Last weekend as I was running out to do errands, I was driving along enjoying the fall colors and noticing they were just about passed. It was quiet in the car. I was lost in thought. For some reason I had been seeing more animals hit by cars than usual. There was a skunk just outside my neighborhood, a young deer on the next street over. Perhaps the dwindling daylight means there are more cars on the road before dawn and after dusk when a lot of animals are on the move. Either way, it bothered me to see all of these critters laying on the road.
And then I noticed a cat on the side of the road. He had clearly been hit, probably overnight, and he was still laying in the lane of traffic. Cars were going out around him, and so I did the same. It saddened me to pass by as if this death didn’t matter. As if it was just that easy to step over a lifeless body and carry on with my day. Earlier in the week I had listened to the amazing Colleen Patrick Goudreau and a tiny soundbite about compassion came blaring across my mind. A few moments of inconvenience for me could make a world of difference to someone else. As soon as I caught sign of him in the rear view mirror I knew what I had to do.
I pulled over, walked back to the kitty, used a little blanket that I had in the car to scoop him up. I moved him into the grass off the road and covered him with the blanket. He had no tags so there was no one I could notify. I called the nearby kennel just in case they were familiar with the neighborhood cats, but they weren’t. It was a simple decision that cost me about 90 seconds of my day, yet I’ve been reflecting on it ever since. All I could think of was that was exactly what I would have wanted someone to do if it had been my own cat. In fact, he looked exactly like my cat Tony that used to curl up at my feet when I was a teenager.
Some people will think that’s crazy. Some will think it’s common sense and they may already do this routinely. Certainly there are heroes that stop for stray cats and dogs and attempt to catch them and reunite them with their owners all the time. This was the first time I had ever done such a thing, despite the fact that I’ve seen thousands of animals who had suffered a similar fate. What was different now? Why this one?
Any time I see a dead animal on the side of the road, I wince. Any time one runs out into traffic I do everything I can not to be the one to end its life. I think that’s quite normal whether you consider yourself an animal lover or not. Any time I’ve seen a young animal separated from it’s mother I feel sad. Any time I see a baby animal I want to nurture it – pet it, cuddle it, hold it. I think that’s just human to feel that compassion toward other beings.
Since becoming vegan though, and seeing things through a different lens, I have to wonder why I never made the connection before. Why is it painful to see a dead deer on the highway but easy to pick out a Butterball at the grocery store? Why is it easy to eat a plate of fish and chips but totally gross when a restaurant serves a fish with its head still on? Chinese restaurants sometimes have whole ducks hanging on display in the window which most of us think is disgusting. But chicken wings go flying off the shelves (no pun intended) faster than you can say “boo” on a Football Sunday. And no one blinks an eye.
It’s all in what we see – something or someone. Caring is easy, causing harm is difficult. Compassion comes quite naturally. Indifference must be learned. Watch any child interacting with animals and you’ll see joy, happiness, interest, and fascination. Indifference must be learned. Watch adults interacting face to face with animals and you’ll see a smile, wonder, and a sense of calm. Indifference must be learned. It’s the only explanation.
It’s all in who we see – someone we have some commonality with. Or not. You’ve heard that the eyes are the window to the soul. If we can see an animal’s eyes, we can see into their soul. When there are eyes on our plate looking back at us, it’s a rude reminder that we are consuming the flesh of another creature. When we see a single animal on the side of the road whose life was ended abruptly, we are reminded that the animal once lived and the norm is to wince, to feel a little sad for a moment. When we only see a packaged and processed (ok I’ll say it, slaughtered and beheaded, plucked and/or mutilated into parts) animal in a grocery store refrigerator, we are allowed to forget that the animal once lived. In fact, I would argue that we have learned to forget the animal is even an animal. It’s simply considered “food” at that point, something different than an animal. Something different than ourselves.
Next time an animal crosses your path in any fashion – crossing the road or laying on the roadside, running freely in a field or, Heaven forbid, on your plate, stop for a moment, forget the indifference you have learned, and put on a fresh lens. Remember that all animals have a right to a life full of joy, peace, respect, and compassion. The fact that they were born as a cute and cuddly cat or dog, a strong and sturdy cow or horse, or a majestic turkey or chicken shouldn’t matter one bit.
Yes, indifference must be learned. And we don’t have to continue acting with indifference if it goes against our own values. We don’t have to teach our children to be indifferent. We can choose another path. Compassion can be taught and nurtured, and it can blossom into something you’ll be especially proud of. You’ll feel a little lighter, a little more joy. So become as compassionate as you can – toward yourself, toward other people, and toward animals. We will all reap the rewards.