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Special Section: Lantern Essay Competition Winners

June/July 2006
Sympathy
By Philip Armstrong

We don’t know where she came from: we heard a knock on the door and there she was. She stalked from room to room, pausing to check out anything that caught her eye. In the kitchen we found her something to eat, which went well. After that we saw her often, wandering from house to house, knocking to be let in. If no one answered or she wasn’t welcome, she’d try the next neighbor. But our place was her favorite hangout. She’d sit preening herself by the computer while Annie was working, or roost on the sofa as we watched TV.

One time the landlord arrived to inspect the place. He nosed about and asked suspiciously, “you’re not keeping animals here are you?” “Of course not!” said Annie warmly, propelling him round a corner, away from the large red chicken advancing up the hall.

If there’s one thing chickens hate it’s being alone. We realized that, to the red hen, our company was a substitute for that of her own kind. So we found her a companion, an old black hen who had been living by herself. They soon were inseparable.

But there came a day when the red hen didn’t seem herself. She stood awkwardly, eyes half shut, not much interested in anything. We debated what to do, but suddenly she seemed to recover, bustling about her business as usual. Then in the evening she seemed poorly again. So we rang the only vet clinic open on a Sunday night. They weren’t keen—told us the minimum fee was $90 and asked, was it worth it? When we got there, we waited a couple of hours while people with cats and dogs were seen before us. We sat looking at a sign announcing that priority would be given to animals with life-threatening conditions.

Eventually we got to see a vet but he showed little interest. He was tired and clearly thought we were wasting his time. He pushed his fingers through her feathers and held her out to me. “Feel that,” he said, pressing my hand into the bird’s breast. “If that was a frozen chicken, you’d put it back in the freezer.” He told us she was dying and offered to euthanize her immediately.

Instead, we paid our $90 and took her back with us. She perked up enough to manage a couple more days blinking in the winter sun, foraging with her companion, eating a few morsels. Then she ebbed away. But at least she didn’t die in that unsympathetic place, at those unsympathetic hands.

Sympathy: where does the feeling, or the lack of it, come from? It is a Greek word and means (like its Latinate equivalent, compassion) the capacity to experience the feelings of another as your own. At one time, in societies like ours, sympathy was considered one of the most precious, admirable and progressive of virtues. People saw the main role of education and culture to be the fostering of a trained, sensitive and powerful capacity for compassionate feeling. Poets and novelists wrote about it. Robbie Burns sympathized with a mouse, even a louse; Laurence Sterne with a caged starling and a maltreated donkey; Thomas Hardy with a calf, a mongrel dog and a hedgehog; Coleridge with an albatross. William Blake, the most generous sympathizer of all, urged compassion for robins, wrens and doves; for slaves, lost children and exploited workers; for the starving dog, hunted hare, wounded skylark, misused lamb and warhorse; for flies, spiders, moths, butterflies and gnats. Mary Shelley wrote a famous novel about a creature made from stitched-together bits of dissected animals and humans, rejected by his creator and everyone else, whose only desire was for sympathy.

So why is sympathy for other life-forms so trivialized today? A few things have happened in recent history that have proved radically unsympathetic towards such feelings. For one thing, it’s only in the last couple of centuries that science has become the form of knowledge with more authority than any other. And science insists that reliable facts can be established only through objective testing, so those conducting the tests must be clinically detached from their objects of study—they must, in short, be resolutely unsympathetic. Over the same period capitalism has achieved complete economic dominance. Under capitalism, any living things that are not human (and many who are) have value only as labor, investment or resources. Any feeling that gets in the way of the profit motive is worthless, a debit in fact.

Finally, put science and capitalism together and you get industry, including factory farming. At which point sympathy for animals—at least for any type of animal that can be turned into a resource—becomes terminally uneconomical.

Take chickens, for instance: when the emergency vet compared the red hen to a frozen supermarket bird, he was making no sense. Why? Because birds like her, bred for laying eggs, are totally different animals from meat chicks. Supermarket chickens are fat because over the last four decades, the poultry industry has selectively bred strains that grow to slaughter weight in only six weeks. (That’s how old the average frozen chicken is; she’s a baby bird.) In her month and a half of life—spent in a shed with 25,000 others, dosed with antibiotics to prevent infections—the meat chick swells into obesity. She’s too big for her legs; she can hardly walk; very likely her legs will fracture under her own weight before she is collected for slaughter.

Perhaps the vet didn’t know this, or perhaps he thought I wouldn’t. Most likely he was just trying to convince me that sympathy is wasted on some animals.

No wonder that some in our society, dissatisfied with its relentless commodification of the world, turn to non-Western cultures. In my country, the Maori have the concept of mauri, a word untranslatable directly into English but which refers to something like a life-principle that must be acknowledged and respected, in order that the balance of vital forces in the world remain stable. Many Eastern cultures have the Sanskrit notion of ahimsa, nonviolence towards living beings. Buddhists revere the figure of Kuanyin: exploited as a slave by her father, she received help in her labors from sympathetic forest animals; then at the end of her mortal life, when she was ready to enter Nirvana, Kuanyin paused on hearing the cries of pain from creatures still living and chose to stay on earth to care for them.

Of course, such beliefs cannot guarantee that actual dealings with nonhuman nature are always conducted on respectful terms, but at least they provide powerful counterpoints to the human talent for reckless exploitation. I think the reason these ideas seem attractive to some Westerners is that our own notions of respect for nonhuman life—our versions of ahimsa or mauri—have been systematically undermined over the last few centuries. Compassion for animals’ suffering is dismissed as anthropomorphism, concern for their well-being as immaturity, calls for their freedom from exploitation as irrationality. An example? When the red hen died, her old companion stayed in her roost for three days, which she’d never done before. If I called that “mourning” I would seem anthropomorphic, childish and whimsical. So I can’t think what to call it; I’ve stopped telling people about it.

The other way of devaluing sympathy for animals is to label it sentimental, by which people usually mean clichéd, easy, shallow and unthinking. But surely that description applies better to, say, our society’s fondness for chicken meat. The agribusiness and fast food industries spend billions of dollars on advertising, which buys them consumers with a sentimental affection for chicken burgers and spicy wings, a sentimental belief that white meat is healthy, a sentimental ignorance of the lived conditions of the animals behind their products.

In fact, there is nothing shallow or easy about real sympathy. It is radical, destabilizing, exorbitant. It can mess your life up, shake down its foundations. I’m afraid of sympathy, I must confess: I’m anxious about what it might demand. So I administer it sparingly: I eke out sympathy in little squirts that push me along from time to time, like a fuel that could explode my whole value system if I didn’t regulate it carefully.

But really, where’s the sense in that? I drive to work on roads jammed with SUVs, in a city choking in smog, buying petrol that costs more every day, listening to radio stories about governments fighting over oil. If I change the station I hear reports about how to survive a pandemic, which has originated from—what else?—poultry kept in overcrowded conditions for the sake of inexpensive meat.

So of all the things we could cut down on, why be cheap with sympathy?

Philip Armstrong teaches English and Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He gained knowledge of battery and broiler hens through his involvement with SAFE (Save Animals from Exploitation), New Zealand’s foremost animal rights organization.


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