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15 April 2001 Issue
Has Anybody Seen My Mind? It Seems To Be Lost

by MichelleRivera1@aol.com 

In her article, The Escape, which appeared in Animal Writes Issue 3/28/01, my friend and fellow writer, Laura Moretti wrote of her visit to the Golden Gate Bridge. She shared her experience of enjoying the beauty and charm of the famous scenery, only to be let down when, after searching the bills of fare and finding nothing to eat, purchased lunch items at a grocery store on the way home. As vegans, this is an all-too-familiar situation for many of us.

I had the same experience recently while visiting the infamous Fisherman's Wharf in Manhattan and admiring the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge. I marveled at the tall ships and the life-sized fiberglass cows that were present for a special art event. Cows on surfboards, cows in tuxedoes, cows covered with dollar bills (cash cow) and sadly, cows on the menu. I, too, could find nary a restaurant in which to dine and, having surrendered any ideas of a nice riverside lunch, settled for a fat pretzel and a lemon sorbet. Those of us who have dedicated our lives to animal advocacy face these circumstances all the time. We have come to accept them, quietly cursing the world around us for the apathy, cruelty and sadness we see all around us. "Why can't others see it too?" we ask ourselves. Are things ever going to
change for the animals?

These feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can lead to genuine, indisputable, and certifiable mental anguish and emotional ruin. Those of us who work in rescue are exposed to these feelings not only in our activism, but in our professional lives too.

One day after attending a meeting of the sheriff's task force on dog fighting, I attended a workshop on compassion fatigue, a condition akin to post traumatic stress disorder -- the same turmoil that soldiers who served in the Viet Nam war faced upon their return. "Imagine standing next to your best buddy and watching his body blown apart," they told us upon their return, and they asked us to consider what it would be like for us to be yanked out of our lives and dropped into a situation where we witness atrocities that are so unspeakable it took movies like Full Metal Jacket to help the rest of us understand just what those young men experienced. Many of them suffered, and continue to suffer to this day, post traumatic stress disorder. Not just a vivid memory, this is the reliving of horrible sights and sounds and
feelings and the depression that follows.

But we do know what that is like. We come home from work at night and turn on our computers to find yet another Action Alert describing yet another horror that animals endure. Be it the dogs and cats in Korea being raised and inhumanely killed for food, or the poaching of baby chimpanzees for Western zoos, or the refusal of ranchers to discuss non-lethal methods of predator control, we are assaulted with images of our friends, the animals, having their lives and their bodies "blown apart" and we are shocked and saddened and traumatized not again, but still. We take no breaks from our activism because there is still so much work to be done, so we force ourselves to write yet another letter to yet another senator,
sign yet another petition, or read the gory details of yet another campaign so that when we argue our points we can be well-advised and faultless. The animals deserve no less. The truth is, we are not so shocked anymore, and that's a scary thought, isn't it? Just when did we stop being the pacifist, non-violent activist and decide that euthanasia may be put to better use on the vivisectionist instead of unwanted dogs and cats?

We don't really think the same way much anymore either, do we? I mean, last week I was visiting Broward Humane Society in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and saw that they were selling Rodrique's Blue Dog as a poster for a $50 donation. Now the Blue Dog paintings are very expensive and even the
lithographs go for about $800. (see www.bluedogart.com) But the poster can only be acquired by making a donation to the humane society, so I did. I took my poster to a frame shop and had it beautifully framed and it now hangs on my living room wall. The problem is, it speaks to me. We all
know that art speaks to us and says different things to different people. But even though I love my Blue Dog artwork, I must admit that gazing at the image of the Blue Dog and the black cat sitting side by side, their eyes wide open, staring intently back at me, says something to me that makes me feel very uncomfortable. When I look at them I see two animals saying "Oh yes, we have been saved, we have homes. See, we are wearing collars! But there are thousands of other animals out there still waiting to be saved! What are you doing sitting there on the couch when there is so much work to be done! Get up! Get out! We're desperate! Situation Critical! Go save some animals for crying out loud!" And the guilt layer gets thicker and thicker so that I must look away from the poster and go find solace in some
Rainforest Crunch.

For years, my family has been sending money to Save the Children. I have been writing to my little friend, this boy in Africa named Yezala for a while now. Last week, I received a letter from him that says, in part "You asked me about Sako, my dog. This Sako is a female dog and four years. She is not very beauty, she is white, less color all over the body. I get Sako from my friend, the name Sako means "unhappy." I always say Sako just for shortening her name, it's full name is "Sakondwera" here in Melawi it means "not happy." I gave my dog that name because others were not happy with my dog. Sake is not big and she has young ones." And he enclosed a picture he drew of a dog. The remarkable thing about the drawing is that he made the effort to draw six large nipples hanging on the underside of the dog, leading me to believe that this is a physical part of her that is so obvious, this child made a point of including them. A testimony to the fact that his litter of "young ones" is certainly not her first, and probably won't be her last.

Suddenly, I am not so clear on who it is I am meant to help through my contributions to Save the Children. Suddenly, I am far more concerned about an innocent, defenseless animal who "others are not happy with" and I cringe at the thought of how they display this "unhappiness" with this poor dog. Further, I want to deliver my standard lecture, complete with statistics and photos, flyers and all manner of literature on the benefits of spay/neuter. What will become of those poor puppies? What has become of the other litters?

I am no longer enjoying my little pen pal, I am angry and concerned and frustrated.

At this Compassion Fatigue workshop I learned that one of the worse things we can do is "vent" to someone outside the animal-rights movement. They won't get it, and their not getting it will only serve to frustrate us more. If I am working on a certain dog-fighting crime, and the gory, heinous, I-wish-to-God-I could-lose-this-scene details are keeping me up at night, I cannot expect my spouse to understand what it is that I am going through. Debriefing with another cruelty officer is the only effective way of venting the hatred and working through the anger. They, and only they, won't respond with empty solutions, demands that I "quit this job" or looks of horror at the slightest mention of what goes on inside bloodsports. They will just listen and sympathize, perhaps responding with "that happened to me once" or "remember the time…." And a bonding has taken place that will quell the demons for a short time once again.

All this unhappiness and anger and frustration cannot be good for our spirits and our psyches. We must be a powerful support system for one another, we must learn to overlook little oversights and find our way to the bigger picture. I once sought relief in a therapist, but like Tony Soprano, I could not make her understand what it is I do, how important it is to me, and why I must continue to stay in the fight. Those outside the movement just don't really understand, so how can they offer help? We must support each other, all of us. We must find a way to keep a close watch on one another, in case someone you know starts to fall too deeply into a slough of despair from which there is no escape. In other words, be kind to each other, therapy for one another, and strength for one another.

And remember to take time for yourself. Remember to step back once in a while and breathe. If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of the animals and they will have lost another powerful ally. How's that for irony?

There will always be animals in trouble. Always, too, will there be sympathetic cashiers just around every corner.

Go on to Mindfulness
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