There are times in life when you feel like you have utterly failed. Today there was terrible suffering and I failed to prevent it, failed to alleviate it quickly enough, and failed to do anything decent and respectful afterward. Taking a hard look at yourself and your world can come from anywhere, from a tragedy, from a beautiful experience, from a conversation. For me, the spark has often been: a mouse.
I started my PhD in the hopes of studying humane education. The broader way to think of humane education is it is intended to increase empathy and compassion towards all living beings. This view encourages us to see the inextricable links between social justice, animal welfare, and a healthy environment. But I knew the setting where I wanted to do my research and eventually, to live: Guyana, South America. But I have not found any humane education programs here, and over time I made connections to an inspiring environmental education program developed and maintained by indigenous Makushi people. And so by the time I came here on this reconnaissance visit in preparation for the eventual research, I had to put aside my dreams of learning what effective humane education looks like, and focus on understanding the forms of environmental education that already exist here.
But there is a tiny corpse in the left part of my peripheral vision that must hold me to not stray too far from my dream. Because it is clear that it is suffering that I want to reduce. Anyone’s suffering.
The more I live, the more baffled I am that human beings have been given such extraordinary power over other life forms on this planet. Once we toiled to obtain our food and shelter, which came from animals and plants. I don’t want to romanticize that past, but it did involve a deep understanding and respect for these other species, these other ways of being in this world. Now, upon a whim, to satisfy wants and not needs, millions of animals suffer in factory farms, and thousands of plant & animal species have become extinct due to habitat loss and the bushmeat trade.
So much suffering is so unnecessary.
There is the inescapable truth that every human, just like every other living being, needs a certain amount of resources to survive, and ideally, to thrive. Each of us takes up a certain amount of space, and we humans can choose both the quantity and quality of that space. When it comes to the physical resources needed to sustain us, each day is full of decisions: Will I buy fruit from a local farmer who takes good care of her land, or from some nameless agribusiness? Turn off the tap while I brush my teeth or leave the water running? Refuse to buy meat produced by factory farms, or buy the cheaper fast food? Buy that cheap plastic gadget from China that will be thrown out, or the locally made handiwork? Each of these choices may seem, individually, to be trivial, of no consequence. But collectively, our individual actions have created the world the way it is now.
Are you happy with the way the world is now? I’m not. There is so much suffering, so much inequality.
But the world is also a beautiful, marvelous, and inspiring place, and so I have hope. Hope that not only can much of the suffering today be ended, but hope also that all of us can live more, can thrive and flourish. In other words, I believe it is possible to reduce suffering AND increase joy.
So let me tell you about Today’s mouse. Georgetown, Guyana, 2010. I’d been in the backyard with my host as he fed the two dogs, which included a complex array of supplements, and picked pawpaws. I ate one of the pawpaws, then settled in at the kitchen table to do some work before dinner. When finally a tiny figure caught my eye. The mouse lay on her side, fur torn out in places, covered with a sheen of glue, and with a sickening feeling, I realized what those cardboard rectangles in the kitchen were: glue traps. This must be one of the most ghastly inventions, and one of the cruelest ways possible to kill an animal. Once caught in the glue, the mouse struggles to get free, losing fur, possibly ripping of skin too, until, terrified but exhausted, the mouse is still. Based on the number of droppings behind this mouse, I could tell she had been terrified and stuck there for some time. Time slowed, the only movement was her labored breathing, as I tried to figure out what to do, while simultaneously my cell was ringing. My host returned and I showed him. He was about to leave, and said he would deal with it later. “But the mouse is still alive. Its suffering.” I considered a cervical dislocation (neck-breaking), but would need a glove for my own safety and realized I may do a bad job since the mouse was stuck in the glue. “What do you suggest?” he asked. “Blunt trauma.” A nice way to say bash the little skull in. So my host got a shoe.
When the cardboard rectangle was moved out in the open, the mouse began to struggle again, to try to escape. The first strike was mislaid, the glue making it difficult. So was the second. The third may have cracked the skull, but it was finally the fourth that was certain, and the convulsive kicks off the hind legs confirmed death. “His life is ebbing away,” commented my host, who seemed bemused though sympathetic to my obvious distress about the glue traps and the suffering and death of this particular mouse. I learned the glue traps have become popular here. What can I do? Why aren’t the more humane snap traps being used? And why haven’t ultrasound deterrent technologies been perfected as a humane way to keep mice and rats away?
The image is so terrible, let us take a break from it.
So now let me tell you about Yesterday’s mouse. Montreal, Canada, 2002. I was just about to move out of my downtown apartment to live with my then boyfriend in Ottawa. I woke up, drifted into the kitchen without my glasses on. I noticed a brown form in the water in the sink, and, squinting at it, realized it was a mouse. “That’s sad,” I thought, “a mouse drowned in my sink.” Then she moved, and I realized the tiny creature was still alive and had survived by clinging to a yogurt container lid. I awoke my boyfriend, we put tissue in a big ice cream tub, found a glove, and I offered my gloved hand to the little soaked creature. She climbed onto my hand, and I placed her gently into the container.
We had three choices: kill her, release her to be vermin in someone else’s apartment, or keep her.
We kept her.
I learned so much from her and the tame friend we got for her, and put my prejudices aside based on real experience with her, rather than on my assumptions.
Now back to Georgetown, where I try to write with Today’s bedraggled dead mouse in view. My host’s granddaughter begins to watch Ratatouille, and I am drawn into the story, a funny and clever account of a gifted rat who longs to be a chef. I wonder if it improves viewers attitudes towards rats? The film puts them in a positive light, and the message is important: not to write anyone off, and to have an open mind. And so that same old question again: why am I researching humane or environmental education when the arts are probably our best bet to promote humane treatment of animals? Why not write anti-glue trap songs and try to become a pop star? Is it possible that exposure to a few minutes or hours of art can do more than days and months of classes?
Then Ms. E comes back with a mission: to fry bakes tonight for breakfast tomorrow. Her method is a bit different from the way I was taught, and I enjoy learning from her. Then another bedraggled mouse appears, stumbling and confused, in the brightly lit kitchen. I steer this mouse towards a closed door to the outside, and she is able to escape. But I say to Ms. E that this mouse must be sick or injured, a mouse would never come out in the light like that, and she seemed to be limping and confused.
And this leads us to Tomorrow’s mouse: will it be Ratatouille or the poor little injured sick mouse slipping out the kitchen door? Will we use our human ingenuity to work on humane ways to control nuisance animals, or continue the cruel status quo? It’s our choice.