(photo by Andreas Trepte)
(part of this writing appeared in the Gainesville Sun, May 3rd as a Letter to the Editor)
Be Kind to Animals week starts Sunday, May 3rd and ends on International Migratory Bird Day on May 9th. During this time we humans will be celebrating the blessings of animals in our lives, as well as growing our understandings of how we relate to other beings. It is no simple matter. We both extol and denigrate animals of all kinds, including our own species. How we orientate towards life on this planet begins at an early age.
When a child I noticed near our home a flock of small falcons circling over an injured falcon on the ground, her wing obviously broken and bleeding. I went to my father for help. He took one look at the bird and went for his gun. When it became clear what he was going to do, we children began screaming, “Please don’t kill her, please don’t!” Without a word he fired his gun several times, ending the bird’s suffering, but in my mind he gave up too easily and didn’t seem to care about birds.
In this experience we see the depth of virtue in both bird and human. The circling falcons were protecting and caring for their injured companion, as were my father and I. It is so easy though to overlook the bridge of virtue that exists between animals; the virtue of caring that so many species demonstrate each according to their kind. Instead we judge the other as being unworthy of compassion or care, be it parent, child, bird, or cat
No doubt we need to discern the amount of harm others cause to life on this planet. Here too animals, human and nonhuman, show vices each according to their own kind. I once ran into a hunter in Florida who when he found out that I was a bird veterinarian, remarked, “Aw shucks, I probably shouldn’t tell you this but I shoot hawks. Sometimes it gets so boring on the deer stand that I just have to empty my gun into something.” We humans are not alone in demonstrating dishonest or harmful behaviors. Dolphins kill the juveniles of their group, chimpanzees commit infanticide and go to war, and birds of all kinds stray outside their pair bonds exhibiting promiscuous behavior.
Scientists struggle to find causes and evolutionary explanations for these behaviors. In recent years we are discerning that humans are strongly linked to many other species through our emotional lives that support vices, but also virtuous behavior, such as compassion, fairness, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, and altruism.
When I watch other animals I see that there is a continuum of behavior that goes beyond the categories of vice and virtue, good and bad, worthy and unworthy. It is in our nature to be both compassionate and competitive, caring and uncaring, loving and cruel. During Humane Week we have the chance to study the behavior of other species, embrace who we are, and choose the small steps to develop our own behavior patterns towards the good of all life as we open our hearts and minds to learning and to love. If we really look we can see that we are not alone on this planet, neither above nor below other species, but all in a circle of life together. We are here to love ourselves, one another, and the earth.
We too can learn this at an early age. One afternoon about ten years after the incident with the falcon and my father, we were driving together when two woodpeckers flew across the road. One made it clear, but the car ahead of us struck her mate. My father, pulled over to the side of the road to see what could be done. There, by the still form of her mate, the surviving woodpecker perched vulnerably on the ground. She did not fly away as we approached, but stood watch, protecting her mate. I looked over to my father, the stern one that I so often judged, and he had tears streaming down his face. In that moment I had reaffirmed my own heart’s calling to love life and that it was possible for we humans to care, to change, to guard life, and to morn together. In our own watchful presence with other species, we share a silent prayer for animals who act out the drama of their lives each according to their own kind.
(photo by Nature's Pic's (www.naturespicsonline.com)
I invite you this coming week to look, to see, to feel, to mourn, and to celebrate life on this planet in its myriad forms, so that we might treat each other humanely, including our own species. You may come to our Animal Celebration and Blessing this Sunday at 11 a.m. with your own animal companions. All species and all generations are welcome. You may also bring pictures or stuffed animals as we share a universal blessing that binds us all.
May our understanding of the worth and interdependence of all life comfort us and keep all beings from harm.