I’ve always known I wanted to work with animals and have been pursuing every opportunity to do so ever since I was little.
I established my own pet sitting business in grade school which developed into volunteering at a horse rescue in middle school, volunteering at Denver Zoo and helping out at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai and working for the USDA National Wildlife Research Center and Greenwood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
Growing up with the instinct to help and take care of animals has given me direction in life, but has also made me naïve to the fact that sometimes we can hurt an animal and/or the environment with good intentions. This is where education and collaboration are of utmost importance when spreading love to all species across the world.
Worldwide, millions of animals are released into the wild in a practice known as “mercy release” in the Buddhist community. It is believed that freeing an animal from a life of captivity brings good karma and fortune for the releaser. The practice and thought sound lovely and beneficial to animals, right?
While this tradition began centuries ago with an intention of kindness towards animals, the modern version of this practice has become a cause of animal suffering and environmental damage—the present day mercy release process consists of buying animals from pet stores and releasing them into natural areas.
For example, in New York City, red-eared slider turtles are easy to come by in pet shops hence ponds in central park have becoming dominated with red-eared sliders that are outcompeting the native species due to unregulated mercy releases.
When released outside of their natural ranges, animals can outcompete natives for food and territory, taint gene pools through interspecific breeding and spread disease.
While there are negative effects of these spiritual practices, there is obvious difficulty in trying to mitigate an issue that involves religious tradition. Non-profit organizations have taken the route of trying to spread the word that mercy release is wrong. This can cause conflict and lack of response or action from the Buddhist community.
It is clear to national and local organizations like the Humane Society and The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society that the modern practice of mercy release should be stopped, but we need to do so without completely challenging an ancient Buddhist practice and maintain respect for the religion. This evokes a mission of modifying these practices in absence of harsh criticism.
Education would be a proactive option, but it ends in taking away a time-honored practice of Buddhism. This is where alternatives and compromise need to come in and Venerable Benkong Shi and the community of Manhattan’s Grace Gratitude Buddhist Temple have established an amazing option—they have begun collaborating with local wildlife rehabilitation centers to carry out their mercy releases with native species in their natural ranges.
The ultimate goal is for every Buddhist temple in the United States to have a rehabilitation center or other conservation group to support and educate their community.
This alliance has shaped the practice in a way that is good for karma, the animal, and the environment.
Author: Molly Selleck
Editor: Katarina Tavčar