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)
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.
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.
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…
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.)
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.