As a somewhat less than zealot student of A Course in Miracles I seem to have the ability (if not need) to occasionally step back and question what it is I may be reading or hearing. Now some would likely call this ego. However, I prefer to think of it in terms of a lifetime of diverse education that includes degrees in Philosophy and Anthropology (with a minor in Behavioral Science), coursework in Accounting and Business Administration, Certifications in Adult and Vocational Education, Art, Music, and more.
This is only to set the background for my reaction to a recent statement made my one of my fellow students of the Course. This particular statement was: “Animals may feel pain but only human beings suffer.”
Well, I and/or my ego, took immediate exception to that statement and I expressed my disagreement with that particular interpretation. My fellow student went on to clarify by adding: “While humans and animals both experience pain only human beings dwell on it, become obsessed with the circumstances surrounding it, make it a part of their future, and therefore are the only creatures that suffer.”
I think I said one or two more words on the subject and then dropped it because I could see that my fellow traveler was very attached to this belief – to the point it seemed that it was an unvarnished Truth. But, it led me to thinking about all of the things I’ve read, viewed, and witnessed firsthand in my life.
Way back in the summer of 1968, when I was still thirteen years old, my uncles took me dove hunting in Arizona. They put a .410 shotgun in my hands and told me to point at the doves as they flew overhead and once I got the course slide the barrel 12 or 18 inches ahead and pull the trigger. Prior to that day my sum experience with firearms was summer camp at the Lake Arrowhead Boy Scout Camps where they taught us to shoot .22 shorts at stationary targets. On that summer morning in 1968 I pointed that .410 shotgun fifty times and knocked twenty-five white-winged doves out of the sky.
Now, the problem with bringing them down was that they were not always dead when they hit the ground and so I was taught a merciful way of dispatching them. That is, I picked them up by the head between my index and middle fingers and spun the poor things around in order to break their necks. Forty-five years later I haven’t forgotten the terror in those poor creatures eyes and no one will ever convince me that they were not suffering.
Many of us have witnessed the agony of a cat, or dog, or squirrel, or another of God’s creatures being struck by a car and being left on the roadside to writhe and squirm until dead without being able to do anything. Don’t tell me that’s not suffering in their eyes as they know they’re dying and wishing they weren’t.
I think the crux of my education occurred several years ago when I was still consulting for a firm in the South Bay. Where we live we had a serious outbreak of the West Nile Virus. There were only a few human cases and I understand a number of chicken farmers had sizable losses. However, what got to me was the near decimation of our once quite robust population of crows, as I have long been amazed by the corvids, which includes crows, as well as, ravens, magpies, jackdaws, and jays. In fact, our areas population of crows dwindled to the rare sighting of one of the few remaining individuals.
What really hit me was the one morning I was leaving for work, ninety-two miles each way, and at the end of our access road when I came across a dead crow and its mate anxiously, if not frantically, pacing about it and nudging it as if encouraging it to arise. To my way of thinking, and perceiving, the crow was grieving and grieving hard. I watched sadly for a while and then continued on to Hawthorne for a full days work.
I was not prepared to find, when I returned home about nine that evening, that the dead crow’s mate was still pacing about her dead comrade and still appealing to it to arise and fly away together. It was one of the saddest sights I can recall. Now, the surviving crow was not there the next morning when I left for work, although the dead one was. In those days we were supposed to call a special number anytime we spotted a dead bird and I suppose someone did for it wasn’t there when I returned home that evening.
I don’t know why we humans have to underrate the value of others, including our non-human cousins. Not only do we do it with animals, we do it with each other, as can be seen by the suffering of the less able to protect themselves; as in the conquest of numerous indigenous peoples around the world and down through the millennia.
When I observe the Corvidae family of birds I am impressed by their ability to manufacture and use tools, to improvise in new situations, and to reason. I am also fascinated by their sense of community to the point where sometimes I think that, as we humans do not have an exclusive on tool use, maybe we likewise do not have the exclusive claim to that aspiration we call humanity.