By Jim Mason
There is a cooling relief in finding the source of years of anger. My anger, I am learning, goes back to those childhood years when I was being indoctrinated about animals — how they were put here to serve us, how they feel nothing. I was lied to back then, and something in me has known it and fought it ever since.
Not only did the adults — family, neighbors, teachers — load me up with lies, but they shattered my sensibilities toward the animals I knew. And I knew many, for there were many kinds of animals on my family’s farm in the 1940s. But you couldn’t be close to them, or at ease with them. You couldn’t (and this is where my rage began to rise because I wanted to) have regard for other beings — not when you are in the business of raising them for slaughter.
It’s sad how willing people are to trample on empathy and kinship so they can enjoy a sausage. Healthy feelings — probably instinctive — that would be so life-affirming and good for us are crushed because we want to kill freely and make greasy things to eat that are NOT good for us. Because we crave flesh (actually, it’s salt and fat), we bury the good in us, we seal it off under layers of culture — much of it self-deceitful and violent. As a shaper of human culture, perhaps the palate has been a greater organ than the brain.
For me, the first jolt of indoctrination was administered when I was about five or six. We had pigs on the farm, and I had enjoyed their rooting, grunting piggishness as I went with the elders on their rounds of chores. When runts were born or when baby pigs got sick, we kept them warm in a box on the back porch and I helped with the bottle feedings. Then one cold Fall day, the jolt was delivered … with a vengeance. Early that day, I sensed something unusual in the air, for neighboring farmers and their wives had begun pulling up in our yard right after the morning chores were done. Strange, big pots hissed on the wood-fired kitchen stove and the women hurried back and forth through the side porch. Out in the yard some terrible excitement seemed to be going on. It drew me out of the kitchen to the porch and down the steps. Then I froze in horror. There on the ground lay a washtub full of pigs’ heads — ears, snouts, and filmy eyes smeared with blood. Out under the big oak tree — whose arms held our swings — dangled nude, headless bodies, and the men were pulling out steaming intestines.
My memory goes off there. Years later, I was told that I cried and had nightmares for days after. But the indoctrination — and the intrusion on my sensibilities — had begun.
After that, I learned how to be more careful about befriending animals around our farm. Animals fell into two categories: valuable commodities or hated pests. Somewhere in between was a narrow exemption for dogs and cats, whom we gave a free ride. One of our dogs, Butch, was my favorite living being on earth for about ten years until he died. So much more the pain and feelings of betrayal, then, when I asked about his fate during a Sunday school session. Would I join him again someday in the Great Beyond? Solemnly, the minister explained that animals have no souls and cannot enter heaven. Animals, I learned, had no afterlife.
After the pain wore off, I began to wonder about what I was being taught in those Sunday school sessions. My years of faith in the god of the Old Testament were ending.
My rage was just beginning.