“Do not kick him,” said Pythagoras to a man abusing a puppy. “In his body is the soul of a friend of mine. I recognized the voice when he cried out.”—E.S. Turner
How old are you?” I asked the young child.
She was sitting in the grass with me, watching Shilo (my rescued-from-slaughter Arabian) paced nervously in the pipe corral. A cement truck lumbered over the hill near his turn-out paddock and Shilo wheeled away from it, hugged the corner of his enclosure closest to me, asking, in his way, for another rescue.
“I’m five years old,” the little girl answered. I admired her beautiful, perfect face, highlighted by an indescribable innocence.
“And when will you be six?” I wondered, trying to make conversation. I’m not used to talking to children; I don’t know how, really. They’re so much … smarter than I am.
“I’ll be six on my next birthday,” she replied, matter-of-factly, as if it should have been as clear to me as it was to her, proving my inferiority with children once again, on cue. And then it was her turn for a question. “Why is Shilo so afraid?”
I explained that Shilo had been hurt when he was younger — as a matter of fact, when he was five years old, too — and he’s afraid of things he doesn’t understand or that are bigger than him, like construction trucks. I told her when the neighboring turn-out became available, we’d move him over and get him away from the roadway so he wouldn’t be so afraid.
“Is he afraid the trucks will jump the hill and eat him?”
When I told her that’s how his mind processed the situation, she looked at me, shielding her beautiful eyes from the fading sunlight, and furrowed her brow in deep thought. “If Shilo dreamed about trucks trying to eat him,” she concluded, “I bet he’d never want to go to sleep again.”
“Do you think Shilo dreams?” I asked her.
She nodded suredly. “All animals dream,” she said. “And they are afraid of nightmares, too.” And those were the facts as she saw them. Five years old and she believed animals dream, that they have feelings, much like the feelings she herself has. She was concerned for Shilo before anyone (or any adult) had confirmed for her that he was afraid. Shilo appeared to be, and behaved as if he was afraid so there was no question in her young mind that he was.
I watched her beautiful, innocent face. I envied her for still embracing the gifts we had all been given, the ones we are born with: compassion and empathy. I think the truth is in her blood; all human beings are born with a lifeline, connected to other life forms, not just to human beings. No questions about whether animals feel or think, just wonderments as to why. And I would have given anything to have the power to forever protect that part of her, that part in all children that, if it could be protected, would give us a world we only pray for. Dream about. Need.
There are only two ways: Peace. Violence. Somehow, for some reason, some way, we tend to lean toward the latter and its companions: apathy, greed, cruelty. But we are not dictated by those sentiments at five years old. They are encouraged and nurtured in us along the way to adulthood. Oh, yes, the path of least resistance. And I’m not saying animal exploitation and abuse — or war, for that matter — are justified because they give us — through our work — an opportunity to recapture what we lost as children (or what we have forgotten), but if there is any kind of redemption in any of this heart-breaking work, I think it’s this: through our activism on behalf of others, we are in touch again with our compassion and empathy. They are ours, rediscovered.
And they are as beautiful and as precious as any child’s face.
And so, despite how much pain and suffering we — as activists for others — have suffered in this wretched world, we hold onto, as tightly as we can, the world we’ve always prayed for, and dreamt about, and needed.
Later that night, I was enjoying a bubble bath; it was raining outside and a fire warmed the house. I was listening to my new country compact disc when I broke down crying, uncontrollably, right there in the middle of what was otherwise supposed to be a relaxing, liberating moment. So get your hands on Garth Brooks’ Fresh Horses album and listen to Track Six, a song called The Change. It will take you back to the moment when you were five years old. It will remind you why you do the work you do. Embrace the healing warmth it will give you: you’re entitled to it.
“I hear them saying,” he sings, “you’ll never change things / and no matter what you do / it’s still the same things / But it’s not the world that I am changing / I do this so / this world will know / that it will not change me.”
You’re doing the right thing in defending others, the only thing worth doing, the thing you were supposed to do. “It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, “something the best people have always done.” You were born, by nature’s design, among the best people.