Monday, July 25, 2005


By Elaine Meinel Supkis

For many eons there has been debate about whether animals can feel pain (!) or if they can mourn the death of a loved one or remember the past. Many humans cling to the notion that only we do these things. This is so we can brutalize animals and not feel guilty about it.

When people claim they can see the feelings of animals, the Aristotleans scoff. Aristotle was the ancient Greek philosopher who wrote extensively about many things, often quite wrongly, he being a man of his times, unable to see how trapped his mindset was, due to his cultural upbringing.

Debate has raged and still rages. The cruelties of modern farming are an extention of the belief that animals don't feel anything much so who cares what happens to them.

I am not of that school of thought.

Today, Molly, our oldest horse, a very sweet and charming old mare, died. I knew something was wrong when she and her consort, Sparky, didn't show up at the paddock gate looking for apples. I called. From far away, the geldling trumpeted. Sparky, you see, is a "proud cut" which means he acts very much and looks like a stallion but can't impregnate a mare.

Today, his call was filled with alarm. He charged out of the old barn and gallopped up the mountainside to me, neighed with all his vigor and turned tail, running back to where he came. I ran after him. He ran back out to see if I was really coming, then ran back into what used to be Molly's old stall.

She was lying on the ground, utterly still.

Sparky neighed to her. He nuzzled her and then stomped his feet and looked over his shoulder at me. I crouched next to her and saw she would rise no more. "I'm sorry, Sparky," I said, sadly. He blew up and ran outside and running in circles, he vent his rage. He followed me to the new stalls. There, I fed him, but he kept looking down the mountain. As soon as he finished, he roared off across the fields covered with wildflowers to stand guard over his fallen mate.

I must bury her tomorrow. It will be hard on Sparky.

He isn't unsual.

Chip and Dale were America's largest ox team. They appeared on TV. They lived fewer years than Molly who was nearly 30 when she died. Chips, the bigger ox, died on the cusp of the Millennium, at midnight. I sat out in the iron cold hard field with him where he fell and broke his hip, holding his head, his huge horns resting on either side of me. Dale, who worked in team with him since they were calves, stood next to us, lowing sadly as his brother struggled to breathe.

When Chips died, we had to dig a huge pit for him. When the time came to bury him, we used a huge crane to lift him into it. As soon as the first shovel of dirt hit his body, Dale blew up.

Swinging his horns, he bellowed at us and rushed at the operator moving his brother's body. I wrapped my arms around his head. "Dale, come with me, come, now, come, boy," I sang to him. Lowing pitifully, he hung his head and followed me away. Later, he spent the day, standing on the grave, tears running down his broad cheeks. Finally, I took some grain to him and said, "Let's go home." He then moved into his brother's stall. He never set foot into his own stall again.

I know tomorrow is going to be hard on Sparky. I will have to tie him up. He won't let me move Molly, that is certain.

When my great English Mastiff, Cleo, was dying of cancer, it was two years after Chips died. It was the middle of winter. Cleo dragged herself to the front door. It was snowing. She indicated to me, she wanted to go outside and so I dressed up and followed her. She dragged herself to the darkening woods. It was very quiet except for the plopping of snowflakes upon the soft white mantle that covered the land.

When animals are dying, they go off to be alone.

Out of the dim light came first the cats, all four of them. They sat around Cleo in a circle. One of them rubbed against her for she loved to wash them but she was in too much pain to respond. She sighed. Then the neigh of Sparky who came trotting over with Molly at his heels. By then, Dale, the ox, came ambling over. Colleen, the sheep herding dog, nuzzled her pal, Cleo.

"Shush, all of you, back into your houses!" I said and I herded everyone away and then went back to Cleo only she was right behind me, dragging herself through the snow. She didn't want to be left alone, after all.

The next day, she died.

Colleen was desolated. She refused to get out of bed for three days. Finally, I took her to visit the pound...where she met her new friend and this is how we adopted Coco, a lovely elderly Newfundland who was going to be put down. She lived with us for several years.

Well, it isn't only mammals! We had a turkey hen. She couldn't hatch her own eggs so she took one of the duck nests and hatched a duck egg. The little duckling was a riot. He would scamper onto his mother's broad back and ride her around. She cooed and petted him and loved him.

And one day, stepped on him.

I knew something was wrong. She made a giant fuss. She wanted me to fix him. When I picked up the limp body, she became enraged for a minute but I sat down and showed her I couldn't bring him back. She followed me into the kitchen, still wailing away.

It was hard, disposing of him. Sheep: whenever something went wrong with the flock, the two matrons, Curly and Stella would baaa with alarm and go off and seek me out, even going so far as to banging on the door. When giving birth, the mothers all looked forwards to my arrival. They would huddle next to me and I would sleep on my plastic folding chair in their birthing hall. Scientists were "surprised" to find that sheep show anxiety when a bad person they don't like shows up and their chemistry shows happiness when they see a smiling face and hear a cheerful voice. "Lambies, come to me," I would sing to them and all the heads would shoot up and off they go, looking for me.

When Jane Goodall started studying the chimpanzees, many scientists were angry about how she talked not only about them but with them. She learned their language and signals and she can charm any chimpanzee she meets. All greet her with relief and joy, even, the happiness of being with someone who understands them at last, inexpressible.

People who believe animals can feel usually believe that people can feel. This concept is the bedrock of liberalism. Caring not only for one's self but reaching across to other humans and other living things is what a true life is all about. I firmly believe that when we all die, we are judged by those we showed mercy to in life.

The scales of justice are held in the hands of a wise being who knows what is within our hearts and can see it all, even things we try to hide from ourselves.

I am a predator. I have blood on my hands. But I also took care of those creatures who passed through my life. Even when I ate my turkeys, they had a very good life. Food and shelter and fun, freedom and joy. They had a great time. My hens lay eggs for me and I eat them. But they live a good life, free and happy, coming to me willingly when I call them.

Even though Sparky likes to object when I harness him up, he still enjoys himself, it is all just a ritual. He hates being ignored. He is going to be difficult now. He lost the love of his life, the girl who smote him the minute he laid eyes upon her, as I led her up the mountain, he ran alongside the fence, neighing to her. When I put her in the opposite pasture, he gathered up all his strength and bounded over the fences and dancing in front of her, flexing his huge neck, his long tail streaming in the wind as he ran, he took her and she, the wall flower mare, blossomed. She discovered that no man or anything could touch her without Sparky's permission.

When dogs attacked her, Sparky drummed them into the dirt. When lightning flashed, Sparky would defy it, standing brave with his chest into the wind, ears back. When it snowed, Sparky would make paths for her and trample down the deep snow. He was a pig, though, if I gave them apples, he always wanted all the apples. But then, no one is perfect.

Love and live, everyone. It is the best we can do.

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