Bearing Witness

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Bearing Witness

By Joyce Tischler, Founder and General Counsel, Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF)

We must hear their suffering. We must bear witness to it. We must open ourselves to the pain. Then, even if we feel overwhelmed, we must use those feelings to create positive solutions to the problems. Remaining overwhelmed does nothing to help the animals.

My trip to Australia has reminded me that the exploitation of other animals by human beings is not limited to one culture or one country. And, our duty is to speak up for the animals, even those outside our continental borders, as they will never have a voice unless and until we give them one.

I’m home in California now (8/23/10), after my whirlwind 2 ½ week tour of Australia and as I settle back into my usual routine, I am reflecting on all that I learned and felt while Down Under.

People sometimes ask me how I avoid burning out, given all of the pain involved in working for animals and I have a standard reply about the need to bring balance into one’s life. But, there are times when I do get overwhelmed and my trip to Australia provided one of them.

Before I went to Australia, I had not given a great deal of thought to the plight of the four million kangaroos annually shot in the head, nor the 440,000 joeys bludgeoned to death when their mothers are killed. And, I had not focused on the extraordinary suffering caused by putting sheep and cattle onto large ships and forcing them to undergo a torturous three week journey to other countries, where they are slaughtered for food. Touring around Australia, meeting the activists, talking with the media, I became steeped in these and other issues and the pain of it is bone crushing. I’m feeling quite raw and vulnerable right now, having read everything I can, having looked at the photos and the videos, and visiting the port at Fremantle, where I actually saw the sheep loaded on the Al Shuwaikh, heading out that evening on a trip that will cause them enormous suffering and ultimately, death.

Brian Sherman, one of the founders of Voiceless, said repeatedly that we have an obligation to “bear witness” to the suffering that animals endure when we humans treat them as if they were things, when we confine them to tiny spaces for their entire lives, or perpetrate violent acts, such as the barbaric practice of mulesing sheep or the mass killings of the kangaroos and joeys. Most people really don’t want to hear about this suffering. It’s too painful, too uncomfortable. They might have to change their eating habits or what they wear. They might have to find a different way to make a living. It’s as if there is a switch that, for most people, is turned to “off.” For some of us, that switch, that ability to hear the groans and murmurs of those who suffer is turned “on” – a cruel joke on us, in a way. But, it is also a gift, and one that we must accept.

We must hear their suffering. We must bear witness to it. We must open ourselves to the pain. Then, even if we feel overwhelmed, we must use those feelings to create positive solutions to the problems. Remaining overwhelmed does nothing to help the animals. We have to mold that pain into positive action and try, to the best of our abilities to get other people to listen and help us demand that animals’ lives and interests be respected.

My trip to Australia has reminded me that the exploitation of other animals by human beings is not limited to one culture or one country. And, our duty is to speak up for the animals, even those outside our continental borders, as they will never have a voice unless and until we give them one.