This is always a difficult time of year as it seems to emphasize the biggest differences between those who have enough money to celebrate the holidays with all the trimmings, and those who need help just to survive from day to day. Whether it be homeless animals or homeless humans, the sad, shallow, look in the eyes is frequently the same and the aura of despair is palpable. There never seems to be enough to give to relieve the suffering of so many.
I watched a video the other day that’s circulating the internet about a dog who was rescued from a junkyard. A video crew followed the rescuers to the wretched, exposed pile of garbage the dog was living in, and being too weak and sick to fight, she was easily caught and taken in to the shelter.
Within a week or so of her recovery she was a completely different dog, and subsequently adopted another tiny, scared rescue who was brought to the same shelter. The video ended with two joyful dogs and a plea for their adoption.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen rescued animals turn right around and rescue another. Those of us who have had strays, rescues, and otherwise rejected animals know how much they seem to appreciate their fortuitous circumstances after finding an adopter. It may also be the case that those of us who have known the hardships of not knowing who or where to turn to, and understand all to well what rejection feels like, may also be the ones who most quickly recognize those same feelings in animals.
One of the horse trainers I worked for was a self-proclaimed non-cat-lover and never would have kept one as a pet. So I was shocked the day he showed up at the barn after teaching off site with a tiny, quivering tuxedo kitten in his hands. He said the kitten mewed at him ringside so desperately he figured the dogs would have had him for lunch had he just left him there in the hot desert sun.
We set up a “cat stall” in the barn for the new arrival who let it be known he would have nothing to do with being a barn cat. I took him into the house, thinking it would be temporary. After tending to the afternoon’s training rides I went back into the house to find “Bonz” as he’d been named and he was nowhere in sight. He was barely old enough to be weaned and I was afraid he’d crawled into a small, dark space somewhere, perhaps impossible to find. After searching the house I went into my room and found he’d climbed up the comforter on my bed and was happily snoozing on my pillow. This teacup-sized feline baby sure knew what he wanted!
Once big enough to go outside, the personable Bonz found a frightened tabby Manx kitten whom he adopted and also convinced to move into the house, teaching him what it was like to live in the lap of luxury! My non-cat-loving partner now had two of them, and didn’t seem to mind one bit.
When compassion settles into the heart, all beings benefit. When the opportunity arises to relieve the suffering of another, it just happens because that’s who you become.
I’ve witnessed something else in my own journey and immersion in the world of animals.
Several years ago I was in film school working on a documentary about the equine slaughter industry. It is a brutal, disturbing topic that was heart-wrenching to research. I made myself watch the most horrific videos and read the statistics in spite of how hard it was to do so. Even as a long-time trainer, I had absolutely no idea how many horses ended up in the kill boxes every year. Thousands of homeless horses. Rejected by humans for whatever reason… and there are many… not deserving the kind of fate they received.
I showed the film’s trailer to my class, made up primarily of city-dwellers with an interest in environmental and social justice issues.
I had included undercover video footage of horses in the pens inside the slaughterhouse, and noted to the class how scared the horses were, knowing what was going on in there. One close up of a distraught chestnut in particular, would be read by any experienced horseman as being in a very depressed, shut-down state. Long past just the fear of the situation.
When I mentioned the expression on the horse I was met with blank stares from my classmates. After a few awkward moments of silence, one of them finally said “how can you tell the horse is sad?”
I thought everyone, horse-person or not, could read the expression on this horse’s face. Then I realized the truth of the matter was that wasn’t the case.
It made me realize why some people have compassion for animals and others do not. They literally cannot read when a horse, or perhaps any animal, is signalling they are in fear, stress, pain, or depression. I also realized how much work there is still to be done on a very large scale to help humans develop compassion for horses. There are so many in the system now who are homeless, neglected and abused. Apparently there are also many people who do not recognize the level of suffering these horses are experiencing.
It’s an interesting quandary, and one worth contemplating… because those of us who have rescued horses know exactly how those horses have, in turn, rescued us.