I spent a Saturday morning a few weeks ago searching for newborn kittens, both dead and alive, in a friend’s host family’s backyard.
Friday night four of my friends and I walked into the house’s courtyard to find a newborn kitten, umbilical cord still attached, struggling to stay alive.
Later Friday night we found two more kittens from the same litter and one that was born a few weeks before. We wanted to help them, but were at a loss for what to do. We didn’t know which of the family’s five cats was the mother and the pet’s owner had decided to ignore the situation completely.
There are some animal control organizations in Chile, but they are nearly impossible to reach and any shelters are already at capacity. Our only option was to try to keep them warm and hope they survived the night.
When we returned the next morning we found two of the three from the night before had lived and after searching the yard found three more, one alive and two dead.
We took the surviving three to an emergency vet who advised us to put the two smallest to sleep but that the one from the earlier litter might be savable.
This type of thing happens all the time in Chile, he told us. There’s just a different cultural attitude about what it means to be a good pet owner. If this happened in the States, I told him, I would have fought hard to have the family charged with animal abuse.
Instead I bit my tongue and accepted that the only thing to do was to take as good of care for the kitten who survived as we could. We named him Tom and have been caring for him ever since.
Feeling so helpless in saving the kittens was surreal and eye opening. Suddenly the easygoing attitude that I envied in Chilean people had lost its charm. We needed structure, If pets existed, then how could there not be something in place to protect them?
For the first time since I came here I felt not only culture shock, but judgment and anger. And my reaction was so strong that it got me thinking about the bond between humans and animals and how when confronted with their suffering there is an almost uncontrollable emotional response to help them.
Last year my mom had an experience with a dying squirrel that showed her that she was not alone in feeling connected to animals and their pain. Witnessing the animal’s suffering brought together a group of complete strangers. Like my friends and I with the kittens, once they saw the creature’s pain they had no choice but to work together to help it.
In the aftermath of the BP oil spill animal suffering played a similar role as a catalyst for people to take action. Some of the most powerful imagery in the media to depict the effect of the spill were the photographs of the animals harmed by the event. The images created relatable and emotional demonstrations of why people should care about the spill and exemplified how human impact on the earth can have horrific consequences.
But other times people do not see this impact.
In cities throughout Chile hundred of stray dogs roam the streets. And while many look healthy it is obvious that they crave the human attention our ancestors altered them to need. In the United States these dogs might be housed in shelters, but their pain is the same. Dogs are not like other animals, they do not merely want to survive alongside humans- they want their companionship. But in both countries people insist on buying their pets from puppy mills and breeders. They ignore those who already exist in favor of unnaturally creating more to be sold and consequently perpetuating the system of bringing more animals into this world to lead unhappy lives.
There seems to be a disconnect for many people between their actions, or inactions, and the effect on the living creatures that at other times they feel so connected to. And in some cases, this disconnect is so strong that the animal ceases to be seen as a living thing at all. Our system for producing meat, for example, has detached the consumer from the slaughter process to such an extent that people do not even seem aware that what they are eating ever had a heartbeat.
In Cusco, Peru tourists pay to take pictures with baby alpaca and cherish the alpaca wool hats and purses that they bring home as artifacts of their Peruvian experience. Yet only a few feet away the same species’ meat is skewered and fried up for the same tourists to eat.
But usually people have even less interaction with animals meant for slaughter, making their suffering harder to comprehend and seemingly less important than that of animals we interact with more frequently.
Most Americans would shudder at the sight of dog or cat meat because we know these animals and their personalities, we see their affection, and we see that they can feel. Cows and pigs have less opportunity to connect with humans and to prove to them that they have the same capacity to feel as any other animal, that they too can enjoy life when given the chance to have one.
James Cromwell, the Oscar nominated actor, had the opportunity to see this through his role as Farmer Hoggett in the 1995 film, Babe. The film, which tells the story of a pig who learns to help herd sheep and consequently earns the right to stay alive, has turned into a cult classic for the vegetarian movement. Cromwell was already a vegetarian when he acted in the film, but interacting with his pig-costar inflicted in him a need to do more and since then has become a vegan and activist in the animal rights movement.
In an interview with Los Angeles magazine Pet Press Cromwell explained his stance on how we relate to animals.
“If you love a dog, you have to love a pig. It’s the same. The pig has the same life cares – nurtures – avoids pain – suffers loss – all exactly the same.”
But pigs are not seen the same as a dog, they are vilified by being portrayed as filthy and stupid, making it acceptable to cause them pain.
These animals are seen as so less worthy of life and happiness as the rest of us that it is perfectly reasonable for meat eaters to argue for animal rights. They can call themselves animal lovers without being questioned.
In the same interview Cromwell explained his frustrations with this way of thinking.
“The attitude we have towards our personal pets as opposed to the animals that suffer under the factory farm is hypocritical and delusional. We are indignant about horses being used for food, yet we don’t have a problem eating cows. There’s a relationship with the horse. Because they’re near us, they supposedly count more. But a pig or a chicken or a cow count for nothing!”
Before I left for Chile I started volunteering at the Lighthouse Farm Sanctuary in Scio, Oregon (please consider making a donation, they do such incredible things for these animals) and saw first hand how interacting with farm animals can change a persons perspective about eating them. All of the volunteers and staff at the sanctuary are at least vegetarian, most vegans, and the reason why was obvious. After spending a little time with the rescued cows, pigs, geese, horses, goats and sheep that live there I saw that they were as charming and endearing as any other animal I had ever met. Once you see this it’s hard to imagine doing anything to hurt them.
Hanging out with a pig at Lighthouse
But it seems there is a resistance to expanding what animals we allow into our lives. Doing so requires someone to rethink their actions, make a more educated decision about whether animals deserve to be harmed at their cost. But the reward in doing so might prove more worthy than the cost.
Rescuing Tom, for all of us, was a moment of pride and camaraderie. We proved to ourselves that we were capable of doing good and that we had a respect for life strong enough that we were willing to make sacrifices to preserve it. I only hope that this respect will one day be extended to the rest of the animal kingdom.