Animals, people and endless war: personal reflections about the Middle East, and on the challenge of humane education
By Kim Bartlett, Publisher, Animal People
Among the uncomputed wounds of constant conflict, poverty, and oppression is the cumulative brutalization of people, who, in turn, take their frustrations out on helpless animals.
THERE ARE PROBABLY few places on earth that could have provided a more stark illustration of the axiom that violence breeds violence than the West Bank in the Palestinian territories. I shall not soon forget the sight of grown men punching donkeys in the face.
Donkey braying at Palestinian camp. Life is beyond hard for man and beast.
It was at an equine clinic conducted by the Palestine Wildlife Society at the bottom of a hill near a small village, close to a spring that had probably provided drinking water for many thousands of years.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the site, and there were already four horses and six donkeys awaiting treatment for various infected sores under saddles or where harnesses made of chain had cut deep fly-infested wounds into their muzzles. The horses were in better condition than the donkeys because they were more valuable, but some of them were obviously underfed or in need of de-worming.
The free clinic had been advertised only by word of mouth and no one knew how many animals to expect. As it turned out, the site was too small for the large number of animals driven down the dusty road to where the veterinarian was working from the back of a small truck. Some of the animals refused to pass other animals and there was considerable balking and braying. Donkeys and horses who felt their personal space was being invaded responded by trying to bite those who came too close. The donkeys typically behaved worse than the horses. The frustrated riders lashed out at their animals with sticks and whips and when that failed to bring the donkeys under control, some of them jumped down and began beating them with their fists.
I couldn’t help but try to intervene, and though I don’t speak Arabic, they clearly understood my shouts and gestures. After several of these episodes, the assembled men and boys would themselves begin shouting as they saw other drivers approaching who were beating their donkeys. As things calmed down, I went to each man and boy, shaking his hand and emphasizing through gesture to those who had hit their animals that it was a bad thing to do. After that, without exception, they became very gentle with their animals and would begin to stroke them when they thought I was watching. However I noticed that the donkeys were so wary of a hand approaching their face that they would flinch and turn away even when I tried to touch them.
The late Cleveland Amory, founder of the Fund for Animals, maintained that the donkey was the world’s most abused animal, and it would be hard to argue otherwise. I know that the men and boys may have begun hitting their donkeys again as soon as they got out my sight that day, but I had the impression that no one had ever told them before that it was wrong to beat their animals.
Life is hard for the Palestinians. The long years of war and occupation have left them feeling like victims, and when one is victimized, the usual human response is to take vengeance on someone weaker. Often it is a child or a spouse, but animals have always been the ultimate victim in the human chain of violence.
In the Middle East, it is certainly not just the Arabs venting aggression on animals.
Sitting on a bus at a border crossing from the West Bank, I watched two Israeli soldiers who had found a beetle on the shoulder of one of their uniforms. One of the soldiers flicked the beetle to the ground, and I hoped the little bug would be allowed to crawl back into the desert unharmed. But instead, the soldiers searched for the beetle on the ground, and when they found him, one of them raised his foot and stomped the beetle into the sand. This was in one of the world’s harshest deserts, where the mere existence of a living creature is a marvel. Instead of appreciating this creature – either as a sentient being or merely from an ecological perspective – the soldiers chose to destroy the beetle, in a manner that bespoke the desire to bully someone.
It is considered undisputed fact now that cruelty to animals leads to people being cruel to other people, but animal people may be less conscious of the ways in which human to human violence reinforces violent treatment of animals.
Just as greater vigilance to prevent child abuse in the U.S. and Europe reduces the incidence of deliberate animal cruelty, resolving violent conflict among the world’s people and working for political justice will eventually result in less mistreatment of animals.
My recent experiences in the Middle East, added to a lifetime of similar ones, also reinforces my belief in the importance of humane education. By humane education I refer to meaningful exposure to humane values and – more importantly – being taught the moral principle of compassion for all living creatures.
I am not talking about simply sending a so-called humane educator into an elementary school classroom once a year to hand out coloring books that teach “responsible pet care.” I mean the brand of humane education pioneered in the 19th century by people like Henry Bergh and George Angell, which was based on the belief that the way people treat other living beings is a serious moral issue.
Bergh, Angell and others of their time did not shy away from discussion of slaughtering, fur wearing, or hunting – all concerns that mainstream humane societies in cities and towns across the U.S. have come to believe are “too controversial” to bring up even to their adult membership, not to mention to children in schools. They fear that touching on controversy threatens their donor base and thus their ability to maintain their animal sheltering programs.
But as important as it is to save or improve the lives of as many individual animals as possible, resources are only available to help a certain percentage of them – even when we are talking about dogs and cats in the U.S., and even more when we look at wildlife and farm animals.
When we rescue animals without altering the situation in which we find them, they will soon be replaced by others who will need our help just as much. This is true whether they are working animals such as donkeys, feral cats, chickens from factory farms, or puppies in pet shops.
I personally take in as many individual animals as I feel capable of caring for…lately limiting my adoptions to special-needs animals, such as the paralyzed cat Elrond, who was being cared for with great difficulty at the Egyptian Society of Animal Friends shelter, or the dog Lawan, who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami only to end up naked with mange at the pound in Phuket, Thailand. Both will require a considerable amount of health care for the rest of their lives.
Using a strict cost/benefit analysis, the money spent on treatment needed by Elrond, Lawan and others might be better spent on sterilizing other dogs and cats so that generations of new ones won’t be born. But Elrond and Lawan and others in my care are to me symbols (and constant reminders) of all the others. For the people who meet them, they are like poster children for Third-World animals. They allow people to get to know the one among the many, so that countless millions come into focus and become more real.
Thus there is no way I would ever discourage anyone from adopting animals or advise donors not to support animal shelters and sanctuaries. However, it is incumbent on the animal people who want to maximize their efforts and the effects of their contributions to try to stay focused on the big picture of animal protection, of which individual animal rescues are but a small piece.
Effective humane education is not necessarily measurable, but one thing we know for certain is that more than one exposure is required for there to be any significant change in thinking or in behavior. In the development of advertising theory, it was found that it took at least seven exposures to something new to get people to take the step to try a product, assuming it was something that they might use. The same is true of selling a new idea: messages require frequent repetition or, better yet, sustained exposure.
At ANIMAL PEOPLE, the core of our mission has always been humane education, but we have attempted to leverage the effect of our message (that is, the material we publish in print or electronic format) by aiming it at the people we felt were in a position to then influence others. These are the people who work at animal shelters or those who do some form of animal rescue or advocacy.
This is not “preaching to the choir.” These people may be experts at various specific animal issues, but their exposure to problems outside their immediate concern may be minimal. Most of the animal groups in the U.S. and Europe limit their efforts to helping dogs and cats. We have tried to broaden their concern to include wildlife, farm animals, fish and even invertebrates, but we have also introduced them to innovative ways of better helping dogs and cats.
Someone wrote to me recently and asked why a newspaper is needed when everyone has access to the internet and, more specifically, how our program of sending free copies of ANIMAL PEOPLE Newspaper to animal shelters overseas translates into helping animals.
ANIMAL PEOPLE does have one of the largest websites in animal protection, where all back articles are archived and each issue of the ANIMAL PEOPLE newspaper is posted in its entirety in “flash” format so that it can be viewed with photographs and advertisements. But still, that isn’t the same as having a paper one can carry and show around. When we have to suspend the overseas distribution for one or more editions, people can go to the website and read the paper, but that isn’t always easy for those in remote areas, where electricity isn’t even reliable and, once online, there may be problems uploading large blocks of text, as well as photographs or other images.
In such places, there is nothing like getting a publication in the mail that makes an isolated animal person feel connected and remembered. And you cannot imagine the impact it makes when they get a copy of a paper that has an article about them or a problem in their region. Sometimes they take it to local authorities as evidence that people elsewhere are aware of what is going on and are watching for a solution. Many times they put the papers in prominent places if they have a shelter or headquarters, so that visitors can see them and get the idea that animal protection is a worldwide concern.
Like the donkey drivers in Palestine who seemed not to have ever thought about kindness to animals being something anyone should care about, people everywhere need someone who will stand up and speak out on behalf of animals. Through our paper, ANIMAL PEOPLE, we try to encourage, sustain, and inform those individuals who are taking a stand for animals…wherever they are in the world. In the final analysis, genuine kindness is an indivisible moral quality. And those who develop and practice kindness will likely apply it to human and beast, as the case requires. It may not seem important, or even earth-shattering, to many people to practice compassion toward other creatures, regardless of their place in the hierarchies we have constructed, but peace in our interactions with our immediate sentient fellows is the foundation for a more lasting peace that one day might embrace the whole.
KIM BARTLETT has spent much of her adult life fighting for animals, the environment and social peace based on social justice. This diary is an adaptation of an appeal letter on behalf of ANIMAL PEOPLE. Its original may be examined here.