And They Were Animals

When I was a kid in the ‘Hood, animals were treated more as utility items or parts of the scenery than living beings. Such callous behavior was exhibited by the grownups and handed down to us kids, though the highest rated animal, the dog, were usually afforded a bit more consideration.

When we first arrived in the ‘hood, the only animals of consequence that I remember were the chihuahuas which lived next door. They traveled in a huge pack of twenty or thirty animals, a yipping brown carpet which would roll across the neighbor’s yard, or dash after cars in a shrill barking horde, their tiny paws collectively kicking up a small skim of dust not much higher than their shoulders. We could never keep track of how many there were, but they were the heart of the woman who lived next door, her only comfort sometimes, I think, though occasionally they would get run over. It was amazing how sturdy those small dogs were; us kids witnessed a tractor-trailer going over the small horde, bowling the dogs head over heals like so many tumbleweeds – and to our surprise every one of them survived. Gathering their wits (or what little wit they had), they charged after the mechanical beast which had dared to intrude upon their kingdom, but it left their short little legs far behind. Over time the pack became smaller and smaller, until finally there were only a few dogs left – much to the relief of us kids, because they would chase us with the same yipping intensity that they pursued anything that moved. And yes, they were sometimes ferocious; they would bite everything but the hand that fed them, and for a number of years we kept a cautious eye out for our miniature enemies, watching for their random attacks.

The lady next door often bought chickens from the chicken farmer. He would go door to door, a basket of eggs hung in the crook of one arm, and the unfortunate fryers which had quit laying hung from the other. I remember seeing these nondescript hens, their legs tied, hanging upside down – oh so calm about their impending fate. I don’t know what it is about hanging a chicken upside down that calms it, or sends it into some kind of stupor, but the woman next door would buy some, then hanging them on the outside wall of their barn, go from hen to hen, cutting their throats. Us kids would watch, fascinated, as the blood gushed, then trickled down the rough wooden boards; the chickens, feeling the knife draw through their skin, would wake with an alarmed cackle, flapping their wings and sending flurries of feathers everywhere; then they would calm down, as if going to sleep. She’d let them hang there awhile, then later in the day would go back and take them down in preparation for dipping in a pot of boiling water to help loosen their feathers prior to plucking. My city raised dad bought some of the chickens one day. I’ll never forget that, either!

Taking the hens into the back yard, he up-righted an old log, and holding the chicken’s head, he hacked off it’s body with a hatchet. Immediately the body fell to the ground, and spraying a fine jet of blood, jumped up against him in a headless attack of flapping feathers and blood, as if seeking revenge for its death. My brother and I watched in amazement as the body ran around in small circles, my dad cursing the blood on his pants, until the body fell over, its legs still twitching, wings still flapping. With a pass of his hand he swept the head from the stump, and my brother and I watched as it silently gasped in the grass, its bright eye blinking up at us. We could not believe it – this thing had survived for long moments after having its head separated from its body – while my dad set to work on the next chicken. Having learned nothing from the first one, he again grasped its head and took a whack – and again the body ran around, spraying blood everywhere. Here, now, thinking about my father and his hidden fondness for cruelty, I wonder if perhaps he was getting off on watching the gasping head, the staring eye before him. That would be so much like him. Deep down he was (and still is) a cruel SOB, though he is expert at keeping it hidden. I just wish he’d kept it hidden from us.

Another act of animal cruelty – if you can call it cruelty – I recall witnessing was when the man next door to us – not the neighbors with the chihuahuas, but on the other side, shot his dog.

Us kids were on hand for this momentous event. I don’t know why we had gathered there, but I seem to think that the man had called us over to see what you do with a rabid dog. That is my gut feeling, a memory of a memory, so to speak, and I’ve learned to pay attention to such things. Often they are right, as I’ve discovered in talking with my brother.

Gathering us on the carport, we watched the man call the dog and command it to sit. It was a medium sized white short haired dog; I remember that real well, and it just sat right there in the dirt, just a few feet away, its tongue lolling as it looked at him. And the man said there was something wrong with it; that it had been bitten by something with rabies, and that it had to be ‘put down’. I recall the dog was thickly drooling, not like foam, but not like spit either. Taking a pistol from his pocket, he pointed it at the dog’s head. I remember the dog looking at him almost quizzically as he shot it. There was a loud report, and instantly a black hole appeared above it’s liquid brown eyes, drops of blood spattered across it’s back, and the dog fell over, it’s legs stiffly quivering and then falling limp. Some of the kids cried, a lot of us were shocked. We really didn’t understand why the man had shot the dog, only that he had shot it and now it was dead. And we all had a big respect for pistols from that moment on.

Perhaps it was the woman killing the chickens, or perhaps it was just an innocent kid’s fascination with death and curiosity about animals that led to my first real act of animal cruelty. Maybe it was because I was being raised in a world of violence, statistically fitting the profile of an abused kid. But at any rate, my best friend next door had found a bird, caught in a wad of string. I wanted to let the bird go, but he kept saying “no, its leg is broken, it’s going to die anyway”, so I let him talk me into going behind the barn with him, the innocent bird in hand.

Back there we took the bird apart. Lacking knives for a proper dissection, we did it with sticks. It was a dark colored bird, that much I remember. The poor bird shrieked and flapped its wings as we ripped it open with our little sticks. It was a cruel thing, but I found myself fascinated by the organs we found inside and the beating heart, which my friend pointed out, until it slowed and died. I guess we knew we had done something wrong, because we buried that bird right there and then.

Later I took a frog, stuffed him into a little cardboard candy box, similar to the kind you get those hard candy hearts with the messages in, the type with the cellophane window. Tucking the box far beneath a pile of wood and refuse which was to be burned, I left. Later that evening when I came back the pile was a smoking ruin. Digging through the charred embers, I found that box, blackened but intact, with the frog inside.

I’ll never forget that frog. It had been baked and dissected, no juices or blood remaining. In many ways it reminds me of the frogs we dissected in college biology class, all the organs perfectly preseved. I was amazed by the intricacy of its construction; how neatly the organs nestled next to each other, but in the back of my mind I could imagine the pain and horror of the frog, slowly cooking beneath that burn pile. I always felt guilty about that – I don’t know why, it was just a frog. I guess I realized then what I know now: every living animal can feel pain.

Later in my life, when I was a young teenager, I was determined to become a veterinarian. I wonder how much these early experiences had to do with that. I ended up working several years in animal labs, though I never obtained my goal – but I did take care of the animals, and tried my best to make their short-lived stays as comfortable as possible (for all animals that go to animal labs die – it’s the rule.). And in all this dealing with animals, I learned a lot of things, though there were times I committed crimes against them. We won’t go into that here. Lets just say I had more learning to do, and I was no angel. The way I was raised – in extreme violence and terror – had a lot to do with it. That is part of the penalty of being a physically abused child – you go on to abuse other things. Hopefully it isn’t humans. But over time I learned to have a great compassion for animals, no matter how small, and will go out of my way to save them – from a turtle in the road to a snake in the grass. Even the spiders in the house have my mercy; my wife calls me to carry them out, knowing my distaste for needless killing Perhaps it is to atone a bit for the things I’ve done. But don’t think I’m soft hearted – I will kill an animal if I see the need. Sometimes to maintain an ecological balance; sometimes to remove their pain. Other times they can be a threat. I had to shoot eighty squirrels on a single acre last year — they were eating the baby birds — but at the same time I saved a giant snapping turtle and three snakes, and just last week placed a baby bird wren back into its nest. It’s hard to explain to people how I can be this way, the loss of balance in nature and our obligation to replace the predators we’ve destroyed; they often don’t understand. But I do know this: every time I have to kill an animal, I make it quick and mourn its loss.

~ For more on my experiences in the Animal Labs, and my take on them – and the researchers, and animal testing, you can read this:   Blood On My Hands . . . the Animal Labs

Be kind to animals – as best you can. Maintain a balanced environment.  Treat life with love and respect.  It’s the least you can do for what it’s done for you . . . through sacrifice, tears, and pain.