Imagine aliens visit our planet and decide to stay. They are bigger, stronger, smarter and faster than we are in every way. If they aren’t naturally more advanced, their technology is. The aliens can live without doing harm to us, but they can choose to do great harm. There is no way for us to protect ourselves from them, let alone over-power them. All we can hope for is their mercy.
Now, switch roles. Imagine, instead of being one of the humans, you are an all-powerful alien. How do you think you would treat humans? Remember, you can live a happy and healthy life without doing any harm to humans. But, you can also decide to treat humans poorly. I imagine most of you would say you would treat humans compassionately because you are a compassionate person-turned-alien. I would have said that, too. And then a little over a year ago, I found out that I wasn’t as compassionate as I thought I was to those utterly dependent on my kindness.
My awareness of my place in this world grew by reading the book The Inner World of Farm Animals by Amy Hatkoff. Each page I turned, I was equally enthralled by what I was learning and astounded that I had not known about the true nature and innate abilities of chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep and goats.
By the time I finished Ms. Hatkoff’s book, animals who had been invisible to my heart came to life. The arbitrary line between “us” and “them” was erased. I discovered that we are alike in the most important of ways: their life is important to them, just as mine is important to me; they experience feelings, including fear and pain, just like me; they are aware of what is happening to them and around them, and so am I. All of these animals became individuals with personalities and their own lives to live to the fullest.
Did you know that all farmed animals are very social and form strong bonds, providing each other with support and comfort? For example, research shows that when cows are with their friends, they are more resilient and become less frightened by new situations. The power of attachment in farmed animals was particularly interesting to me because as a therapist my work with individuals and couples is based on Attachment Theory. The positive effect of having a secure bond (knowing someone has your back) is exactly what we see in humans.
I read about how farmed animals can tell people apart and remember their experiences of them. For example, Maya, a former dairy cow, never got to raise any of her own children since calves are by-products of the dairy industry and are taken away from their mothers on the first or second day of birth. As a resident at Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue organization, she welcomed and nurtured the calves who miraculously found themselves at the sanctuary and not at a slaughterhouse. When they found homes for the calves, Gene Bauer, Farm Sanctuary’s co-founder, would lead them away from Maya, who became inconsolable, “rolling on her back and wailing.” Maya has never forgiven Gene and will not allow him to come anywhere near her, her grudge lasting 15 years.
I discovered that chickens can recognize an object even when a part of it is hidden. Chickens can also follow eye gazes, which means they are aware of others and cognitively process that the other is looking at something. Did you know that? I didn’t. Chickens show intentionality in their communication, only making an alarm call if there is another chicken to hear their warning. Perhaps we need to ask chickens the age old question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
I treasure the story of Lulu, the pig. Lulu put herself in harm’s way to come to the rescue of JoAnn Alstman, her guardian, who had a heart attack. As Ms. Hatkoff writes, “Lulu, squeezed her body under a dog door. Scraped and bleeding, Lulu laid herself in the middle of traffic until she attracted help. Intermittently, she ran into the house, apparently to check on Mrs. Altsman.” Amazing! I never thought about pigs having this complex personality and ability to interact with the world around them.
The book taught me how clever sheep can be. A town in northern England installed what they thought were hoof-proof metal grids to prevent sheep from munching on local gardens, but these grids did not out-wit the sheep. A local resident reported to the paper how she had seen sheep lying on their side or their back and rolling over the metal grids. Where there is a will, there is a way.
My world view expanded, like a wide-angled lens, and changed as I included the perspective of other animals. I could no longer disconnect the turkey sandwich from the turkey who communicates his emotions to others through the changing colors of his snood, or the lamb shank from the baby facing her slaughter and her one and only life taken from her. The fancy shampoo bottle no longer hid from view the bunny locked in a box, trapped and terrified and hurting for product testing. Cultural norms no longer veiled my leather shoes and chair as lavish. Instead, I saw the truth, a body part of another being succumbing to a violent death. All around me, I saw how humans exploit other sentient creatures.
The scenario about an alien invasion is make-believe to us humans, but not to other species. We are the omnipotent life force. Humans bring life in to this world to kill innocent babies for food and fur. We steal their babies, their milk, their eggs and their feathers. We deny them their friends and family. We mutilate them. We take them from their homes. We cage them. We alter their genetic make-up so they will grow faster and reach slaughter weight within weeks. We take away everything that makes their life worth living. We use metal traps to catch them and then sic dogs on them. We do with them what we will.
If aliens were to invade our planet and take over, we would pray that they would see us as more than a means to an end, more than a widget. We would pray that they would see us as feeling beings and that our lives, our friends, and our family mattered to us. Each one of us would hope that these aliens would find it in their hearts and minds to treat us compassionately. We would hope that they would be willing to give up the conveniences of habit, custom, social pressure, and pleasure and give the gift of their mercy, allowing us to live free from harm.
Deep inside me, the conviction of the rightness of seeing other animals as individuals deserving of my compassion has grown a strength and given me a peace I have never experienced before. Each of us has the power to show other animals the kindness that we would hope for ourselves. That clout is in our purchases and in our actions. What do you choose?
*The idea to use the analogy of aliens to help people understand the perspective of and have empathy for other animals came from reading a piece by Karen Davis, President, United Poultry Concerns.