We have all had the experience of reading something that moves us in a manner like no other. During the course of my work I encounter, on a regular basis, statements that are intending to persuade, to point out that we must always be aware of the impact we make upon other beings.
I don’t know who Elizabeth Goudge is but when I read the statement below it stayed with me like few others have. I think that it is her judicious use of the word, ‘contempt’. It is so powerful and so descriptive of care- less actions. Indeed, the time is short and we should move with a gentle touch.
“Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a [person], a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life….” – Elizabeth Goudge, Author
“She chickened out at the last minute!”
“Sheila and Joe can be very foxy.”
“He made an ass of himself in front of everyone.”
“During the meeting they bitched about everything.”
In our everyday conversations, at times we are so focused on the message we want to convey that we don’t pay attention to the words that we are choosing to make the point. We forget that words can be descriptive, powerful and harmful – all at the same time.
Each example above describes human behaviour in a negative manner. However, when we stop to consider the words that that have been used, we realize that the metaphors are denigrating particular animals at the same time.
As we all know, the behaviour of any creature is too complex to be reduced to a single, negative characteristic. The movement of a chicken, the agility of a fox, the voice of a female dog, the comportment of a donkeys: each occurs in a specific context and for a specific reason.
Next time that you want to describe a person’s behaviour, think twice before you speak. Be certain that your use of words does not does not harm or sacrifice the integrity of a fellow creature.
During my yoga class this morning, as I lay in Shivasana pose, attempting to rid my mind of pesky thoughts, an image of the donkeys moved into view. They were standing in the winter sun, as they often do, with their thick winter coats ‘fluffed up’ (How do they do that? When a bare hand is held lightly on the coat, the heat that it traps tickles the skin.). At that instant I became aware of a palpable feeling of relaxation: it was the stillness of the donkeys that was serving to soothe.
No matter the season, donkeys pass a significant amount of time each day just standing still. I used to wonder what they might be thinking during those times but, then, after I started to practice yoga my impression changed. I have concluded that, like yogic stillness, it is for them, as it should be for us, about be-ing. Breathing in and breathing out. Living in the now. That is the gift of life.
In the 19th Century, when federal legisation was first enacted regarding the Criminal Code: Crimes Against Animals Section in Canada, animals were viewed as property. They were put into the same category as furniture or machinery, able to be bought and sold with no strings attached and with the assumption that the right of ownership conferred absolute control over the lives involved.
This was allowed because general assumptions in that era were that animals had no souls and, therefore, that they were subhuman, unable to experience pain or feelings. Animal abuse was generally ignored in courts of law.
Nowadays, in the 21st Century, we know better. Both anecdoteally and scientifically, the proof is overwhelming: animals are sentient creatures, just like humans are. Both feel pain, both experience loss and both welcome pleasure.
So, what are we to do with these facts? They are impossible to ignore and they are the reason why we are so frustrated in our attempts to revise and amend the 19th Century legislation. Attempts at change revolve around penalties and definitions of ‘wilful neglect’ when they should, firstly, address the basic assumptions. Owning something that is called ‘property’ requires no particular ethical behaviour on the part of the owner. Caring for a sentient creature demands an entirely different degree of responsibility and suggests a need for effective controls over aberrant behaviour on the part of the care giver.
The reality of sentience forces one to make a dramatic shift in standards and expectations when it comes to relations with the other animals on this earth.
What does its general acceptance mean to our country’s approach to matters of animal welfare?
Sandra Pady, DSC Executive Director