I’ve been thinking about the sometimes disturbing dynamics of the New York City carriage horse controversy.  I see in those dynamics more a human problem than an animal problem.

I’m going to lay it right out there: I became a vegetarian in my mid 20’s after watching Babe. And I stayed that way for more than a decade. I had all kinds of intellectual reasons for it – good reasons that still apply and guide my food choices – but it was the gut-reflex, anthropomorphic horror of watching the piglet Babe’s mother get hauled away and replaced by a mechanical nipple that got me off meat in the 90’s. This coincided with a period of dog and cat rescuing in which I committed the only legally questionable act of my life (yes, I’m a goody two-shoes): after harassing Animal Control relentlessly, with no success, to do something about the puppy in my neighborhood who was chained outside with an untreated broken leg for days on end, and banging fruitlessly on the door of the house to check the puppy’s status and offer help, I unilaterally concluded that the puppy had been abandoned. I took her home with me, had the vet treat her leg, and found her a more suitable home. I still don’t regret that, and it required no anthropomorphizing to motivate that action – just a clear eye for obvious suffering.

But I do have to acknowledge that this period of my life was also one in which I was really struggling with the vulnerability that comes just with being human, and roundly rejecting it.  I had constructed tall psychic barriers between me and the possibility of pain – five years later my therapist would show me that I’d never learned how to feel it. Admitting the truth that suffering is an integral part of life was not part of those defenses. My then-husband, who I now know was struggling with his own issues, was fully on board himself with our rescue activities. So we took all manner of animals into our home, and the fact that we were two graduate students barely making it ourselves didn’t slow the flow of them. So when we were in a pet store and saw two kids harassing a hedgehog by pouring its bedding into its quills, we just bought the hedgehog with our already overburdened credit card. (His name was Oscar and he lived with us for several years before dying a natural hedgehog death.) A few years later, in the midst of my Big Firm Lawyer phase of life, I was driving downtown in my black Honda S2000 convertible roadster, decked out in heels and a suit, when I pulled up to a stoplight. A beagle was following a woman through the crosswalk, until she turned around and swung her bag at his head, connecting with his ear.

I pulled the car over.

Peanut, as we called him, smelled terrible and was smeared with all kinds of unidentifiable street goo, but he rode home in my convertible anyway. He was truly the dumbest dog I had ever encountered, and would sometimes run in circles endlessly, as if stuck, until one of us interrupted him. My then-husband referred to him as “Do-Loop”.  Once, out of the sheer excitement of seeing my ex pull into the driveway below, he simply jumped off our second story deck to greet him. He landed squarely on his head, and we all held our collective breath, eyes wide in horror, as he got up, looked around briefly in shock, shook his head vigorously, and then proceeded with the interrupted greeting. We joked that he acted more sensibly after that. We loved him dearly, but our Golden Retriever did not, so Peanut was eventually re-homed to the head of my law firm’s IT department. He lived out his days as “Beavis”, and spent a lot of time on his owner’s boat and in his swimming pool. His new owner told me he was forever having to fish Beavis out of the pool after he jumped in to inspect some interesting item or another.

When we moved out west to Portland, Oregon, I found that stray animals were fewer, probably thanks in part to the fact that the attitudes toward animals there differed from those in the south and Midwest. But also, by then I had opened myself to the idea that I did not have to cure every ill in the world as a means of keeping feelings far, far at bay. And looking back, I can see that a lot of my animal-related activities were about my own emotional issues, and less about the animals themselves. That doesn’t make them bad, or less valuable, but I am lucky that my ideas and activities did not swerve into extremism. I still help animals when I find them in need – in recent times I’ve delivered two orphaned ducklings to a wildlife rehabilitator (and yeah, they really were orphaned), sheltered one injured turtle stuck outside during an early cold snap until it passed and its wound healed, and braved an alligator-infested canal to release a painted turtle lethally ensnared in discarded fishing line. I’m no slouch in the animal concern department.

But what is uncomfortably apparent to me now is that I had far less interest in human suffering than animal suffering during the heyday of my animal rights period. There was a brittle, misanthropic part of me that was angry at people, and identified people solely as the inflictors of devastation on nature and animals. This isn’t uncommon at all for environmental and animal activists – have you read any Edward Abbey, for example? I love the guy’s writing, but I cringe sometimes at the misanthropy.  My own misanthropy was, of course, a metaphor for my own issues around powerlessness and vulnerability. When I cracked those things open in myself, I was able to admit human beings into my circle of empathy, and nuance and reason into my relationship with animals (alligator-infested canal notwithstanding.)

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that anyone who is deeply invested in animal rights or welfare is somehow emotionally stunted or unaware – that is simply not true. But I do think it’s wise to look inward when we find ourselves on one side of a highly charged issue such as animal rights. What are our internal agendas? What are we feeling, or not feeling? What are we denying? What are we projecting?

It seems ironic, but the lawyer in me, the lover of analysis, facts and evidence – all of which are required for the orderly distillation of reality which should occur before the formation of a strong opinion, but too often doesn’t – became far more prominent in my relationship with animals as I got more in touch with my own feelings. This isn’t as strange as it sounds; unconscious emotional agendas can easily create conflict with facts that would undermine them. And those agendas will win every time, as long as we are unaware of them.

The reality is that liberally distributed empathy has always been the only antidote to the old-as-dirt human story where people refuse to listen to those who disagree with them, preferring instead to demonize them as – ironic in an animal welfare dispute – something other than human. For me, what that looks like now is trying to remember to ask myself of those who disagree with me: What are they struggling with? What are their interests?

When I find myself unwilling to do that, if my mind and heart rebels against it, that’s when I need to do it the most. That’s true even when I’m pretty sure I’m right – perhaps especially when I’m pretty sure I’m right. I wish I were better at it.

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