In November 2012, I spoke at the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) conference in Goa, India. Realizing that I had some time to spare, I decided to take a side trip to Chennai, India. There, I embarked on an unplanned visit of the Blue Cross of India, one of the oldest and most respected animal protection organizations in the country.
My visit turned out to be an emotional one. Although I am not sure what I had expected to see, what I did witness there was both sad and uplifting at the same time. Sadness struck me as I walked around the place. There were over a thousand animals who were either sick, injured, abandoned—victims of mostly human neglect, cruelty and indifference. It was also painful to see that this organization, which does so much to help the voiceless, struggles to provide much-needed care for those no one wants or cares about. At the same time, I was encouraged to see the dedication of the Indian staff at this facility, working tirelessly under what seems like very difficult circumstances. Their commitment and caring was obvious to anyone visiting the place, and very touching to observe.
The pervasive suffering of animals seems so out of place within a culture that celebrates particular animals. India, a country known for its spirituality, has revered the cow since Vedic times. Even Lord Krishna, a most celebrated Hindu deity, tended cows. Mahatma Gandhi adored them. It was to my surprise that in today’s India, even the cows were not immune to the exploits of modern humanity. Apart from seeing emaciated, hungry-looking dogs, I witnessed countless cows and bulls on the roads in Chennai and Goa. While attending the FIAPO conference, I watched a documentary presented by The Winsome Constance Kindness Trust and the Karuna Society for Animals and Nature, which explained that cows left to fend for themselves in India consumed dangerous amounts of plastic while foraging for food. The video highlighted one instance in which a cow underwent surgery to remove 53 kg of plastic from her body. This regular occurrence leads to death from poisoning and intestinal blockage. Now, I have seen a lot of videos depicting cruelty to animals. By now, I had thought I had seen it all, but to see this happening in India was so disheartening.
During my third day in Goa, I visited a spice plantation. Upon my arrival I saw an elephant walking in a daze, in circles, carrying two human beings as part of the entertainment served up by the plantation. There were two elephants. While one walked in circles carrying happy tourists, the other one was left a bit further away, out of sight from the throngs of tourists who were milling around. One of his legs was tied to a tree with a rope so tight he could not move. A guy who was obviously training him to perform certain repetitive activities for the benefit of the paying tourist was prodding him with a metal bar.
The elephant in Hinduism also plays a major role. The elephant represents royalty, power, wisdom, fertility, and longevity. The most widely worshiped Hindu god deity is Lord Ganesha: The Elephant God. He is one of five prime Hindu deities. Ganesh, as he is commonly called, is an elephant-headed god worshiped throughout India. Seeing such a symbol of religious significance reduced to performing mind-numbing repetitive tricks to entertain clueless foreigners was very sad to watch.
Of course I don’t mean to single out India and its people for criticism, just because I happened to be in India to witness the suffering of animals. My travels have taken me to many countries across the globe and the level and intensity of cruelty that I have witnessed does not vary much—even in my adopted country, the United States (where cruelty is hidden) and in my country of birth, Ethiopia. These observations are not meant to criticize any one country or culture for their actions, but to point out that we as human beings, irrespective of our nationality, color, creed, or religion, have strayed so far from living in harmony with nature. As humans have evolved from pre-agricultural times to the present day, our dissociation and alienation from nature has caused us to detest it. We have convinced ourselves that we are above nature, and our own avarice and ignorance has led us to see all life as expendable. Instead of appreciating and respecting the gifts of Earth we abuse them, and misuse them at will.
As a country, India has one of the most progressive animal protection laws in the world. As a culture bearing an ancient history steeped in spirituality, it is more compassionate towards animals than so many other countries. Seeing such clear examples of animal suffering in this country with such a strong and long history of respect for animals and laws protecting them made me revisit the age old question—why? Why are we so cruel to our fellow sentient animals? Although I continue to go through the motions of trying to make sense of it all, I speak at and attend animal protection conferences to share my experiences, and I work in Africa, through my organization, to bring about change for both humans and non-human animals, I sometimes feel it is all a futile endeavor. Yet, somehow, I still wake up every day thinking I can make a difference.
What is it that makes some of us continue fighting a battle that animals, our planet and we humans are loosing? At the last day of the conference I was talking to a fellow activist, an American woman who lives in India and has a small sanctuary there. She, like I, is struggling with the same issues. She is asking the same questions. We got into a deep discussion and I could feel her anguish in trying to explain why humanity can be so cruel, and why things simply continue to get worse.
I had no concrete answer for her, of course, but I told her that the answer lies in us re-connecting with nature, re-learning to respect nature and to acknowledge that we are part of her and not above her. We must acknowledge that if we can’t change the hearts and minds of humanity, just trying to fix the day-to-day problems simply isn’t enough. Creating laws to protect animals is a worthwhile endeavor, but that also is not enough. To truly stop the suffering of all sentient beings there has to be a deep spiritual awakening and a shift in humanity’s conscience. Unfortunately I don’t see this happening during my lifetime or several lifetimes thereafter. I, like my fellow American, feel that the hearts of humankind have grown dark and cold. Our arrogance knows no limits and if we don’t change our ways, nature will exact her revenge on us.
After a long discussion we both agreed that being aware of the suffering of our planet and trying to do something about it was both a curse and a blessing. Being in India, we had to end our questions by assigning spiritual meaning to our predicament. We both agreed we must have both been horrible beings in another life and are now paying our karmic debt. Maybe that is the case. Who knows?
Although my trip to India was an emotional roller coaster and largely left me with a pervasive sadness at recognizing the enormity of the challenges we face, I was privileged to see a moment of pure compassion at the end of my trip. While on my tour of the Blue Cross, I noticed an Indian lady who was sitting on a floor in an empty large room of the animal shelter, hand-feeding a baby bird. She was cradling the tiny animal and very tenderly feeding the little one. She was oblivious of our presence in the room, quietly taking care of a living being that needed help. The compassion and dignity displayed in this simple act was powerful and humbling. Luckily for me, that was the last image seared on my brain as I left the facility. It will remain with me forever each time I think of India and her animals.
Anteneh Roba M.D. is the President/CEO of International Fund for Africa.