around the offices or lie in a sunbeam in the waiting room, and if we’re lucky, someone will adopt it on the spot.

Well, by the time I’d examined the big bad sick dog and counted the cats and kittens (do not look too long, that is the rule), and called the dog’s owner with the desultory news, the waiting room was starting to fill up, so I put off the euthanasias till the end of the morning, and told the techs to call a small independent shelter about the cats, promising I would supply the flea and mite treatments.

In the middle of the morning, my boss and colleague arrived. He’s 10 years older than me, which puts him in that class of vets who are very seasoned, seen-it-all types who are adjusting like everyone else to a changing economic climate and increasing demand for sophisticated care and diagnosis. He can remember when all we had to do was say “your dog has a tumour” and that was enough for people to request euthanasia on the spot, no questions asked. Today, we have veterinary oncologists who seem to have a never-ending supply of updates for us plodding generalists on sophisticated staging techniques for tumours, MRIs, and the best combination of drugs, radiation therapy and surgical approaches to treat every single type of tumour. I really appreciate their work for many reasons, among them is that I now have more information to give people when they ask questions about prognosis, treatment and symptoms. Even though they usually request euthanasia, though maybe not right away, at least we’re all less in the dark about what we’re dealing with.

So as I waded though the usual Saturday morning caseload of major and minor crises, my boss proceeded with the euthanasia of the eight cats, and the poor sick dog. I was vaguely aware of what he was doing, and, I will admit, grateful (note to self: tell him that on Monday). Before he arrived, I had started to imagine myself responsible for at least seven of those eight lives (one of the cats was really very sick), and was trying to get my head around the impossibility of lodging them during the two months of flea and mite treatment, because the independent shelter had refused to take them right away for that reason. It didn’t compute; I don’t have the space or the inclination to become a seat-of-my-pants animal shelter.

But a day later, it still bothers me that it had to be done, and what bothers me most is that I can’t quite put words to my thoughts on how wrong it feels to erase a few lives just like that. They weren’t hurting or inconveniencing anybody, and with some efforts, or perhaps in a different place or with different people, it could have had a very different ending. Yes, I know – urban shelters struggle with this all the time, it’s their daily bread and butter. I’m considering taking on shelter work in the city, but I’m not sure I’m the right person at the right time for it, and I’m honestly not sure that I’ll be able to come to any better practices or thoughts about it all, no better than what anybody else has come up with so far.

Still, there’s been progress. After all, I’m old enough to remember a time when companion animals were disposable – that’s what they “were”, even if they were loved – but that attitude doesn’t have the same popular consensus it once did.

A few years back, I read Coetzee’s Disgrace, set in rural South Africa. Some of the best parts of that book include his philosophical descriptions of animal euthanasia and shelter work. At that time, it helped me to come to terms with euthanasias, but I think the effect has worn off. I hope to come back to that sometime, maybe I’ll have to read it again.

Meatless Monday and vegetarianism in the Guardian

Posted June 21, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: human behaviour, human-animal bond, Nutrition, vegan, Vegetarian

Tags: , , ,

When Hadley Freeman wrote last week about how awful it was for her to be a vegetarian, I was puzzled. If it’s so awful for her, then the only thing keeping her from eating meat is that she finds it revolting. OK, I can sympathise with not wanting to be evangelical about it – having once been involved in evangelical religion, evangelical vegetarianism is not what I’d want to stand for either.

Now that I think about it, what puzzled me the most was when she mentioned she had “crap hair” and somehow related that to her vegetarian diet. Crap hair can be the result of many things, but plant eating? Not likely. Nutritional deficiencies can result in poor quality hair – but you can be a meat eater and still have nutritional deficiencies in vitamins, minerals, folic acid and beta-carotenes. Drug abuse will eventually give you crap hair. So will unfortunate hair genes. Also: post-pregnancy hair loss; extreme stress; crap shampoo; too many perms and colourings; excessive blowdrying. But not a plant-based diet. Hope I’ve cleared that up. I have a full head of thick, straight hair (thanks dad…) and my vegetarian diet has not made it thin out or go frizzy. Granted, I still eat eggs and cheese, because I think that dairy and egg farming are at least potentially redeemable enterprises in animal husbandry. My hens are very happy to leave eggs for me in return for the shelter and food I provide, and they are especially happy to have the run of the yard. If I could work around the logistics of keeping a cow and milking her twice a day, I’m confident we’d work out a good relationship too.

I was glad to see a response in today’s Guardian, by Seth Freedman, one of those rare vegetarians by upbringing. He wrote a straightforward response, in which he says : “the worst thing about being a vegetarian is that most people aren’t.” I’d say that’s true – there’s nothing like contemplating going out for a meal at a restaurant, and then realising you’ll probably be eating a chef’s salad and a bun, again.

I appreciate the way he points out that some of the animals we see as pets are seen as food by different cultures. He is more direct than I’m able to be when he says:

There is no defence of eating meat or fish that stands up to the cold light of moral scrutiny. If there was, then people wouldn’t keep animals as pets or differentiate between which species are or aren’t fair game for slaughtering and consuming. When the Venn diagrams of friends versus food inevitably overlap (dogs being eaten in Korea, horses in France, and so on), the duplicity of the meat-eating public is plain for all to see. One man’s pot roast is another’s pet, and neither side has a leg to stand on while they refuse to take an objective view of whether there is something ethically wrong with tearing the flesh off a carcass just to sate one’s appetite.

As much as I wish it weren’t true, he has made a very important point about our relationship with animals.

Hadley’s column was in response to Paul McCartney’s promotion of Meatless Monday, an effort to encourage more people to consume less meat. A great initiative.

I.B. Singer and animals

Posted June 21, 2009 by brebisnoire
Categories: animal rights, chickens, history, human-animal bond, Israel, Jewish, politics, religion

Prior to researching a long paper I wrote for Veterinary Heritage on the history of antivivisectionism and the animal rights movement, the name Isaac Bashevis Singer barely registered for me. I was vaguely aware of his status as a renowned Yiddish storyteller, but I hadn’t read a single one of his stories, and in fact I thought he wrote only folklore that I imagined as being very similar to the Ukranian peasant tales I had read as a child.

While I was researching the darkest period in the evolution of antivivisectionism/animal rights – the Cold War era, it was as if all the lights had gone out: I couldn’t find any writers who cared about animals. Where were the Tolstoys, the Twains, the Bernard Shaws and all the other humanists who had expressed their deep concern for animals and their opposition to vivisection in the late 19th century? Instead, all I could see in the Cold War era was that the foundations were being laid for factory farming, and that animals were being used in massive, unprecendented numbers in research in just about every technological and scientific field under the sun – and very few voices were emerging in protest of animal suffering and consciousness. The ones who did speak up were treated like kooks and subversives.

And yet, it was during that time that one of the most powerful statements came through, one that did not escape the notice of the nascent animal rights movement in the early 1970s, and which can now be found on just about every AR website: the “eternal Treblinka” quote. More than a metaphor or an analogy, it really is just a straightforward description of animal experience in the hands of humans.

I.B. Singer was the author of the eternal Treblinka quote. He wrote it in a moving short story called “The Letter Writer”. Herman, the protagonist, is an aging Jewish immigrant from Kalomin (Galomin, Poland), an editor, proofreader and translator living in New York City in the 1950s. His publishing company folds, he is out of work and immediately falls ill with severe pneumonia. A woman who had previously known him only through correspondence comes to care for him and saves his life. Herman had lost all of his family to the Nazis and lived alone with a house-mouse he named Huldah. When he recovers from pneumonia, he is afraid that Huldah is dead and gone as well, due to his “negligence”. While he grieves for her, he speaks a eulogy for all animals:

What do they know – all those scholars, all those pilosophers, all the leaders of the world – about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka. And yet man demands compassion from heaven.”

(Herman later finds Huldah alive, when she emerges from her hole to drink from a saucer of milk.)

Singer’s regard for animals emerges from time to time in other stories as well. In “The Slaughterer”, a man designated against his will to be the ritual slaughterer in his community ends up going mad and sees no other way out besides self-slaughter. And my favourite story ever written about chickens: “Cockadoodledoo”, a little gem of a story that gets as close to the experience of being a chicken as I have ever read.

Now that I’ve read more stories by and about I.B. Singer, I feel like I’ve discovered a bit of a link to my own family history. Although I’m not Jewish, there’s enough nominal evidence in my family tree to show that there were a lot of people drifting in and out of Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox families to create quite a mix – but maybe that was just part of being Galician in the 19th and early 20th centuries: cultural tensions on one hand, and on the other, simply surviving with small hope for prosperity. My family seems to have a tradition of switching cultures and religions every generation or so, according to whatever is personally or politically expedient: we’re obviously not the most tenacious of believers. My father emigrated with his family to North America from Galicia just a few years before Singer did in the early 1930s, and I’ve come to realise that many of Singer’s stories provide the physical and geographical details of a place and way of life that was for all purposes obliterated during the Second World War. I was never given much information on Galicia, Poland or Ukraine as a child – the information was perhaps out there, but my father, aunts, cousins and grandparents mainly wanted to leave the Old Country and its bad memories behind. Stories and tales were only haphazardly translated to English, or they lacked some universal and meaningful context; they never felt very real to me, and faded into the background.

But Singer caught my attention with his attention to animals; in the barely industrialised world of Singer’s and my grandparents’ Galicia, animals lived side-by-side with humans in their yards and on their streets, and thankfully, they did not escape his notice. I’m grateful for that as much as for his descriptions of the culture and surroundings.

Dvorah Telushkin wrote a remarkable memoir of the time she spent as Singer’s assistant during the last several years of his life with her book Master of Dreams.

She was there when Singer met Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the fall of 1978 in New York City, when Begin, U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had just announced that the Israeli and Egyptian leaders would meet at Camp David. Even though I was not even 10 years old at the time, I remember knowing about that meeting because a few months later I traveled with my mother and a group of evangelical tourists on one of the first Holy Land tours. We flew directly from Cairo to Tel Aviv, something that had previously been impossible; it was almost as if the agreement had been reached for the convenience of North American tourists – that’s how I saw it anyways.

According to Telushkin’s account, Singer was at first proud and impressed to meet with Begin in New York, but apparently the meeting did not go well. He voiced a meek complaint about the Israeli neglect of Yiddish in favour of Hebrew:

“you have taken the Hebrew language, vhich vas dead for these two thousand years and resurrected it. But vith Yiddish, you took a living language vhich vas alive for some eight or nine hundred years and managed to kill it.”

“With Yiddish,” Begin shouted, “we could have not created any navy; with Yiddish, we could have no army; with Yiddish, we could not defend ourselves with powerful jet planes; with Yiddish we would be nothing. We would be like animals!”

Isaac sat with his hands folded in his lap and shrugged his shoulders. “Nu,” he said sweetly to the hushed crowd, “since I am a vegetarian, for me to be like an animal is not such a terrible thing.”

I’m not sure what to make of that response, and I’m sure the small crowd of people present at that meeting didn’t either. It’s confusing and demoralising to bring the metaphor of animals into a human situation of power and conflict, but that’s an instinctive human reflex built into us from thousands of years of considering animals as prey, burnt offerings, tools, and sustenance. Still, those aren’t our only human interactions with animals, and sometimes I like to think, as Konrad Lorenz has written, that we are the missing link between hominid primates and some kind of truly moral species that for one thing doesn’t consider itself superior to other animals.

I don’t currently believe there’s a god out there leading us toward this state. I like to think it’s the thinkers and writers (and activists) on animal experience who are making the slow but necessary progress through statement, action and influence. I’m unable to decide whether to be an optimist or a pessimist on this, for now I’m just muddling through.


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