July 23, 2014

The Light In Their Eyes

I’ve been active on behalf of animals for over thirty years. And I’ve seen a lot in all that time. A lot of blood. A lot of killing. Misery and suffering. I’ve seen it on film, in pictures, and I’ve seen a lot of it in my very presence.

When I was nine and living in Bolivia, I witnessed the lethal strangulation of a dog on the street on the outskirts of the city, while passersby gave no second notice. And I felt as absolutely and utterly helpless as that poor, betrayed animal in his violent death throes. There wasn’t anything I could do — not for that dying black mongrel dog and the light he took with him, and not for me, that shock-awakened child.

Nothing prepared me for the unexpected crushing weight of empathy and sorrow and outrage, for that connectedness that mercilessly consumed me, and took me prisoner in a fleeting yet lethal moment — and for a lifetime.

My eyes were opened. My eyes, my ears, my mind, my senses, my heart and soul. My life would never be the same; not my perspective, not my beliefs or my religion, not my goals or my dreams. I had been, I realized only years later, transformed back into that from which we have all come: a human being.

So who is this animal who claims to be my kin? Who once brainwashed me into believing I belonged to a superior species, who said that I was entitled to — no, let me rephrase that — that I was supposed to wear and eat and use and be entertained by the suffering of these lesser-feeling, lesser-brained, lesser-deserving lesser-beings? Has it never heard the screams of a black mongrel dog dying on a lone dirt road while not even the one person in the whole wide world who cared could help him? Has it never heard such a sound, a sound I heard only once but have never forgotten?

And so, for three decades, I have fought to quiet those screams, to mitigate that suffering, to reduce the killing, to attempt to bring back some of those long-lost human souls. And there are times when I think maybe I have succeeded, maybe I’ve eased one life’s suffering, stopped the taking of another, and aided the passage, opened the eyes, raised the awareness, of a fellow, well, kin.

The older I get, the more often I assess the worthiness of my life. I’ve saved lives, more than I will ever know. I will be able to leave here having made this place more peaceful than I found it some 30 years ago. I have made a difference.

Yes, I can rest now.

Or can I?

It is the present and I am on a crowded freeway in late afternoon; the sun melts over the valley and shines right into the faces of half a dozen young calves on their way to auction. There is no screaming, no strangulation, no lone dirt road upon which they are suffering, but I feel the familiar pressing weight of empathy. And I can see it there in their eyes: Fear, that which separates feeling, living, breathing, sentient animals from other forms of life. The will to live, the knowing.

Young black calves, their noses pressed to the slats of the livestock trailer, jockey for position, taking turns pushing against the metal gate from which there is no escape. Black calves with jet black eyes. And the light in their eyes that reflects back to me commands my attention, has mesmerized me: they are utterly innocent, they are indescribably precious, they are undeniably alive.

How can they be so … unseen?

No lone dirt road this, but passersby still take no notice. No immediate killing but it lurks behind the scenes — and it is a monster: the accepted, habitual, conditioned, institutionalized degradation of living, desperately wanting, now suffering, one-day screaming beings.

And so what do I do with this helplessness, the shadow of which has haunted me all my life, for half a dozen black calves on their way to inevitable slaughter?

No, I have not done everything I can.

I see that now. I am reminded one more time. I’ve still got one more mind to open, yet another heart to change. No, two more. Wait … a hundred. But I am up for it. I have, yet again, seen the light.

In their eyes.

Comments

  1. Laura, you capture so well the essence of empathy and moral commitment. I had a similar experience to yours, a pet cat who was captured and killed by neighbor boys. I lived overseas where the institutional barriers between animal and plate did not exist the way they do here, and where most people seemed hardened to that reality. My young conscience rejected it … even if the brainwashing you described kept me from trusting my own personal truth at that time. This essay spoke to me in myriad ways. Thank you for the courage of your conviction and your lifelong advocacy. Count me in as another heart who changed when I first picked up your magazine years and years ago.

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