Two Fishermen and the Rescue Dog
An October morning after a heavy rain, and two men in the little town of Oak Hills work their way down a steep, muddy incline into the gorge. They tie a rope to a tree and climb down slowly, carrying a harness with them. It has stopped raining, but the challenges are there on the slippery slope. They are retired, and it’s been a while since either of them has had to climb down using ropes.
Robert Harris and Toby Juarez, two fishermen hiking to the river heard the puppy crying down below. Given the terrific rain of the night before, they couldn’t believe it. Who would have dropped the puppy off so near to the edge of the gorge?
Well, this scene is imaginary, but I’ve witnessed abandonment of animals that rivals this. It breaks my heart that there were times I could have done something for an abandoned, mangy and starved dog – but didn’t. We all have holes in our hearts, open tears left there by good deeds uncompleted – good intentions not fulfilled. Maybe it was a starved abandoned dog spied from your car as you made your way to work, or maybe a bored, miserable black bear in an insufferably humid swamp somewhere in Southern Georgia, kept in a steel enclosure for the tourists.
WHY HATE ANIMAL ACTIVISTS?
What is it that people object to in animal activists? Is it the “self-righteous” attitude of people with tender hearts for the animals? Is it their belief that activists hate people who like to eat steaks, that they believe meat-eaters are less concerned for animals than the activists? But steak eaters love animals too, so how can activists claim the higher ground? Essentially it comes down to neither side knowing the arguments, the heart, of the other. There is never enough time to fully see things through the lens of the other side. Often times, one side or the other has reached a final level of negation: NOTHING WILL CONVINCE ME!
For the meat eaters, it’s a frustration of telling the “crazies” that they themselves don’t torture animals. Maybe somebody else out there in the bigger world DOES, but they don’t! And if the farmers or packing companies are killing animals, isn’t it their business to do it right? They’ve been doing it for generations, so you would guess they know how to do it, right? “Leave me alone to enjoy my meal. I have enough problems of my own without having to interrupt what I’m doing for your ignorance!”
The average individual burdened by a life of house payments, car repairs, leaky faucets, has little time to worry about animals that do NOT BELONG TO THEM. They know the world is rife with injustice. God controls the heavens but seems to give human beings a wide berth. There is a certain leeway that is given to nature to bring down hard rain on human souls and to the animal kingdom. A corollary is that humans are part of nature, i.e. children of God (for the Believers) who bring down good things or bad thing on the animals. “That’s just the way things are!”
For Robert Harris and Toby Juarez, the aforementioned fishermen, there is a chance they might get past all the clutter related to animal activism. They are in a place with clearing skies and are temporarily free of family responsibilities. Neither of them is thinking of the water bill or leaky pipes at home, nor of the son who wrecked his car last night, nor of the wife wants to adopt another parakeet.
There is a chance things could go awry, though, because they are about to plunge into the small world of animal shelters. They are about to be drawn into the bowels of the thing. Reluctant to say into the “bowels of the beast” yet.
Quickly, the men must decide what to do. But we’ll jump ahead to the future. By this time Toby has taken responsibility for the puppy for a whole month. He’s learned the dog is part Golden Retriever and part Chow. He’s a pleasant dog, fully of energy but Toby is very doubtful he’ll be hunting dog. “Why have I kept him this long?” he asks himself. “It’s not the breed I need.”
On a later fishing trip Robert Harris asks him why.
“I guess I wanted him to be a hunter.” Toby replies.
“But it didn’t work out?”
“Nah, I knew it wouldn’t.”
“What will you do with Jack?”
“I tried taking him to the shelter.”
Robert crinkled his brow. “I would’ve taken him. We had agreed to that. No shelter.”
They were drinking coffee outside by the Robert’s pickup. “I know,” said Toby. “I wanted to see the shelters. You painted a dismal picture, if I can use that word.”
Robert Harris had spent two years volunteering at the local shelter, had seen staff sitting around drinking coffee, smoking for hours while the dogs in wire and concrete cages barked and barked with anxiety and maybe fear. At that time it was a “kill shelter,” unofficially for the entire county. Now, he heard it was “No Kill” so now the shelter quickly ran out of space because they weren’t killing them, and people had to find other places for their unwanted dogs. Many dogs were dropped off outside of the city limits as a consequence.
Harris quickly learned it was unpaid volunteers who performed at least half of the work: walking the dogs, cleaning cages, public outreach. Regular employees had an aversion to walking the dogs, seeing it below their status as paid employees. However, if they were ordered to clean the cages, they would rush through process, using high-pressure hoses to clean the cramped concrete quarters with the terrified dogs still inside the cages. Harris, increasingly describing himself as a “do-gooder” had left, disgusted.
CHANGING THE WORLD
Changing the world is hard. When they had first rescued the puppy, the fishermen had differing opinions about the “animal question.” They were both compassionate, responsive to an obvious problem unfolding before them: the stranded, crying puppy. “I will love you, I will love you forever,” the puppy would have said, if he could have talked. Toby Juarez, the more ardent fisherman and hunter of the two, had approached the dog with practicality in mind: “Will he hunt?”
Robert Harris, who jokingly describes himself as a “tree-hugger” was more concerned with where they would take the puppy. Maxed out on rescue dogs, he knew he would have to find a home for this puppy. That was the conundrum: That was the beginning, the initial point of the Big Question for this essay: That was the beginning of Robert’s brushing up against the burgeoning problem, the cyclical purchasing of pet animals and their subsequent abandonment. How do you change the mindset of the people who plead helplessness, as they abandon their pets, or their aged, exhausted working animals? He had never considered these questions. He had never had time. But now he was retired, and he imagined himself to be somebody new, a lover of animals – on a different level than before.
THE THINGS ROBERT WOULD NOT KNOW UNTIL LATER
Is it a window into our souls, how we treat animals? Is a solution to the problem merely a matter of policies, procedures and laws to protect animals, or is it all about individual will and habit? For 10,000 years (30,000?) we have hunted animals, domesticated them and consumed them. We have captured them and used them for work, food, circuses, for medical experiments and for military uses. Religious and civic codes are there to permit all of these activities. Men go to bed at night, exhausted from work, but thankful for this “dominion” over the animal kingdom. It’s true that not all men need the support of religious dogma to be able to hunt, kill, incarcerate, exploit, torture and eat animals. The eating and exploitation of animals is as prevalent in atheistic countries, and in dictatorships and republics alike. It’s as if God, or the Universe, intended it that way.
Men (and women) do not typically feel guilt for things that they do not see with their own eyes. They do not feel guilty for the squeals of hogs being butchered, for the lambs and calves being bludgeoned or knifed, electrocuted or shot.
Men, women and children, well-meaning, civically responsible, eat their hamburgers and fries under a shade tree or filet mignon in a restaurant without hearing the commotion, the horror, that goes on before they can eat.
THE NARRATOR CONFESSES
I, myself, have not given up completely on eating meat. I break the rules, eating a plain hamburger on Saturday mornings with my dogs under a familiar shade tree. Maybe I should be condemned by the purists. I recognize the craving and need for meat and fish will not end in this century, nor probably in the next. But I do believe that controls can be negotiated (under public pressure, of course) to ensure the humane raising and care of domestic animals, as well as their quick and chaos-free deaths. No more insane transportation to the slaughter houses for days without food or water, in cramped cages, in stifling and freezing weather. No fearful prodding with electric shocks at the slaughter pens. In fact, more humane methods are already in place, including the architectural reconfiguration of slaughter houses, but the public pressure is needed to implement them everywhere.
I have a friend, an ardent protector and advocate for animals of all stripes. The other day he uncharacteristically began a polemic against hunters. Hunters, he told us, are absolutely the lowest category of human being in existence. This friend is truly passionate about ending the unnecessary suffering of animals, both domestic and wild. His statement is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not clear that being a hunter makes you “evil” in the classic sense. After all, licensed hunters kill a limited number of animals – a small number compared to the millions butchered daily for the palates of “civilized,” well-mannered diners eating in clean, air-conditioned restaurants. From the perspective of someone who looks at the bigger problem hunters are the mosquito on the charging bull.
Okay, you love to eat meat, and you treat your dog and cat like kings, and you always feed your goldfish. Besides, you think, “How could I possibly change a habit so powerful, so ancient, like killing animals and eating them?” It’s simply the way we do things? We eat steaks and eat grilled fish, and we love how our dog greets us when we get home. The cat sleeps on our belly at night. How can we complain? The world out there, the one this essayist is harping about is one where heartless people betray their dogs, one where they butcher animals in the most cost-effective manner, often a brutal one. Brutal but necessary and efficient to keep the costs down and make low-cost meat available to the consumer, they reason. Cattlemen and fishermen have to make a profit. Who am I to suddenly begin to threaten their livelihoods? Don’t you realize it can be dangerous? Danger really does live in the hearts of men. “I eat,” they will tell me. “My children have to eat. And furthermore, this talk of animal welfare begins to sound to me like you don’t know the first thing about animals!”
Okay, let’s set aside this argument around the meat and fish industries. Those are corporate-size questions, to be dealt with in the arrow of time, and perhaps one day through the courts.
But we can start by saving one domestic animal, be it a dog or a cat or gerbil or bird. We don’t have to be a Nelson Mandela to save one dog. I try to tell a close friend that you only have to save one dog. The world is made up of billions of people; that is immense suffering if you count what people do to animals. We are talking of butchering, and eating them – to make it simple – yes, in some cases, but in others we are talking about the cold-hearted abandonment of unwanted old dogs on unsteady legs who are slowly going blind, or puppies unwanted because they can not be profitably sold.
You have to put yourself in a place of humility.
You can save one dog or one cat, or a goldfish or a bird. Maybe a cow headed for the slaughterhouse, maybe a horse. Maybe a rhino or elephant in Africa. How you go about doing it is best left for another time. There are many roads to that place.
You can start somewhere. It doesn’t have to a be a dramatic move. If you want to be dramatic, if you want to save thousands of animals, that is your choice.
But you can start with a dollar. Or one “thought.” The thought, the “desire” to do something. Something small. My own perspective is to take the long view. It will require two centuries of effort. Or a millennium, if the human species survives. Still, I do pick up the two stray kittens, flea infested, starving, by the side of the road.
I start “somewhere.”