Beneath the fur and feathers, there lies a beating heart, as driven by the need for love and life as any that beats within our own chest.
When I was in college, my boyfriend bought me a bird. A cockatiel, to be specific. A little grey man with clownish dots of orange on each cheek, a yellow crest and an expression of curiosity on his tiny face which delighted me.
I loved the feel of his cool feet clinging to my finger, the sight of his microscopic eyelashes framing intelligent brown eyes, and his habit of riding around on the top of my head– even when I was in the shower— particularly then, because he preened and flapped his wings as the water danced all around him.
He had a cage, but I always left the door open. At mealtimes, he sat on the edge of my plate, cocking his head from side to side to get a good look at what I might be eating. If it happened to be mac and cheese, which it was quite often in those lean years, he inevitably dipped a toe in and then slipped onto the plate. Off balance, he flew to the other side of the table, eyeing that mac and cheese suspiciously as he tracked his cheesy footprints on the stacks of books and papers that I kept there.
After college, I moved to New York. I didn’t take much with me, but I did take the bird. He screeched and squawked at the airport like a lunatic, and I kept my head down in embarrassment. Much better behaved on the plane, I mused, perhaps he is feeling safe within the belly of the bigger bird that was flying us up up and away.
In New York, I moved from place to place, never taking much, but always taking the bird. He was a perfect roommate; his needs were small, but his personality was huge. I could always count on a joyful greeting when I got home from work, and company as I went about the mundane activities of the day.
Ironically, given my love of all animals, not just the little grey man, I worked at a steakhouse. It was one of the most lucrative serving jobs in Manhattan and with a $1400 a month rent to pay, I considered myself lucky.
But, there was a downside. Not only were we serving meat, we were doing it with a grandiosity and a kind of decadence which was disturbing. The portions were massive. Our largest steak was 48oz and not only that, you could get it with a five pound lobster on the side. And people did! Regularly.
Part of my job as a server was to greet each table with “the menu cart,” a wooden table on wheels stocked with raw meat. The meat was wrapped in plastic, but as the night wore on, blood would begin to leak out.
I had to handle this bloody meat constantly during a shift to display it to my customers. I held the steaks up, delivering my spiel, “All our steaks are prime USDA grain fed beef, aged 2 and a 1/2 to 3 weeks…”, and as I did so, I tried to ignore the streams of blood dripping down my wrists and settling into my shirt cuffs.
The finale of this presentation was the live lobster. Or, more accurately, the half dead lobster.
At the beginning of the night, a big beautiful lobster was placed on each cart on a sliver tray lined with seaweed. As you might expect, the lobsters fought desperately to get off the tray. Sometimes they actually managed it, dropping with a thunk onto the floor.
But mostly, despite the frantic waving of their legs and claws, they were unable to move.
The first few diners always got an eyeful of a furious lobster, and would gasp and lean backwards in their seats as I picked him up for show and tell.
Fairly quickly, though, the lobsters lost steam. Sitting on that tray, with no water, being hoisted up over and over again was a slow and agonizing death. When they were finally dead, they were quickly replaced. The old lobster would be the next one cooked, and the new lobster would begin the terrible journey towards his own demise.
Most servers felt pretty bad about it, but we didn’t try to change anything. Other servers didn’t care at all, and laughed at the lobsters, which they called “big bugs.” When the ASPCA showed up and picketed at our front doors in defense of the “bugs,” no one really paid attention.
After a couple of days they left, and business went on as usual.
In the midst of all this steak slinging, I found a new boyfriend. He sat at one of my tables and we bonded over the humidor. We dated for a few months and then he insisted I move in with him, so off I went. I sublet my apartment, packed up the bird, and grabbed a cab to the East Side.
My boyfriend didn’t really like the bird, and preferred that I keep him in his cage with the door shut on top of the refrigerator. The bird, used to his freedom, created a huge ruckus. His temper tantrums were only mitigated by draping a sheet over the cage, so he spent lots of time in his new home in total darkness.
One winter night, my boyfriend and I went out. We met up with some friends and spent the evening carousing around town. When we were good and drunk, we all decided it would be hilarious to go to a strip club. There, my boyfriend had his first of what would be countless attacks of jealousy. He stormed out of the club, insisting that I had been trying to get the attention of the other men there.
He stomped down the street toward our apartment, pushing over garbage cans and shouting at strangers. I followed behind, uncertain what to do. When we got home, he paced back and forth, yelling at the top of his lungs, calling me a “zero”, a “bitch” and a “whore.”
Without warning, he grabbed the birdcage from the top of the fridge and began shaking it violently. The bird screamed with panic. I begged my boyfriend to stop. Instead, he strode over to the window, hauled it open and shook and shook and shook the cage until my bird, dizzy and frightened, tumbled out of the cage door through the window and out into the freezing black night.
I never saw him again.
Looking back, I see a connection between the way I allowed animals to be treated and the way I allowed myself to be treated. I could’ve saved my bird. I could’ve gotten another job. And I could’ve walked away from that boyfriend.
Why didn’t I?
I felt small and powerless.
It took five years of physical and emotional abuse, drug addiction and homelessness for me to leave.
Things are different now. I understand that all creatures, from the factory farmed chicken, to the cow being milked beside him and the fish being stolen from the sea, to the lazy dog asleep this very minute on my bed, to me, deserve and command love, empathy and respect.
I often dream about that time; my bird, my boyfriend, the steakhouse.
I try to forgive myself the harm I’ve done…I try to lead a gentler life.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
Photo: via Pinterest