Equal on Both Sides

The subject of death makes the strongest of us squirm. Typically, it is not a discussion that brings about joy in one another. Yet, as we age, we become aware that a state of unpreparedness for the passing of either ourselves, our loved ones, or our animals can have detrimental consequences for those left behind. It may also cause considerable stress over critical decision-making at an emotional time.

For the horse owner, many are left in a quandary with the expense of maintaining older equines once they can no longer be ridden because of medical issues. The very topic of life-cycle management from the birth to death of an animal, especially one as large as a horse, is a discussion we believe needs to be had amongst horse lovers the world over. With the continued breeding and many thousands of yearly births of all kinds of horses, the global community of equines and their people is facing an unsustainable future as climate change, rising costs of upkeep, and urban development squeeze more horses out of the system and make it all the more difficult for the average owner to keep horses through to the end of their days.

This article raises some interesting ideas as to why issues of welfare have become worse than ever for all species of animals. For those equestrians who are courageous enough to take a peek into the darker side of the business, the numbers of homeless horses and those going to slaughter are staggering. The big question asked over and over again, especially by those on the frontlines of rescue and those who comb the auction kill pens to find the few they can save, is, “Why?”

With shelter euthanasia rates going down, major companies moving toward more humanely-produced food, and the prospect of legal “personhood” for primates being litigated in court, you might have thought things were going pretty well for animals.

But authors of a new paper would disagree. 

­­­­­­­­­­­­(Could Our Own Fear Of Death Be Affecting The Way We Treat Animals? The Huffington Post  |  By Arin Greenwood)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/10/nonhuman-personhood_n_6341474.html

 The Huffington Post: You say in the paper that despite what looks like some gains in animal welfare and animal rights, that things for animals are still very bad. Can you explain?

Michael Mountain: It’s interesting that people are really motivated to do something positive and definite about homeless pets, because we see them as part of our “in-group” — our family. But we see the rest of the animal kingdom (queendom?) as basically resources and commodities for our use and benefit.

Lori Marino: And there are more farm animals being slaughtered and eaten around the world every year.

What Michael and I set out to do in this paper is try to understand why, despite all the efforts of animal protection groups, things are getting worse — not better — in most areas of abuse. What we found is that there may be a psychological process that undermines our ability to really connect with the other animals as equals.

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Unfortunately for horses, they are still classified as “livestock.” While most are given a variety of drugs throughout their lifetimes that make them unsuitable for processing and consumption, regulations have been weak enough to allow horses into the food chain, particularly in European and Asian regions (shipped from North America). Horse lovers are caught in between the concept that “pets are family”, but livestock is a commodity. This has been the perception and classification that has led to the demise of many thousands of horses. Those who are of the mindset to keep their horses forever have a hard time understanding how other people could let their horses go to an auction, or just blatantly discard them and not care where the horse might end up.

According to the research presented by Michael Mountain, a leader in the no-kill movement, and Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, much of the decline in animal welfare overall is due to our subconscious need to think of ourselves as immortal and above animals. This not something most of us register consciously. Something deep down in our programming tells us that we are better than them. Therefore, we are free to do as we wish to exert our superiority and dominance in the natural order of things.

Except that, well, we haven’t done such a great job of taking care of that natural order. This is more about what we have become as a species, and in our minds, the species-in-charge.

“We are in a sixth mass extinction and there is no doubt about that at this point,” says Lori Marino, a bio-psychologist, cetacean expert and founder of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

Mountain and Marino, whose work is due out this spring, have a theory about why this is happening: existential anxiety and fear of death.

LM: That, given that everything is getting worse — for us, for other animals, for the whole planet — that there is something about human nature that is motivating us to behave in ways that cause everything to get worse.

It is not just about putting in more effort or more money. It is really about who we are. This is all about the kind of animal we have evolved to be.

Biologists and paleoecologists estimate that humans have driven roughly 1,000 species extinct in our 200,000 years on the planet. Since 1500 we have killed off at least 322 types of animals, including the passenger pigeon, the Tasmanian tiger and, most recently, the baiji, a freshwater dolphin in China. Another 20,000 or more species are now threatened with extinction according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which keeps a list of all the known endangered plants and animals on the planet.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-the-sixth-mass-extinction-can-be-stopped/

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I believe those of us who grew up with many pets in the house, or on a farm, have had more experiential contact with death than people who did not grow up with animals. Yes, there are far too many youth and adults confronted with horrible experiences involving war zones, terrorist attacks, and accidental deaths, but there is something of a lifecycle learning experience that occurs when you are in a loving home and your beloved pet guinea pig dies, or the aging family dog has to be euthanized. While we don’t want to deal with the process of watching a favourite pet go through the dying phases, we come to an understanding that we are not in charge of this fact of life, and it can happen to anyone, at any time. As a child, this is a profound revelation to comprehend.

As an adult, I know most of us contemplate the transition more than we care to admit. I have heard it said that it is not so much death we are afraid of, but the moment of death. We are here, and then we are not. We don’t want to suffer through it. These researchers have pinpointed our feelings about that moment to be the reasoning behind the way we ultimately treat animals.

Personally, I have been so close to animals since I was a child I honestly do feel like one of them. When I am alone in the pasture with the horses, I am completely in my comfort zone. I could just as easily forget about being a human and all my human responsibilities, and simply while the day away in the pasture with my four-legged companions. I know how connected they are to the death process. I have witnessed horses transition, and experienced the mourning behaviors of those left behind. They are clearly sentient beings.

Knowing this, where does the motivation come from to treat animals so poorly? We aren’t talking so much about individuals here, as we are discussing the human condition in general. There are millions of people who would be mortified upon realizing their fear of death subconsciously has a negative effect on their animals. No, this is broader.

If the topic of death makes you a little squeamish, think about the career of a veterinarian. Animals, including horses, have a much shorter lifespan than humans. Inevitably, if we have animals, there will be visits to or from the veterinarian, and sometimes that could include the extremely heart-wrenching decision to euthanize an older or sick companion. Imagine being the professional practitioner who is not only evaluating and confirming the decision to euthanize, but is also responding to the emotions and needs of the people who are closest to that animal. In over 35 years of practice, Dr. Schoen has been in this position many times, and has developed his own profound understanding of the transition to the other side…

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When I read this article in the Huffington Post, I found it fascinating that the authors proposed that part of the reason we treat animals the way we do is because of our own fear of death and how we can separate them from us.

In general, I agree with their thoughts. I do sense that in general our society is in denial about death and dying. If we have the programmed understanding and fear that is promoted in society in general, it is totally understandable. If one explores a bit deeper below the surface, exploring books such as “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche (http://www.rigpa.org/en/about-sogyal-rinpoche/the-tibetan-book-of-living-and-dying.html) as well as philosophical books like “A Year to Live” by Stephen and Ondrea Levine (http://levinetalks.com/About-Us) as well as the numerous books describing “life after death” experiences, one can view the concept of death from a different perspective. Exploration of these views have become so popular these days that Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon’s book called “Proof of Heaven” (http://www.ebenalexander.com/ has been on the NY Times Best Seller list for a long time. Yet, it seems like some people go along with Woody Allen’s quote, “I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Actually, it is one of the most profound transitions, if not the most profound one we can ever experience. Some Tibetan teachers feel that that is what we are preparing for in life.

In my own personal experiences, having to euthanize many animals throughout my over 35 years of veterinary practice and then pondering my decisions at different times as well as observing clients perspectives at that moment, I have come to honor the mystery of that time and the opportunity it offers us to explore our own attitudes on death.

My views on death have evolved over my veterinary career. I will share more in future articles and books. I have also intimately experienced my parents’ death and dying process as well as more friends than I care to mention.

I do believe the death of our horses, our animal companions, can offer us a profound opportunity to explore all perspectives on life and death and how we treat all beings. I do see that denial of the eventuality of death is not beneficial for most people and does not allow for unique opportunities to awaken to the magnificence of who we really are.

I would be interested in what our readers’ perspectives are. I look forward to sharing more with all of you regarding this profound moment we will all face.

Allen Schoen, DVM, MS, PhD. (hon.)

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It is okay to talk about this. Whether you agree with the researchers or not, as Dr. Schoen has noted, denial of what we are, or have become as humans, is not helping us. We can open to new understandings, and share our stories of what death and dying means to us personally. We can explore how we cope with the loss of our beloved horses, friends, family members, and others who leave us behind in our mortal bodies. A friend of mine even prepares for the inevitable with her horses by cremating their remains and keeping their ashes in a (very large) urn. It is an honor reserved for very few horses, but her deep compassion and care for her animals is evident in her lack of fear regarding their eventual deaths, and acceptance of the process when the time comes.

While I risk going over the esoteric edge here, I have to say that I have experienced clear evidence of life after death. Animals do not question such things in the way that humans do. So in that regard, yes, there is a separation between us and them. That is, apart from the human beings who are so in tune with the animal world themselves that no separation is evident and our treatment of them is such as we would want ourselves to be treated.

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Present! No…Absent!

Can you remember the last time you had nothing do to? I mean literally, nothing. No e-mail to check, no e-demands of any sort in fact, all chores done, and complete freedom from anything other than that which you choose. If you are over 50 years old as I am, you probably do recall such a time. If you are much younger than that, you might have to search your memory banks a little deeper for the do-nothing moments.

I listened to a radio interview this morning with author Michael Harris about his book The End of Absence. It sparked a day-long contemplation and left me with a bit of a quandary. Here we are with the pending launch of a major book ourselves, The Compassionate Equestrian, in which we have suggested a period of quiet contemplation before working with your horse, or even before entering the barn. Not that this is a “do-nothing” moment, but it is meant to help you quiet the mind, restore a deeper breath, slow the heart rate, and approach your horse with a sense of calm and peacefulness.

However, in this high-speed, short attention span world, we have to build a digital marketing plan and customer acquisition process the way business must be done now, and that is via social networking and the internet. Therefore while we suggest creating the ever so rare moments of solitude and quiet, which are of tremendous benefit, at the same time I have been busy on the computer for endless hours learning from online webinars and videos how to increase Facebook likes to over a million, fill live events, drive more customers to the website, and so forth. We expect a lot of followers to come from the attachment to technology. Sometimes I feel as though I am fighting for mental stability in this age of After the Internet arrived. What is this odd feeling? Why is it so pervasive? When did it become normal to have 5 windows open on 3 different e-mail addresses with a webinar held on pause in another window and a Word document started in yet another?

“But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, mid-conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google.

In The End of Absence, Michael Harris argues that amid all the changes we’re experiencing, the most interesting is the one that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence—the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished. There’s no true “free time” when you carry a smartphone. Today’s rarest commodity is the chance to be alone with your own thoughts.”

http://www.endofabsence.com/home/

I began my working career in advertising and marketing but that was in 1977 and things were very different then. We used radio, television, newspaper, flyers and billboards to spread the message. You had the choice to look or listen if you wish, but nobody could ever say they were addicted to their media!

Silence. How often can you say your world is truly quiet? Can you even stand it when everything around you goes quiet? Noise seems to be an addictive factor in many people’s lives too. There is a nervousness that creeps in when suddenly nobody has anything to say. Even if you are a sensitive person in a group meditation practice, you can detect the subtle nuances of people going through lists, analyzing situations, or perhaps thinking about where they need to be next. People have a lot of noise in their heads now, even if they don’t want it there.

I feel strangely guilty for all this rising of the endlessly busy ones. I lived in a computer lab, literally, in the days of the dot com explosion, and had a front row seat in watching the great divide emerge…the Before and After as Harris describes it. My ex-boyfriend, who was president of the high-tech company, had a freakish ability to see how the past and future connected. He forged onwards as everyone was doing it to see who could win the race to make money selling “minutes” amongst other then non-existent products. Few believed it could really happen. It was like a surreal dream. If we needed to reach through time and scream, “noooo don’t do it” it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. It all ballooned and got away from everyone, the expectations of money and reality of connecting humans all over the globe has happened, for better, for worse, and everything in between. Many of the smaller entrepreneurial companies did not survive, and I think we know who won in the end.

Young genius engineers, venture capitalists, and horses simultaneously surrounded me. Yes, the lab was initially on our ranch property in one of the outbuildings. That was the early 1990s. Personal computing was still clunky and archaic compared to what it is now and only the military and a handful of industry insiders had cell phones, which were like bricks compared to today’s smartphones.

My front row seat as all of this unfolded still astonishes me with the short blip in history that it took to go from the Before to the After. As a collective species, I think many of us are still in shock and exhausted from trying to keep up. As The End of Absence notes, children born within the past two decades will have no memory of what the world was like before the internet.

I kept riding, training, and teaching as all this was happening. People weren’t too affected by their attachments to e-leashes (a term coined by one of our progressive sound engineers), or constant checking of phones because they didn’t exist. So neither were the horses terribly affected by distracted, busy humans whose ability to spend 3 or 4 hours at the barn hadn’t yet been condensed to crushingly intense minutes of anxiety and demands. This is an animal that has not adapted to our distractions and lack of presence. With horses, a moment of distraction can put a rider in danger or a compromising position too.

I am currently in the very unusual position of being able to grant myself moments of utter nothingness if I choose to do so. It means consciously registering when I need to close the lid on the computer, and stop it all. It is part of that ongoing battle for sanity and my plan is to win. Just like when I was a child and could take time to simply sit in the grass, enjoying the passing clouds and the company of one of our pets, or walk the dry riverbed looking for agates, spend a couple of hours taking apart a bridle and giving it a good cleaning, or reading book after book, savouring each bit of valuable information.

Oh yes, we can sure learn a lot from the internet too, can’t we? Some useful, some frighteningly misleading, especially when it comes to horse training. This is a segment of the Before and After that I find incongruous. It is incredibly useful to be able to connect with people all over the globe, finding like-minded friends, future clients, or new interests, all with the click, click, click method. We are here in the After and that is what is required for business…but how do we tell people to stop doing that for a few minutes, especially when they go to interact with their horses? How do we convey the difference between valuable information and that which could be disastrous or misconstrued?

If you are too young to remember the Before, it may be an especially difficult task to put all technology and rapidly firing thoughts to rest for the time you are with your horse. If you recall the Before but are caught up in the After, try some self-analysis and go back to the transition time that led us from certain freedoms to virtually none in 2015. Even without having a spouse, children, or my own animals to look after, just managing my own life and finding quiet moments without feeling the need to check the iPad, MacBook, or the MotoGo phone is becoming more of a challenge. I feel like I should be doing more, more and more. It is a strange and alien sensation. This isn’t normal. If this is the new normal, then we as humans need to evolve our physiology or brain chemistry to keep from making ourselves crazy with the flood of resulting stress hormones.

And if we evolve to that kind of state, what of our beloved horses? Will they have a place in a future that might look like something out of recent sci-fi movies? Is this an organic evolution and those of us who know Before will pine for the “good old days” until there are none left who remember? I don’t know the answer to that.

I do know that if we don’t retrain ourselves to find those quiet, gap moments of solitude and quiet, we will become further and further separated from the mind and nature of the horse. Of course, we can use technology for good, in ways that help with connection, care and welfare, used with compassion to relieve the suffering of others.

As of now, there are still millions of horses and horse owners worldwide, but the numbers are dwindling, especially where youth are concerned. I read the press releases and follow results of big shows, and look carefully at the bodies and expressions of the horses. While some still exude a great enthusiasm for what they are doing, there is a lot of stress appearing in the body language and eyes of many horses, possibly going unnoticed by busy, time-pressured people.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to look back and understand how all of this has happened. It has made me mindful enough to shape my life around luxurious moments of being absent. I was actually a latecomer to the internet and smartphone myself due to having been immersed in the early days of these communications technologies, observing the changes in people firsthand. I resisted the fact that I would have to lessen quiet time with the horses and spend more time on a computer. Like so many other people, I caved in eventually. Now the horse-to-computer ratio has adjusted considerably, and I miss teaching and arena-time.

I have been determined enough to keep focus when working with a horse or student that the cell phone stays in the car and no thoughts are given as to who might have e-mailed something important. It is getting harder to refrain from the feeling of needing to check though. I am still resisting. I have also found myself pulling the phone out to record photos or videos with the intention to post to Facebook and the horses oblige but are quizzical. They aren’t too sure about this After life yet…and actually, neither am I. I would certainly be more than happy to let the social networking do its “thing” and subsequently allow me to do mine…which is to teach people how to have their best rides, ever. I will have to ask you to leave your phones in the car however, and I will do the same 😉