"Now We Know"...No You Don't
Thoughts on the power of free will, self-imprisonment, and Covid-19
Comparing our minor inconveniences to the suffering of imprisoned animals is not a sign that we are now finally understanding their plight, but rather a testament of how truly disconnected we are from their reality. Even as social media blows up with posts proclaiming “Now we understand”, I’m actually witnessing people enjoying a liberation they didn’t even seek; with far more people outside engaged in physical activity than I can ever remember. But even in the case of strictly enforced lockdowns in which people actually stay home, they are still in their homes, surrounded by their things, their comforts, their sources of entertainment, the same location that was already CHOSEN to spend the majority of free time.
But what we truly take for granted is something we rarely even consider.
Quietly and perhaps subconsciously comforting us in the backs of our minds is the knowledge that we still have a choice. Free will. We could disobey, whatever the consequences might be, and choose a different path, whether we’re talking about breaking quarantine, not showing up for work, changing careers, moving, etc. Or perhaps something more mundane, such as choosing what channel to watch, what music to listen to, what food to prepare. We are surrounded by so many examples of exercising free will that it sounds silly for me to point out things such as choosing to have a glass of water when you feel thirsty. There’s a choice. A power to make a decision. And that choice is something we take for granted because we’ve never known a life where that choice didn’t exist.
With that in mind I’d like to point out a drastic and fundamental difference between humans and other earthlings; we CHOOSE to spend our days the way we do... indoors and inactive. And it didn’t require a strict quarantine for it to happen! In fact in many cases we pride ourselves on how we’ve managed to remove ourselves via “technological advancements” from engaging with the planet at all. Our modern lifestyle is so sedentary that for us to judge the suffering of nonhuman animals based on our own chosen lifestyle already skews perspective immensely. Heck, it took a pandemic for most us to leave our offices and take the one to two walks per day that are the minimal recommended activity levels suggested by health professionals. Prior to not being allowed to go to gyms a large percentage of us even chose to engage in what little time we reserved for physical activity by doing it indoors, still plugged into the screen mounted in front of the treadmill or focused on whatever was playing on headphones.
Beside the fact that this primarily sedentary lifestyle is the lifestyle of our choosing we also have the luxury of surrounding ourselves with mental stimulation of our picking: Books, television, cell phones, games, friends and family, FaceTime, music, the internet, etc. But not just that. We are sleeping in beds that we chose, sitting in chairs that we like, controlling temperature levels to our comfort, and eating the foods that we decided to buy.
No wonder we can't relate to creatures that still value and desire to take advantage of the gifts mother nature is always offering us with her forgiving hands. And we don’t have to go to the extreme of a caged tiger to make this point. Do you ever wonder how your pet spends the hours of each day?
I know what you're thinking; "But I have to go to work, I have to earn money, etc., etc. While you may feel as though you have to do these things don't underestimate the importance of ultimately controlling your destiny; The power of choice. There is no gun pointed at your head. There are no bars holding you in and there are no guards prodding you with electric rods to get into your car or onto the bus each morning. If, someday, you should be brave enough to pursue a different life the only thing really holding you back is your own fear... Fear of failure, fear that your new path might be difficult, fear of not being liked, accepted, or deemed successful. Fear of being poor. But you have the choice. You have the option to try. You have the option of failing.
Or consider a different example of choice; Imagine a time when you've looked out the window and seen that it was a beautiful, sunny day, but instead of going outside you chose to binge watch something on Netflix (while your poor dog gave you one last look before attempting to sleep away another monotonous day). Or imagine the flipside, let’s say it’s bad weather, but for some reason you just have this weird urge to go outside so you randomly decide to take a walk in a downpour. You could. It was totally up to you. These are all choices and the fact that the option existed was a source of great comfort to you, even if it that comfort was subconscious.
Now imagine instead that you have absolutely no say in the matter. That your life is NOT in your hands. Someone or something else decides what you will do and when. What you will eat (if anything). Whether you will see the sun. Whether you will be exposed to the elements with no ability to seek shelter...no option of wrapping yourself in anything or even digging a hole if you were so inclined to such desperate measures. No choice. Period.
Most of us can't even conceive of this beyond Hollywood's portrayal of incarceration, which, in most cases, is still a dream by comparison to the form of imprisonment other animals face. For the small percentage of people who have been arrested most still had the comfort of knowing what was happening, why, and an expectation of what was to come...even if it was bad news, at least they knew.
Imagine complete and utter confusion, fear and uncertainty, held by captors you couldn't communicate with. I'd like to share a personal experience that partially raised my sensitivity level on this topic. Several years ago I was imprisoned in a forein country. I couldn't communicate with anyone, but the little information I was receiving suggested I was never going to get out. The U.S. and this country had an agreement of no interference as well as a status of incommunicado for the prisoners, meaning no outside contact. I was set to rot away. Life as I knew it not only changed, but was over. Around week two I remember thinking, "Anything is possible with freedom...if only I could get out..."
That would be pretty horrifying in and of itself, but let me share a few more details that really help me appreciate different levels of captivity. This wasn't anywhere near as luxurious as incarceration looks on TV. I hadn't even been charged (never was) and I had no trial scheduled. I was in a holding cell with 6 other people with just enough room for us to lay down at night and be head to toe. In the back was a hole for us to defecate in. There was no sunlight, we were underground. Only one cellmate spoke a tiny bit of English through which I learned that most of the cellmates had already been in that tiny room upwards of 6 months awaiting a trial. There was no prison yard or activity time. There was no playing cards or working down in a laundry room. It was a cell, all day every day. I quickly learned I wasn't even allowed to exercise lest I suffer the wrath of the guards.
By this stage in my life I'd learned a few things about myself, such as that without exercise and sunlight my mental and emotional health would deteriorate.. To keep from spiraling into the dark place I knew I was headed I would wait until the guards were out of sight and try to jog in place without making any noise. For mental stimulation I would draw pictures on the wall with my mind. I'd find myself listening intently to the conversations of the other cellmates even though I couldn't understand them just because it provided some form of mental stimulation...or perhaps it helped me not feel so alone. I could go on for quite some time about the horror of my time in a foreign jail, but my point is for you to consider the perspective of just about any other earthling that we imprison. It was bad enough for me being captured by my own species, how horrifying must it be for other creatures to be imprisoned by us...creatures we conveniently place in a category that allows us to treat them badly without feeling guilty. I remember those who arrested me laughing with pleasure at my bad fortune as I tried to communicate my innocence. They simply didn't care. That was perhaps as horrifying as any moment during the entire experience...understanding that my life was held in the hands of other people and I no longer had any say in my own future...Whether I made the most of my life or wasted my existence, it would never again be my choice. It still scares me. They didn’t care about me...Much as we don't care about those we imprison. After all, animals are here for us, right? We simply put them in a magical category of "not us"and suddenly we can do to them whatever it is we need to justify. Come to think of it, we even do that to our own kind when it suits us, don't we?
Everything I had lost that meant so much to me, we take from animals from birth.
As bad as this experience may sound I must also state that I endured very little in the way of physical discomfort. I was never beaten. I didn’t go to sleep shivering, trying to find a way to burrow into a wall for warmth. I never suffocated in stifling heat, unable to move or seek a reprieve. I never felt unbearable thirst or hunger. I had simply been stripped of free will and that alone was a nightmare.
Are you beginning to understand the horror of having no control over your own life? No control of your destiny? You eat whatever crap is offered to you if you are offered anything. You sleep where you are given a place to sleep. You spend your days as you are allowed, not as you choose. You don't enjoy the sun and the trees when you decide to get your lazy ass off the couch, you NEVER get to see the sun and the trees. We don't even need to use extreme examples such as a bear in a bear bile cage, or a pig in a farrowing crate, a whale living it's life in a pool or a tiger in a zoo is terrible enough. No, we don't even need to go that far...how about the animals we claim to love and keep in our homes? You know, the ones finally getting a couple of walks per day thanks to Covid-19? “Hey now”, you are protesting, “wait a minute, my dog has a good life, I provide it with food and shelter”! Well done. You have given your dog the basics that I enjoyed in prison, except that I at least got to take a shit whenever I felt the need, not when my master allowed me to.
Your dog spends its life waiting for you to choose the moments in its life that it will get to enjoy. It is you who decides to allow it any form of stimulation. When the dog is home all day long it isn't reading, or surfing the web or watching TV. It isn't doing pushups or situps. It's waiting for the next moment in it's life that is better than the current one. You wonder why dogs act like maniacs when they finally get to go outside for something as mundane as chasing a ball? Well, take it from me, if you spent your days the way we force them to spend theirs, you'd start acting silly for little things as well. Guess how my cellmates that had been in prison for months spent their days? Sleeping. I guarantee they weren't sleep deprived. It is a symptom of depression and it is a way to pass the time. It’s a method of coping when there is nothing else to do. So when your dog is lying on the floor looking miserable, don't tell yourself, "He's tired." That's you making an excuse that justifies you not getting your sedentary human ass outside. You know, kinda like when you declare that magically, your dog doesn't need a walk in the morning because you are late for work. After all, it's just a dog. It should be able to hold its waste all day long, because, hey, it's not a human! With the garbage we feed to dogs it's amazing that they can control their defecation as well as they can. Again, something we privileged humans don't even think about...the fact that we make our "loved pets" eat the same bargain bullshit day after day, every meal of the day. My neighbor's neglected dog, that poor thing, has diarrhea every time I let it out. Now, imagine for a moment that your choices are to starve or to eat something that gives you diarrhea because otherwise you aren't going to eat anything. That's just one example of the free will we take for granted every day. Choosing what we eat and how much, not to mention getting to go to the bathroom as soon as we feel like it in case something we ate doesn't agree with us.
Next time you want to talk about the suffering we are enduring because of a few restrictions during Covid-19, go out to one of our beloved dairies that our country is so proud of and sit in a calf pen for a day. Alone. With nothing. All day. Freshly taken from a mother you never got to know. Not able to walk. Not able to explore. Not understanding what is happening to you. No comfort. No company. No ability to go anywhere except the 3 feet you are contained within. I wonder how many hours you could last. I wonder if, while surrounded by the miserable cries of misery of other caged but unseen animals around you, would you begin to find it more difficult to simply justify our imprisonment of other animals by simply saying, "Well, it's not human."
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