We let animals know that we do not care about them 56 billion times a year, when we use their bodies for food. We show we don’t care every time we put an animal down in a shelter, or crush them under our boots, or use them for entertainment. Any time there is a disaster, whether manmade like 9/11 or natural such as the floods in Pakistan and the Earthquakes in Haiti, one thing is certain: there will be devastation and death for animals, both human and nonhuman. But for the nonhuman animals, there is also often a lack of consideration, planning, or provisions. In a world that views these beings as “things,” they become mere possessions to save for another day’s use, or abandoned altogether. We show them we don’t care.
One of the first disasters we experienced was a flooding of the Russian River. We lived right on the river; our home looked like a houseboat when the river rose, and allowed lots of riverbottom for the kids to explore during the summer months. This was a seasonal occurrence, and we all knew when the water rose above a certain step on the stairs going down to the river, it was time to boogie. The only animals that lived with us were a semi-feral cat we had befriended and a wild squirrel that felt the tree growing out of our deck was his private property. He and our cat were always at it, with him screeching and throwing nuts at Slinx, and Slinx twitching his tail and growling at the squirrel. I didn’t know the boys were leaving cashews on the porch railing for the squirrel; no wonder he never seemed to leave that tree.
Russian River Rising and the Ojai Fire
One winter’s day, the river began rising, getting precariously close to that step that spelled danger. We were prepared for the worst, but for us, we were spared. We began watching as a parade of belongings and living beings were being swept past our window in the rapidly moving river. We saw people’s trash cans, their lawn chairs, tree limbs, dogs, and even a deer. We felt dreadfully impotent watching those animals speed by so quickly. There was no way to help them; we lived near a curve in the river and hoped they could climb out at that point. The deer seemed particulary distressed and I wondered even if he made it out alive, would he know how to find his clan if he was swept too close to town? We never heard any more and hopefully assumed he made it out. But it was a real wakeup call that when nature comes calling, she often knocks awfully loudly on the animals’ door.
Later, when the boys were adolescents, we were living in a small town that experienced a dreadful fire. It was engulfing our town and we watched in horror as different parts of the land around the town would go up in flames. Each boy was told to take one laundry basket and one cat if we had to evacuate; I would take whatever else we might need. I used to run in the early morning hours and often ran for many miles outside of town, but when I ran during the fire, I would see many small wild creatures, so close into town that it was shocking, animals I never saw before — squirrels, possums, other creatures looking for water or shelter. There was usually no one else up and about at that early hour and the animals didn’t scurry when they saw me, the way they normally would. They must have been exhausted and in shock. It was only when the fire was over and we drove over the thousands of acres of burnt national forest that we realized how desperate the situation was for the animals. Remember that famous photo of two deer in the middle of a stream, surrounded by flames? It was like being thrust into a surreal landscape, but the destruction and heat were all too real.
It has now been five years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, with New Orleans suffering the worst damage due to the levees breaking. I have watched dozens of hours of film about the disaster, and there seems little doubt that the people in power failed to respond in a timely manner. It seems inexcusable. (Lewis Black clip about New Orleans after Katrina) But when it comes to the animals, it is even worse, with people being told to abandon their animals with the promise they could return in a day or two, a promise that was soon broken. Remember the heartbreaking vision of a little boy clinging to his small white dog, Snowball? He did not want to let go of his dog; he knew a dangerous storm was coming. He was told to put the dog down and get on the bus, and he cried so hard he vomited. That one little boy seemed more in touch with reality than all the adults surrounding him. He left his dog, through no fault of his own, to suffer the disaster of the storm and its aftermath, alone, abandoned and distressed. And he seemed to know it was not right to abandon that helpless little dog to the streets and the storm.
One wonders what little Snowball must have experienced when that bus drove away, alone of the streets. Did he try to get back to the home he had known? Did he wander the streets, looking for food and water? The storm arrived several hours later; was he killed by the flying debris? Did he drown in the rising waters from the breached levees? One thing is certain; Snowball was left in desperate circumstances when he became an inconvenience for the human caretakers that “owned” him. Sorry, Snowball, no room on the bus for you.
Some people stayed with their animals throughout the storm. Many left their animals with food and water, being told they could return in a day or two at most. But when the levees broke, people and rescue services were denied access to New Orleans. By the time rescue workers were allowed in, they found animals all over the city and tried to leave food and water where they could, but once again, the animals were left alone. Alone in homes that were devasted, without electricity, without anyone to comfort or care for them. If must have seemed like hell had descended on earth.
After the initial few days, a rescue center was set up and any animals still alive were taken to the center. Many hard-working people tried to help the animals and set up websites to match missing owners and missing animals. Many animals suffered horrendous deaths of starvation, drowning, dehydration, and disease. A documentary called MINE tells the tales of people who tried to find their animals after the storm. According to some of the rescue workers, many of the Katrina animals were not spayed or neutered, and many tested positive for heartworm. Some were found locked in garages or tied to stakes; many showed scars from dogfighting. For some, Katrina meant rescue from a horrible life; for others, it spelled doom and stress. Many people tried for years to get their animal family members back; some new families refused to relinquish them; a few were reunited. In some cases, the new families maintained visitation with the original families and in at least one case, the new families got their dog back when the original family member died.
Somethings were learned during Katrina – here is how things have improved for Gustav survivors. (Clip from IFAW podcast about Gustav)
Pakistan, Haiti and the Tsunami
The floods in Pakistan have devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and many animals along with them. For many of these people, animals represent a food source, and thus are a low priority when there is not enough food. They are dragged along as they flee, but many have such spare frames it does not appear they could possibly last for very long in such gaunt conditions.
Right after the Haiti earthquake, one of the vegan forums I was frequenting found people searching for an organization that would help the affected animals. There were groups like HSUS that were working to save the livestock, but only so they could be killed another day. The stray dogs had a very slim chance of survival with people starving and in the streets, too.
When the Tsunami hit the shores of the Indian Ocean on December 26th, 2004, a different animal story emerged. This disaster resulted in more human tragedy than nonhuman, at least for the land animals. (clip on the animals in the Tsunami) There is still much we do not yet know about animals; many of us still do not know they have feelings and are social beings.
I wonder about that little boy, the one who cried himself sick over Snowball. Did he learn to stuff his feelings and not care so much for other beings? Did he get another puppy and forget about Snowball? Or did losing Snowball haunt him? I wonder if he will become vegan one day, a quiet protest against an unfeeling society. I hope he didn’t learn to adapt to all the sleeping people around him. I hope he has stayed awake and alive and kept in touch with his natural feelings for other beings.
Speciesism and Moral Confusion – Love Them or Want Them?
The speciesism and moral confusion that run rampant among human beings is apparent in the film (MINE) about Katrina animals. Some of the original families claimed that their dog was a family member, but the new families often felt the same way. Due to the long period of time before Katrina victims were able to stablize and return, many of the animals had already adapted to their new families and homes. At times, ownership becomes apparent in the dialogue: He is mine! He is MY PROPERTY! If they were truly family members, then why were they left behind when the rest of the family evacuated?
Hurricane Katrina happened in part because we destroyed the wetlands that would normally protect the coast and failed to create substantial levees to protect New Orleans. The fire that we experienced in the Ojai Valley was man made, yet all the manpower went to protectiong property, not animal habitat and lives. Even the BP oil disaster is evidence that mankind sees disaster though his own narrow lens. The ocean is already so toxic and contaminated that it could well be a giant dead zone within this century.
Not letting Snowball in the bus is just a metaphor for mankind keeping the animals outside the moral community. We are not separate; we are all life with a capital “L.” When we recognize our collective belonging, we will make way for the animals. Sadly, Snowball’s time in hell happens repeatedly, day in and day out, for billions and billions and billions of animals.
They Don’t Care by Munga
They Don’t Really Care About US by Michael Jackson
They Don’t Really Care About Us by Karaoke Star Explosion
Lewis Black - New Orleans (Live at Carnegie Hall)
Dr. Jennifer C. – Talking Animals
IFAW – Rescue After Gustav
Creation podcast – The Tsunami and the Animals