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September 2002
Ten Symbols of What’s Right with the World

By Kendra Kerman

 

 

Pessimistic and cynical by nature, I wondered if I could come up with ten things to be glad about. It was easy! You should try it.

Kinship Circle (www.kinshipcircle.org) is my way of keeping up with all the current animal issues around the world. By signing up with the free service, I get a ready-made letter emailed to me about three times a week, along with contact info on where to send it. So instead of hearing about a poor kitten that got barbecued and feeling helpless and sick about it, Kinship Circle enables me to quickly act, and be heard. Of course this doesn’t mean that I blindly print the letter provided and sign it, but it is enough to get me started, to explore the issue at hand, to edit the letter to my style, and to know where to send it.

The dedicated woman behind Kinship Circle is Brenda Shoss, who, in her words, comes from a “family of big-mouth liberals who possess a basic intolerance for abuse of the innocent.” It took her time to evolve to where she is today. Before, when her activist mother gave her a subscription to PETA’s Animal Times for Chanukah, Brenda fumed, “Couldn’t you just give me a nice little sweater?” Since then, she’s had her own epiphany, and she’s put her natural skills as a passionate writer to good use. “It’s a lot of work,” she admits of her goal to end the suffering of animals everywhere, “but I’m obsessed.”

Chip Here in Missouri, we have more than our share of puppy mills and dog fighting. That’s why my heart sank when I heard the latest puppy persecution story. Chip, a four-year-old Westie, was minding his own business when a woman visited his home with her six children. She left the kids unattended with Chip, and one of the toddlers reportedly antagonized him. After giving her a warning nip, Chip eventually bit the child. The bite required two stitches. Though he had never done anything like it before, the angry mother demanded he be put to death, and refused to accept responsibility for leaving her children unattended. (She even left her other five kids with him while she took the injured girl to the hospital.)

Chip was taken into custody and put on death row. Westie Rescue of Missouri launched a desperate campaign to spare his life, and hundreds of people joined the cause. Death seemed imminent. Westie Rescue refused to give up hope, despite the estimated 95 percent chance he would be executed. At one point, the court suggested the small rescue group cough up $350,000 for liability insurance for the little white dog. Miraculously, an agreement was reached, and Chip was freed. Within hours of being released, he was on his way to Alabama to meet his new family. As soon as he crossed the state line, the muzzle that he was required to wear was removed.

BookCrossing My home’s best feature is the built-in bookshelves that flank the fireplace. When viewing the house before we bought it, I scoffed at the sparse figurines lined up on the shelf so neat and orderly. As soon as I moved in, I crammed the shelves to overflowing with volumes of glorious books. As the famous quote by Erasmus goes, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and, if any is left, I buy food and clothes.” Like most book fanatics, I struggle with the “good problem” of where to put them all.

Finally, I came across a marvellous solution. BookCrossing (www.bookcrossing.com), a free book-lovers’ community, is like a worldwide book group. Ron Hornbaker, one of the founders, credits his schoolteacher parents for giving him the “book bug,” and his mission is to spread the (written) word. The concept: instead of stashing books after reading them, register them online, then release them out in the wild for others to discover. I have a trunk full of books on hand ready for release, and enjoy the challenge of matching the book to the location, e.g., placing the book Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses near a synagogue. And maybe, just maybe, someone might log onto BookCrossing and let me know they’ve found my book. If not, there’s always that mystery of wondering where the book is now, and whether it is having more fun than I am.

Gertrude McFuzz
Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Dr. Seuss wrote oodles of children’s books in the ‘60’s with some timeless messages. The Lorax was an environmentalist who spoke for the trees. Horton the Elephant held his own against societal pressure, never wavering from his conviction that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” And then there’s Gertrude McFuzz, one of my favorites. Gertrude McFuzz should be required reading for any woman considering breast implants. Vain Gertrude is a bird unhappy with her one tail feather, and wishes she looked more like Lolla-Lee-Lou, who, with two feathers, is better endowed.

One droopy-droop feather. That’s all that she had.
And, oh! That one feather made Gertrude so sad.

Wanting her tail to grow, she seeks a doctor’s advice.

“Tut tut!” said the doctor. “Such talk! How absurd!
Your tail is just right for your kind of bird!”

Gertrude persists, and finally he tells her of a pill-berry vine. Although the berries taste terrible, she gobbles them down. She sprouts lots of feathers, and things get out of control. Before long, she finds herself weighed down with a large, unwieldy plume. In the end, after a lot of plucking, Gertrude, once consumed with envy, learns to be content with her one cute feather.

Soybeans Dear Food Diary, here is what I ate this week: a club sandwich with turkey slices and bacon, barbecued riblets, chocolate milk, chicken stir-fry with edamame, and burgers galore. It all tasted great, and it was all soy. Some vegetarians live happily and healthily on rice, beans, vegetables and tofu. Not me. I’m a meat-substitute junkie. Oh, I eat my share of rice curry, but I thank my Morningstar for the soybean. Versatile and nutritious, the little oil-rich seed has been around for thousands of years, originating in China. A complete protein, processed soybeans (tofu, tempeh, soymilk, etc.) help prevent heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and other life-threatening illnesses. It’s easier than ever for me to get my facon (fake+bacon) fix, as I’m finding Veat, Amy’s, Boca, Silk and other delicious products in more and more grocery stores. That must mean I’m not the only one buying these honest-to-goodness happy meals. And the variety! I had no idea I missed Bratwurst.

Mockingbirds On a busy road I found a fledgling mockingbird, flattened out on the hot pavement, but still weakly flapping her wings. I could have said, “Aw, poor thing,” and kept on driving, but instead I pulled over. I gently scooped her up and got back in the car. She was overheated and in bad shape, but not visibly injured. I didn’t really know what to do, so I just drove home, which was two hours away.

She had all her feathers and a stubby little tail. She was mostly grey, with white stripes on her wings, and the longest legs! She had bright little black eyes, and scowled at me a lot.

As I started doing research on the Internet for what to do, I put her out on the screened-in back porch, because I knew she didn’t like being indoors one bit, and would probably appreciate some fresh air. As she cheeped and nervously hopped around, I became discouraged. Every Web site I came across said, “DO NOT TRY TO CARE FOR A BABY BIRD. Contact a wild bird rehabilitation center immediately. Most baby birds die without professional help.” Just as I started looking up bird rescue groups, I noticed a chorus of chirping outside.

Amazingly, professional help had already arrived! A mockingbird couple heard her distress cheeps and came to her rescue. They flitted around her and fretted, and tried to figure out what to do. Finally, they coaxed her over to a secluded bush and began feeding her! This incredible pair took the little orphaned out-of-towner under their wing.

All day long I watched as they tended to the baby, whom only hours before was all alone and moments from death. Now, I don’t speak mockingbird, but as they flicked their long tails and fussed over her, I could plainly hear, “Are you comfortable? Do you need more to eat? Don’t worry; we’ll take care of you. We’re right here.”

By the end of the day, the little bird felt happy and secure enough to move beyond the distress cheeps. She sang and preened. So did I.

Jane Goodall She might deny this, but Jane Goodall is perfect. Period. Have you ever seen her exploits smeared all over the tabloids? …Jane “Goody Two Shoes” Denies Involvement in Forest Fire…Flo Fed Up: “Get Out of Gombe, Goodall!”… I rest my case. An animal lover from birth, she first became enamoured with earthworms, and tried taking them to bed with her. Her mother told her they needed the earth, so she dutifully toddled them back out to the garden.

At age 26, accompanied only by her mother, Jane travelled to Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Africa to study chimps. Remarkably, she had no formal training, not even an undergraduate degree. (In 1965, she received her Ph.D. in Ethology at Cambridge University, but she credits her childhood dog Rusty as being her first instructor on animal behavior.) The study ended up lasting over 40 years, and at 68, she’s more active than ever, travelling the world to educate millions on the plight of chimpanzees and their vanishing habitat, and of course, how similar they are to us.

A vegetarian, she only eats enough to keep going. While conducting her research in the forests of Africa, she oftentimes became so absorbed in her observations that she would go 16 hours on coffee and a handful of raisins kept in her pocket. Her books chronicling the chimps’ complex lives, In the Shadow of Man and Through a Window, read like soap operas set in a forest, full of sex, violence, family feuds, drama and tenderness. That this amazing woman has found inner peace in such a frenetic world inspires me to believe I am already on my way to find my own Reason for Hope.

Mr. Rogers I can’t mention Jane Goodall without also bringing up her male counterpart, Fred Rogers. Instead of devoting his life to chimps, he has spent his life focused on our own little primates. Since 1954, he has been a beloved television neighbour to millions of children, using puppets, music and comforting words to help children grow up embracing their uniqueness. But he is much more than a television personality. He is also, among other things, a musician, writer, child behaviorist and Presbyterian minister. A vegetarian for many years, he believes that “like many other values children get from us, compassion is more likely to be caught than taught.”

If you’ve ever wondered if his calm demeanour is just an act—well, it’s not. He is fantastically sweet and sincere, and best of all, he likes you just the way you are. Grown men have wept in his presence, overwhelmed to meet the man who taught them so many years ago that it’s all right to cry. In his reassuring, gentle tone, Mr. Rogers tells us, “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

The Young Except for the food she occasionally filches from the cats’ bowl, my two-year-old daughter Zinnia has never eaten an animal part. Ninetieth percentile for height, seventieth percentile for weight, and vibrantly rosy, I can only laugh when I hear talk of how vegetarians are wan, malnourished weaklings.

I admit it—I shamelessly use my vivacious gal pal as an educational tool. I cook cruelty-free meals and bring them to her daycare. I put her in T-shirts that say, “Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them.” When we are out in mixed public (omnivores and herbivores), and she reaches for a piece of meat, I tell her sweetly, “No no, honey, dogs eat meat, not people.”

Since we share our house with six other species, she is definitely grasping the concept “Live and Let Live.” Still, she has a lot to learn. It breaks my heart when, for example, she gets her foot tangled up in a cord and says to me, “I’m like an elephant in the circus.” (Dumbo is the saddest Disney movie ever; Bambi is a comedy in comparison.) I know that someday, Zinnia will realize that elephants don’t belong in chains, and she may well be instrumental in the liberation of elephants from circuses. Either that, or she’ll run off and join Cirque du Soleil to get away from her nutty mother.

The Old The other day, on my lunch hour, I took a shepherd-mix puppy from the Humane Society to a local nursing home for pet therapy. I have never felt so popular in my life. Everywhere I went, dim eyes lit up at the sight of me—well, all right, at the sight of the puppy. Even as the celebrity escort, I felt like a star. Here, a cast of characters:

Una, a lovely woman wearing a pink duster, who once lived in Saudi Arabia with her dashing Air Force officer husband;
Ray, hard of hearing and confined to a wheelchair, who went door-to-door selling bibles in order to support his family during the Great Depression;

Mildred, one leg amputated due to diabetes, raised ten children and made a quilt for every one of her 23 grandchildren;
And finally, Woody, an 89-year-old dog lover with the same name as my dear grandfather who died one year ago.

I sat with Woody on the sunny porch, supporting the melancholy puppy in his lap. With every stroke of her soft fur, he pulled memories from the air. Face tilted up, eyes closed, he recalled for me all the dogs he’d known throughout his life. He told me about his children, and showed me the various blurry tattoos on his arms, confiding he’d have more of them if it weren’t for his wife, Ruby. “A fine woman, fine woman,” he exalted.

As the puppy drooled on his pants, I gently picked a flea off one of his paper-soft hands and listened to him reminisce. The three of us sat together like that for a long time.

Kendra Kerman is a writer in Columbia, Missouri. She is happy with her one tail feather.

 


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