July 31, 2014

The Ties That Bind

“He’s beautiful.” And by “he” they mean Shilo, the horse I rescued from the killers several years ago. I paid the horse trader $50 more than the slaughterhouse would have paid him to keep him from putting that little gray Arabian onto the livestock truck bound for Texas.

I liken it to the way Oskar Schindler bought freedom for 1,100 Jews.

I don’t know how to respond to “He’s beautiful.” “Thank you”? For what? I didn’t make him. I didn’t create him. I can’t take credit for his grace, his spirit, his fire. Such questions leave me feeling awkward and speechless.

There’s a fine line among us. We recognize that animals have interests in their own lives, that they feel, think, reason, sleep, eat, drink, play, mate, dream, and die. But to whom do they belong?

They belong to no one, just as you and I belong to no one. But under the law, animals “belong” to those who have bred, raised, possessed, or purchased them. They are, legally speaking, our property. And we, legally speaking, are their owners.

Except in rare cases, injuring or killing a dog or a cat is a violation not of the rights of the victims but of the animals’ “owners.” In other words, the wrong wasn’t committed to the animal involved, but to the property of the human being who owned that animal. Damages are paid by the violator to the owner, and the value is determined as to the monetary “cost” of the injured or killed animal.

So I find myself, in those moments when visitors are admiring Shilo, unable to respond accordingly. I feel foolish thinking what they would think if they knew I didn’t consider Shilo mine, even though I paid to rescue him, pay to feed and house him, to train and groom him, to transport and medically care for him, and even though I have the receipt in my hand from the kill buyer proving that Shilo, under the law, belongs to me.

It is difficult in those moments because I recognize that the law of the land is speaking a completely different language than I am. At the risk of appearing the fool, on occasion, I’ve found myself appealing to the sensitivities of others.

“He’s beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I say.

On second thought, however, our community has risen quite well above the semantics of language. Animal shelters don’t encourage the general public to come in and “buy” a dog or cat; they encourage them to “adopt” an animal. It isn’t until the cash is exchanged and the documents are drawn that the word “owner” appears in the dialogue.

For as long as we regard other creatures as property to be bought and sold, to be owned or mastered, we humans will forever distance ourselves from the essence of our species: our ability to hold sacred the natural world, to view the other lives around us as gifts given to us by a great spirit, and in so doing, regain our empathy.

If we cannot relinquish our rights to animal ownership, animals will continue to suffer immeasurably — as did African slaves in the grip of human bondage — because their suffering will never be weighed for what it is, but only for what it costs their legal “owners” in terms of “property” damages.

But until we liberate our language, we will never liberate animals. It begins by removing the words “owner” and “property” (and any variation of those words) from our vocabulary, no matter the social consequences. Until we take that step, the court systems cannot follow.

Shilo paws the ground and dances in place, arching his neck, as if he knows he’s being admired. And then the inevitable remark: “He’s beautiful.”

I have found a new answer.

“Yes,” I say, “he is.”

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