Years ago, a very wise woman said to me: God is a noun, but it is also a verb. It took me awhile to understand that way of thinking, but today, I see it as a way of living; it guides the choices that I make on a daily basis. God is whatever I do that brings out the best in me, that draws me closer to growing into the person that I truly want to be. God is active, not passive. God is more about doing than about merely believing. When I choose to be compassionate, patient, ethical, creative, or giving, I grow closer to God. And, sometimes I fail, which helps me to be more humble.
My career, the work that we do at ALDF is a reflection of my understanding of God. We use our legal skills to protect animals from harm and suffering. Sometimes, I’m asked: if you care about protecting others, why don’t you eliminate human suffering first? My answer is that I am working at the roots. I work for animals precisely because most people choose to ignore their suffering.
If God is a verb, then my place in the world is to help human beings open their hearts and their minds to the widespread suffering that my colleagues and I deal with on a daily basis, and to support an end to that unnecessary suffering.
Certain religions teach that human beings are very different from and far superior to all other species. I disagree, and believe that, in the ways that really matter, we share a great deal in common. Humans are not alone in their ability to feel pain and have a sense of their own life force. We know that dogs, cats, pigs, cows, chimpanzees, in fact, all of the more complex life forms have a central nervous system much like our own. They feel pain and pleasure and form close familial relationships with members of their own species. They show that they have emotions and preferences; they communicate their needs and sometimes, even show a sense of humor. I’ve talked with so many people who have close emotional relationships with dogs and cats and what I’ve just written is quite obvious to them. They consider animals to be members of their families specifically because animals give us so much on an emotional level. We don’t form deep emotional ties with our toaster ovens, because they can’t give anything back. A dog can, and does.
I think it’s a miracle that individuals from different species are able to communicate with each other and form a close emotional bond. My veterinarian, Dr. Diane Ritchie calls this: "when two souls connect," a subject that I covered in another blog.
But, we humans have a rather schizophrenic relationship with animals. We love them, spend billions of dollars on pet food, toys, bedding, veterinary care, and yet, too often, we abuse and exploit them. On a daily basis, we at ALDF deal with the very worst things that humans do to animals: the Michael Vick case was an eye-opener for many Americans, but we have dealt with the horror of dog fighting for many years. We have a database that, sadly, lists categories such as: beating, burning, dragging, drowning, shooting and microwaving. We refer to those horrible actions as "intentional cruelty," but much greater long term suffering happens in the area of a more benign, institutional abuse.
Each year, billions of animals are raised for food, and most of these farmed animals live in intensive confinement – they can barely move, or turn around; they can’t socialize with others of their own kind as they normally would, or do anything that is natural to them. They live out their lives in a persistent state of physical pain, suffering, and frustration because their most basic needs are ignored. All of this suffering happens because for most people, those animals don’t matter, they are not important enough for us to be concerned about their pain.
I believe that suffering matters to the individual who experiences it and therefore, it matters to me. Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote that: "It’s a matter of taking the side of the weak against the strong, something the best people have always done."
If God is a verb, then I grow closer to God when I work to end the suffering of those who cannot speak for themselves.
Some stories are far too wonderful not to share...
The following is an email from Bruce Wagman, ALDF's chief outside litigation counsel, to ALDF staff in response to an email he received from Tina, the adopter of Lucy, a dog rescued from the Woodleys. As Bruce says, this is why we do it!
From: Bruce Wagman
Subject: This is why we do it
What a great way to start a day -- tears of joy after all those tears of pain while ALDF worked to rescue the Woodley dogs. And what a great way to spend a life. What a gift of a group you all are. Thank you again, today, for the opportunity to work with you and accomplish this kind of miracle success. Most lawyers spend their lives fighting for money for their clients, big expensive disputes far more costly than Woodley, and the end result is either money won or money not lost. No lives saved. All that money won and lost could not pay for the lives of Lucy, and Joyce's Edgar, and hundreds of others (in Sanford and elsewhere) that you are responsible for saving. My presence in this work is a gift I will always cherish, as are the emails that we get from wonderful humans like Tina.
Subject: Re: Celebrate Over 300 Freed!
Dear Bruce, Leann and all ALDF staff,
I just wanted to thank you for all your work on behalf of my little Lucy (N53) and all the others like her. I wanted to let you know what your work has meant in the life of one precious little dog. After being rescued from the horrific conditions at the Woodley's, Lucy lived for a little over a year with the wonderful people at Cole Park Veterinary Hospital. No one would adopt her, probably because she tried to bite anyone who came too close and would not "warm up" to repeat visitors. When I first met Lucy, she bit me too. Even after repeated visits, she would sit frozen on my lap and seemed relieved to return to her cage. When I first took her home, she was afraid to go to sleep. She would sit there with her little eyes closing and then jerking open as she tried to remain vigilant. She would jump backward if I took a deep breath, and heaven forbid I should cough or sneeze! She kept her eyes on me at all times, and was quite adept at running backward. Every sound or shadow frightened her. I have never seen an animal so terrified of absolutely everything. It broke my heart. I soon realized that her vision is not very good, and I'm sure that this added to her insecurities.
Now, 2 years later, Lucy is a fiesty, curious, yappy, bossy, loving, little girl. She is funny and fun-loving and into everything. She loves to play with her toys, go for walks and rides in the car and have family and friends come over to visit. She is still shy in new situations or with new people and continues to enjoy eating an occasional "turd," but she is the love of my life. The little dog who was afraid to be petted, now sits on my lap or snuggled beside me whenever I am sitting. She sleeps curled in the crook of my arm at night. She loves to wake me up in the morning by pouncing on my chest, sticking her tiny nose in my face and wagging her whole body. She is a happy girl! I am so grateful for the opportunity to have her in my life! I cannot thank you all enough for all of your work. Lucy thanks you too!!!
Today, February 4th, is my birthday, which I’m lucky enough to share with the filmmaker George Romero, the father of the modern zombie movie. "Wait, zombies?," you ask. "Isn’t this blog supposed to be about animals?" I know, I’m getting there.
A few of us from ALDF got together recently to watch Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, two of the finest zombie movies ever made. More than just blood and guts (but certainly those too), these films are also incredibly poignant social commentaries. Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, has strong racial undertones, raising serious questions about how interpersonal racism can undermine solidarity in the face of a collective threat (such as that posed by the undead). Dawn of the Dead, released in 1978, uses mindless zombies to satirize American consumerism and alienation. The film takes place, of course, in a mall.
Watching these films, I was struck with how easily they can be translated into the context of animal ethics (though this may not have been Romero’s intent). Of course, the most defining characteristic of the cinematic zombie is his or her insatiable drive to feast on flesh, regardless of the terror this hunger inflicts on the victims. Zombies stagger mindlessly after their prey, utterly oblivious to the screams, the fear, and ultimately the gore involved in their meals. The suffering of their food simply does not register. Remind anyone of the meat industry?
Not unlike zombies, many people think nothing of tearing flesh from bone, despite the fact that the leg they hold in their hand once belonged to someone. Someone with a family, a life, a story, a desire to live. When watching zombie movies, most of us root for the food! We want the human prey to get away, to survive, to return to her family or friends. We cringe at the blood and the gore. Are we mindful enough to do the same when it comes time to sit down for our own meals? Or will we be as mindless as the zombies, deaf to the ethical dimension of who we eat? Even some zombies are (ahem…) waking up to the possibilities of foregoing flesh!
The brilliance of Romero’s movies, and what makes them so provocative when it comes to their social insights, is the metaphoric potential of zombies, their ability to represent all sorts of mindless behaviors we humans have. Whether it’s racism, consumerism, speciesism, or some other –ism, the automation of the zombie calls attention to the daily ways in which we are all capable of either shuffling on or choosing otherwise.
So, happy birthday, George. Here’s hoping for a little less mindlessness in this world.
Great news! Virginia is one step closer to tougher animal fighting laws.
On a 40-0 vote, SB 26, a bill drafted by ALDF to combat animal fighting, was passed by the Virginia Senate late Tuesday and is now heading to the Virginia House for approval.
Last August, ALDF approached Virginia legislators asking them to back a proposed law that, if in place, could send dogfighters like Michael Vick to jail for up to 40 years on a first conviction. ALDF drafted a recommended amendment to Virginia state law that would enable prosecutors to charge dogfighters under the state RICO ("Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act") statute. RICO—a very powerful tool that prosecutors can use to combat organized criminal operations—is commonly used to address a wide variety of organized criminal efforts, including drug dealing, gambling, and trading in child pornography.
Read more about how lawmakers are standing up to protect animals.
Recently, while reading the local newspaper, a well-written letter to the editor regarding an environmental issue caught my attention. The author’s name seemed familiar, and since she resides in the same small town as one of my coworkers, I asked him if he knew her. Thinking he probably did and that she must be a like-minded person, I was surprised when he said, "I don’t know her personally, but she’s an environmentalist/progressive-type. However, she is vehemently against animal rights."
Now I must confess to being (and probably looking) confused at first, since the words "progressive" and "against animal rights" seem like a contradiction in terms. But when he explained by saying, "You know, THAT kind of progressive," I unfortunately knew exactly what kind of person he meant.
There is a very vocal group of self-proclaimed "progressives" and "environmentalists" who, for reasons I can only guess, are not supportive of most animal protection efforts. I will try my best to describe this group and its overlapping subgroups, as follows:
- The "progressives" who believe that it’s all about the quantity of animals, not the quality of life for an individual animal. The people in this group are typically located within the larger environmental or conservation groups, and often proudly wear the "environmentalist" badge. The quality of an animal’s life is not important to them, as long as there are still plenty of that species. Apparently, it’s of no consequence that the "one deer" killed by a hunter had a life of his or her own before coming within range of a high powered rifle. This mentality is also found in some established environmental/conservation organizations; an example is the World Wildlife Fund’s "no opposition" stance regarding the bludgeoning of baby seals.
- The "progressives" who conveniently ignore the devastation that the animal agricultural industry has wrought on the environment. Let’s be honest - these are the people who are terrified you will rip that juicy steak (organic or not) from their dinner plate, so they choose to ignore the blatant animal suffering that takes place within the industry. The irony of it is that by doing so, they don’t even adhere to their own environmental standards. They ignore the fact that it takes far more resources to raise livestock (yes, even organically raised livestock) than it would to use the same land to grow crops for people. Even the United Nations gets it; in a 2006 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states, "The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global." The report goes on to say that regarding climate change, "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent. This is a higher share than transport."
- The "progressives" who believe that a person cannot care about human rights while simultaneously caring about animal rights. People from this group will criticize any attempt to help animals with comments such as, "You care more about animals than people!" This one really perplexes me. It doesn’t take advanced multi-tasking skills to support human-focused rights groups while still supporting animal-focused rights groups, and most animal advocates favor efforts to improve human rights. The difference is they don’t stop at humans; their hearts are big enough to feel compassion for everyone, whether two- or four-legged.
- The "progressives" who say that humans are predators just like wolves and bears and hawks – so therefore have the "right" to prey on other animals. This mentality completely ignores the fact that we 21st century humans can choose what we eat, in a way that a hawk or a bear or a wolf cannot. These people also love to point out how gruesome a death the prey animal suffers when killed by wild predators, to justify humans killing animals in brutal, inhumane ways. It’s the "Hey, it’s just nature" defense. My response: what on earth is natural about a factory farm, or a well-fed human who hunts with a scoped, long-range rifle?
- The "progressives" who say that since there is no way we can avoid killing bacteria and amoebas and insects with every step we take, we should therefore not help any animals at all. Besides being preposterous, this is the saddest justification of all. Talk about defeatism! The thinking is this: since we all end up doing some harm no matter how careful we are, we therefore shouldn’t try to alleviate suffering where we can. A dangerous idea indeed.
So why is this group truly not supportive of animal protection efforts, even efforts that so obviously benefit the environment? I think it all comes down to fear. First and foremost, they are afraid to change their lives. They cling to the "As long as it’s sustainable, I can buy/use/consume it" mentality so they don’t have to think about the suffering they’re supporting, and therefore won’t have to change their habits. I also think they’re afraid of that pesky "tree-hugging hippie" stereotype they’ve worked so hard to overcome. Perhaps they fear that if they show that they care about animals, this stereotype will be perpetuated. So, they go on the offensive and lash out at animal advocates, calling us "overly-sentimental Bambi lovers" (or worse).
I know that the thought of changing one’s personal habits can be daunting, but I and many other people are living proof that it can be done with a minimum of inconvenience. And one can easily combine the following two beliefs – the right of a species to not perish, and the right of an individual to exist free from harm. Many people support both tenets, quite easily - it truly doesn’t have to be either/or!
Our nation recently celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Dr. King once said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." I commend what has been done so far to improve the lives of humans, endangered animals and the planet we all inhabit. But I also issue this challenge to progressives everywhere: we are all connected, so please, try expanding your compassion to include all living beings, not just humans and not just certain populations of wild animals.
After all, if compassion is absent, our progressive ideals become anything but.
For more information about the devastating environmental effects of meat production, read this recent NY Times article:
Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler
The New York Times, January 28, 2008