When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a wildlife vet. My life goal was to someday pet a real cheetah. My favorite channel was Animal Planet and my best friend was my dog, Booboo. My family rescued animals and I adored each of them and sobbed like it was the end of the world when one of them died.
Then I grew up~ and put myself through university grooming dogs. I met most of my best friends through taking care of their pets. For years, my life was philosophy and dogs.
Then I joined the Peace Corps. I came to a country where people don’t always take exquisite care of themselves, let alone animals; where dogs steal people’s food, make things dirty, shit everywhere and do nothing to help a family except on the rare occasion they go hunting. Cats are good to have around (better than the rats), but still dirty and a sanitation risk. Both will steal baby chickens and eggs. Similar to many rural developing countries, dogs and cats are not exactly part of the family but instead dirty animals that simply live alongside humans and only have minimal purpose. Some people even consider dogs and cats best when roasting over a fire. To do so relieves the problem of an animal that steals protein and instead makes them a source of protein.
Many volunteers come and understandably have a difficult time adapting to this atmosphere. As you may guess, myself not least of all. But then by the end of two, three, four or more years of living here, they adapt. I have met volunteers that have not only gotten over it, but have tasted and/or also come to detest cats and dogs in the same way many local people do. We even have one fellow volunteer who has since admitted to me that he initially hated me for how invested I was in the dogs in our training village. (I’ll forgive this volunteer, who I have come to think of as family, for this judgment if s/he forgives me this post. ;) )
When I was in the depth of my culture shock (maybe 1-2 months in), I was torn~ I needed to get through the shock and learn to live with it if I was going to succeed in completing my service. But I didn’t want to become detached from and lose my compassion for life beyond the category of human.
As you can see, I made it through my service and (at the time of writing this) have a mere two months left. So I got through it one way or another. If you have seen my facebook pictures, you’d also see that I am posting pictures and videos of our dog, cat, and pig (ok, our family’s pig) almost as often as I am of people. Clearly I have not turned into a dog beating, cat hating person. But I also don’t burst into tears when I see a hungry, flea-ridden dog limping down the road. If I were still in that place, I would have gone back to the States a long time ago and been a traumatized mess.
I have come to know the people. I have come to know the culture, the context, the animals, and a bit of the history. I have gotten used to seeing drastically unhealthy and uncared for animals on a daily basis. Just as anyone who regularly visits any city knows, when you see something often enough, such as a starving and unhealthy beggar on the side of the road, you learn to walk past without turning your head. Part of this is unfortunate desensitization that holds us back from being as great affecters of change as we could be. But whether it’s some level of habitually turning your head at beggars, broken animals, horrific world news, tragedies even in your own neighborhood, or whatever, this behavior is a necessary coping mechanism that all humanity needs in order to be as adaptable as we are. While we should be aware of this natural coping mechanism, aware enough to not let it get in our way of making the world a better place, we should also forgive ourselves for it.
Before I came here, people who weren’t as radical in their animal loving as me would criticize me for equating animals with human beings. I would come back and say that we’re not equal. Animals aren’t capable of the atrocities that humans are capable of. In addition to learning to forgive myself for peacefully living alongside suffering in order to do my part as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have also learned that animals are a lot more like human beings than I could have imagined.
Being responsible for their own acquisition of food does not result in animals sitting around a dinner table together to share their meals. Mating among free roaming animals does not look like some friendly flirting followed by peaceful consensual intercourse. Being territorial isn’t solved with white picket fences. In the best and worst health, I have seen dogs: tear each other apart over something that might be a shred of food; males violently attack a female when she’s in heat and willing to kill any male that comes near; nearly destroy each other for walking near their family’s house; and so much more. I have had a male cat break INTO our house in the middle of the night to attack our brand new (male) kitten because, I guess, he was in his territory—and bandaged wounds time and time again that were inflicted by this bastard (who also steals my family’s baby chicks instead of catching rats). I have seen that 90% of chicken reproduction looks very violent and non-consensual (I concede that there may be some humor in that—or at least in reading about it). And I could name an equal number of endearing moments of loyalty and love among non-homo-sapiens.
So long story short, I have learned that I too am subject to one of humanity’s greatest strengths and weaknesses: adaptability that learns to ignore things that could otherwise hold us back. I have learned that humans and animals are more alike than I thought—I already knew that animals can be loyal, loving and wonderful, but I’ve also learned that animals are capable of incredible viciousness just like humans. And I have learned that in spite of all this, I still am full of love for living things of all shapes and sizes. I have learned to understand non-animal lovers better, and feel compassion for the causes behind their inability to connect with other species in this way. My compassion may have changed shape, but it has not been diminished. It has grown stronger and expanded. Through a human perspective, all life has it’s own light, dark, and plenty of grey, and every day I am learning to better appreciate the balance.
If you got through this and just need a little more cuteness to make it worthwhile, click here.