by Laura Moretti
I spoke with an acquaintance recently who confessed that she had gone to Sea World in San Diego. She said she felt sad when she remembered some of the things I had told her about wild animals in captivity, but she wanted to know where else people would learn about killer whales if not from marine mammal parks.
I asked her what she had learned at Sea World about the whales. Did she, for example, know anything about their diet?
“Fish,” she said excitedly.
“You mean, dead, frozen fish,” I pointed out to her. “Did you learn they sometimes eat dolphins and seals?”
“No,” she replied. She didn’t know that about them.
Did she learn anything about their behavior, I wondered.
“They can do incredible tricks,” she added, less enthusiastic, but delighted to have learned something about the performing whales.
“So you learned that the whales can do in a pool what they do in the ocean, only in the pool they do it in order to eat, so as to not starve?”
She said I was making her feel bad.
I asked her if she had learned anything about their social behavior, their close family ties, their life-long bonds to one another?
No, she admitted, she hadn’t. She didn’t know the animals spent their entire lives with members of their own family.
I asked her if she had learned anything about their daily activities; that, for example, in the ocean, the whales swim between 70 and 100 miles in a day?
No, she added, even more solemnly than before, she did not know that about the animals.
Did she know about their sonar capabilities, their hunting abilities, their interactions with one another or other pods of whales, their habitats in the oceans and where they are found most frequently, or for how long they live?
I asked if she knew how they love to scratch their bellies on the small pebbles on the ocean’s floor in Puget Sound?
No, she didn’t. And now she seemed ashamed and embarrassed by everything she didn’t know.
“So what did you learn about orcas?” I politely asked her.
“What’s an orca?”
by Laura Moretti
The steel bin was loaded with meat hooks — giant, heavyweight, shiny, perfectly curved hooks. There must have been six dozen of them. They were clean, bloodless, and soaking in sterilized water in the outside hallway of the meat processing building at the nearby state university “animal farm.”
I guessed then that I’d found the place I was looking for. For the past hour or so, I had wandered the campus in a photographic discovery. I took panoramic pictures of the line of dairy cows standing in wait outside the milking parlor. Their big heads poked through the metal fence slats when I approached. Their large eyes seemed so forgiving. As a member of the human race, I didn’t deserve the sentiment.
Some of the cows’ offspring were corralled in isolating wire pens just barely larger than their bodies, across the lot from the dairy barns, and given shelter from the sweltering sun in plastic doghouse-like structures. Even more curious than their mothers, and obviously desperate for touch, they scrambled to their feet at my approach. I knelt before an almost black calf, maybe two weeks old, and presented my hand. Veal, I mused, as that little wet, toothless mouth sucked longingly on my fingers.
He abandoned the futile effort and tried the rim of my baseball cap. His face was so close to mine, and I couldn’t help but think he was the most precious little creature I had ever been close to. He even smelled newborn — fresh, and as innocent as he was. Sleek. Fragile. And such bright, begging eyes. When I stood up to greet another calf, he bucked in his pen and threw his head to express his disappointment. He had such fragile little legs and tiny cleft hooves.
In a neighboring warehouse building, I found the pigs. Young pigs were crammed into finishing pens. The room smelled of feces and urine. Flies buzzed about. In an adjoining room were the farrowing pens: stalls each housing a full-grown sow and her new-born piglets. I approached one sow who was standing and couldn’t turn around between the metal bars. There was no way she could nuzzle her young — and a scrawny one lay dying under the heat lamp.
In this room, the smell was even greater; feces caked the metal pen slats, and the flies were as thick as tar. Through a window I watched a pickup truck drive away with a dead piglet on the tailgate. The cleaning crew had come and gone. I quickly jumped in my own vehicle and followed it to the Dumpster, which is where I found the slaughterhouse.
It was nearing six on a Thursday afternoon and the place was deserted. I went in cautiously, past the observation deck and onto the kill floor. Electric tongs gave away the method of stunning. Long, sharp “sticking” knives. There was the standard bleed pit. The power saw that dismembered the carcasses. A scale to measure the body parts. Tables with center drains where the …
by Laura Moretti
I was driving behind a person in a compact car one morning, and there was a lot of unusual debris on the highway, due to a previous night’s rain. As I was driving along, I began to notice that the car in front of me was pretty much oblivious to the debris on the road: it hit puddles, ran over tree limbs, bumped through piles of wet leaves, etc., as if hitting those items were neither destructive to the vehicle or distasteful for the driver.
And then the car swerved out of its lane in order to avoid running over the tiny mashed carcass of some unrecognizable species of animal.
And I got to thinking…
What is it in human beings that causes them to detour, when they can, around animal carcasses on the highway? Even people who eat animals tend to avoid making contact with them, when they can, and even if those carcasses are tiny and already flattened beyond recognition, any semblance of blood or entrails, for example, they are often noticed and avoided.
What is it about human beings, even eaters of animal flesh and wearers of their hides, that causes them to give me a blank stare every time I ask them if they would like to accompany me to a nearby slaughterhouse?
I think that deep down within us, we care about not inflicting pain. Or suffering. We care about not seeing bloodshed. Oh, yes, we justify our bloody deeds in order to defend ourselves for committing them, but we don’t really wish it to be part of who we are.
I’ve always felt that way; I guess I always have. Maybe because it’s true of us and maybe only because I need to believe it about human beings in order to get up every morning and present all of them with the realities they would otherwise wish not to know or see or hear about — because I believe their knowing will change their behavior.
Upon reflection, I think human beings do care. I’ve used this analogy before: if I invited a group of people over to my house to prepare dinner from a garden I had kept in the backyard, my guests would join me in preparation of that dinner with a feeling that would differ had I invited them over to help me hoist a living calf and bleed it over a concrete pit. Although there might be some — some macho types — who could be present for such a killing (or even commit such a killing as some human beings can and do), their gut feeling about the process would be different than if we were cutting up carrots and boiling rice. There would be some steeling of the emotions.
But imagine a time, thousands of years ago, when human beings actually lived in and with nature, when we held animal life in awe, when animals inspired us toward thought and learning, when we felt we belonged to this earth.
Imagine such a time when human …
by Laura Moretti
I’ve never met a more righteous group of people: animal rights activists. Occasionally, I’ll take a step back from the work we do and study the way we’re perceived by the general masses. And it isn’t pretty. There is no compromise, no “I’ve been there before myself so I understand how difficult it is for you to stop eating animals, to give up your cruelty-filled products and clothing, to avoid the circus and the zoo, to be as sickened as I am at the mere sight of burnt flesh on a dinner plate.” But no. We want animal rights and we want them now. Not tomorrow, not next week. Today. And we’ll take no prisoners.
I’m at the brunt of activists’ wrath sometimes myself. “Is that leather?” someone will ask, fondling my shoe. And even I get righteously indignant. “Leather? Do you have to ask?” They do. They’re relentless — excuse me, rabid. I mean, let’s face it, if I can be annoyed by some of the “in-your-face” accusations, questions, implications, and such, shot at me from the “lunatic fringe,” then how does the mainstream — a group considering itself the “normal” majority — perceive the way we struggle for the rights of animals?
I consider myself a thought-provoker, not a hell-raiser. Make people think. Ask them a question they have to find the answer to themselves, because then it becomes a journey, a process, a self-realization from which they shall never escape.
But animal rights activists, a great number of them, are merely a dedicated group of conscientious objectors filled with uncontrollable rage. And it oozes out of their pores. It’s contagiously cancerous, too. Note the back-biting, the unfounded accusing, the outright attacks on each other’s efforts or programs, the internal criticism in those quiet corners of the meeting rooms. Lethal people.
I’ve got no use for them.
The number of animals bred, raised, transported, and slaughtered for the American diet went up another billion last year. The United States now kills more than 14,000 living, breathing, reasoning, thinking, feeling animals a minute. More than a million an hour, 24 million in a day. They are confined, deprived, medicated, dehorned and debeaked, castrated, branded, and artificially inseminated. They are shocked, crowded, bruised, shoved, and screamed at in order to be crammed into trucks and trains for hours or days of transportation without food, water, or rest. They are terrorized upon their arrival at slaughtering plants with the rancid smell of putrefying blood, with the sounds of other animals vainly screaming in their death throes. And then they are electrocuted or shot (and sometimes boiled alive), then stabbed to death at the rate of 275 life-loving, panic-stricken, death-dreading sentient beings a second.
Gandhi once said that the most violent weapon on earth is the table fork.
Ten billion land animals. Maybe twice that many sea animals. For food. Forget the millions of other animals used for clothing, in science, for entertainment, and in sport. Twenty billion animals, to be eaten and passed on to …
by Laura Moretti
A vacation in Washington, D.C., is paradise for me. I know, there are other, more romantic, places in the world to go: Venice, Bali, the Bahamas. But I’m a D.C. fan. Having lived in other countries as a child, I came to appreciate the good old USA at an early age, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
It’s not what Washington is that means anything to me (the bipartisanship, hypocrisy, corruption). It’s what it stands for, and not what it’s supposed to represent, either, but what it actually does: freedom, justice, well, freedom and justice; there doesn’t have to be more. (I do think I was the only one in the theater who cried during Spielberg’s Amistad. “Who we are is who we were.” Amen.)
So, given my affection for the founding premise of the United States of America, I thoroughly enjoyed my last visit a couple of weeks ago. The sun was out, the temperature warm, and I left my hotel room one day, some six blocks from the National Mall, and walked by myself for nearly five hours. I strolled from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol, all the way back to the Lincoln Memorial, past the Vietnam Wall, on out to Jefferson, and then to the Smithsonian, where I rested and shared lunch, on a bench, in its flower garden, with a squirrel.
Sciurus Carolinensis. Gray squirrel. You’ve seen them; they’re everywhere. In the west, we call them, well, Western Gray Squirrels. They’re about 18-19 inches in length, including their bushy tails, and you see them hanging out in trees in almost every residential neighborhood or municipal park, or crossing the road to get to the other side. Perhaps you know them better by The Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Mammals. “One of the top game animals, this squirrel provides sport and meat for many.”
Hmph. We ate banana and Oreo cookies. The squirrel sat beside my bench, in the grass, in the shade, nibbling. Just when I think I’m alone in all the world, I’m really not. And “who we are is who we were,” so, in Washington, D.C., I’m crowded by the ghosts of our ancestors, predecessors.
“I have sworn upon the altar of Almighty God,” I quietly recalled Jefferson’s sentiment from the dome of his Memorial, “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” I liked the way that sounded, especially minus the last five words, so I repeated it to myself without them, and gave another cookie piece to my companion.
I know all about Jefferson (he was the basis for a novel I wrote, one about a modern-day Jefferson), so I appreciate the controversy: a slave-owning abolitionist. Someday folks’ll look back on the cats I’ve kept and question my morality, too, who knows?
But, oh, the things we take for granted. The Declaration of Independence. Elections. Voting rights. Individual freedom and expression. I realize we don’t have them fully within our grasp, but we’ve got them more than …
by Laura Moretti
When it rains deep in the jungle, the Indonesian people of the Mentawai tribe huddle for warmth and safety in a community hut they’ve built of wood. They eat a prepared pulp of bamboo mush, an assortment of plant life, and an occasional wild pig they’ve caught, penned for fattening, and then collectively killed.
The people of this tribe have an unusual (comparatively speaking) perspective of the world: they believe animals and plants have souls. And because other-than-human beings shelter souls, the Mentawai must justify to their gods their reasons for destroying the bodies in which those souls reside. And so, the killing ceremony — whether it be for a tree or a pig — begins with a deeply felt apology.
These Indonesian tribesmen say the modern-day world (ours) breaks their hearts, for what they learn when they venture into the outside is that, in our so-called civilization, neither animals nor humans have souls.
Well, take ground beef. It is so removed from the living being. There is no communal killing hut, no collective slaughtering of animals, no apology. We have lost our bond with nature, with the animals who once captivated and inspired us. Today, they are Whoppers and suede, garment trim and gelatin. And if the dismemberments we have created are so named, we never actually hear them: pigskin, calves’ liver, lamb. That’s how lost we are. Dismembered animals can safely hide in plain sight. We never see them, never know them, never feel for them.
I see it clearest when human beings defensively defend the eating of animals. As an active animal rights advocate, I find — even without trying — that I end up in conversations about animal rights, with a grocery clerk, a garment salesperson, or my cousin. Questions about what I do for “a living” invariably end up in philosophical discussions about the rights of animals. Though it is changing in more recent times, most Americans with whom I converse are still convinced that animal flesh and fodder is a necessary evil in the human diet. But they are so far removed from the process by which meat adorns their tables that they are almost incapable of having any idea about how that process occurs. Most believe humane slaughter to be standard American fare. Few would admit that it is a contradiction in terms.
But would it matter? Would they care? If they could see what I have seen, hear what I have heard, feel the pain I have felt in others, would it change their perspective? Would there be, at least, an apology for the cruelties and the unnecessary-ness of it all? After all, one can’t be connected and disconnected at the same time.
Still, the dichotomy astounds me.
If animals are so important to human survival, why do we degrade them so? Why do we animate plucked, decapitated chickens and set their antics to silly music? Why do we find humor in the widespread massacre of millions of birds for Thanksgiving meals? “Don’t eat a …
by Laura Moretti
An ethnic group in Senegal practices a seemingly unusual ritual to heal mental illness. Though they appear to be civilized — they drive cars, wear glasses, read and write — I can’t help but feel the entire community, not just the patients, are in need of serious help.
There is dancing in the streets, and those who have made “the spirits angry” are paraded before a curious crowd of passive onlookers. A large brown bull is wrestled unwillingly to the ground and hog-tied in the street. He is the conduit between human health and so-called sanity. Each mentally disturbed patient must sit on him and be covered in a white cloth representing a death shroud. A healing priestess chants prayers, encouraging the avenging spirits to pass from the patients into the bull — and then the innocent animal is killed so that he may take the evilness with him on his journey to the Spirit World.
The bull’s throat is slit with a large machete (it is a literal sawing into his jugular because his hide is so thick). He struggles, vainly, groans in agony, and is bled into a large bowl. He continues to groan and struggle for some time while the healer priestess takes no more than seven swallows of his blood.
The patients are then stripped naked and thoroughly doused in the bull’s “cleansing” blood. His intestines are cut and made into decorative belts worn during the remaining practice. But the animal abuse doesn’t end there.
Patients are then cleansed of bull blood by means of live roosters. The birds are repeatedly — and quite roughly — shoved head-first into large bowls of water and then raked over the humans, like living sponges. If they survive the ordeal, they are then cut and bled to death, each fully conscious, each pitifully crying, each innocent of their crimes.
The priestess is paid for her miracle cures and promises to return another day when a new group of patients are in need of rescue.
I’m sorry, but I can’t help but think they’re all just plain crazy. In this day and age, how does any culture get away with such rubbish? What kind of civilized… wait … of course… how could I forget?
The Senegal tribes are not really that primitive, are they? In so-called western civilization, we practice similar rituals — just as unusual, just as collectively acceptable. And just as crazy.
Ours come in the guise of medical advancement, and for the noblest of causes: the sacred preservation of human life. And we practice our rituals mainly behind closed doors, not in the streets for the public to see, and then, therefore, the majority to condemn or abolish, but far from public view and criticism. And we commit these practices against millions of helpless animals, not just a dozen hapless farm creatures who just happened to be wandering the neighborhood at the time the parade began.
We breed our animal conduits. We steal them off the streets and imprison them for life. We …
by Laura Moretti
I was sitting at the airport in Denver, on my way home to the City of Angels. It was an hour before boarding, so I slouched in a comfortable cushioned seat and watched the passersby. The great migration, it seemed. Backlit signs everywhere: to “Baggage Claim,” “Ground Transportation,” terminal directions, concourse arrows, a mishmash of chaos with somewhere to go. I watched a surge of passengers make their dif€cult journey to a terminal farther beyond the one in which I had settled. They seemed hurried and anxious, battling with luggage and purses, small children and departure deadlines, while others about them strolled casually, luggage-free, to meet arrivals.
I wondered about the secrets hidden inside the hearts and minds of all those people passing before me. I wondered about their hurts and dreams, their broken hearts. Victims of a supreme alienation from the natural world on one hand, perpetrators of indescribable, seemingly unconquerable suffering on the other — bulls in inescapable arenas, tormented literally to death; furbearing animals caught in steel traps, agonizing for days before being bludgeoned or stomped to death; panic-stricken cows kicking in their death throes to meet that “60 billion served” mentality. Perhaps none of us deserves to escape the pains we have wrought upon ourselves, that emptiness that haunts all of us who have truly lost touch with the forests and the skies and the great mountains. I was reminded of that when that Lockheed 1011 took off and brought Earth up so close.
She is but a tiny, lonely planet — even from 37,000 feet. Her curve is perfect, her skies milky white and frothy. And I marvel at how humans have mastered it: this bus with wings, hurling across her plains and over her mountains at 600 miles an hour, constructed of steel, with the weight of several hundred human beings. And their stuff. And I know I’m not supposed to be up here. I mean, it’s not, well, natural. Despite living among them, I don’t feel I belong in the human world.
But, then, belonging to Nature may not be my life, either. I stood on a wild mountain in Colorado during a storm that had broken while I was photographing a herd of elk — animals who, never having been hunted, knew no fear. We shared the same misty, pouring rain, listened to it caress the forest and the tree leaves — the only other sound outside the lightning and thunder cracked and boomed around us. I lifted back my head, welcomed the cool downpour into my eyes and face and reveled in this unexpected connection to Nature. Until I remembered the elk. When I lowered my head to meet their gaze, their unalarmed curiosity reminded me how far away I was still. And loneliness echoed: It doesn’t help much, an acquaintance once observed, that the animals don’t even know you’re on their side, does it?
When I arrived home three cats were sitting on the staircase inside, waiting for me. They must have …
by Laura Moretti
Mouser died today. It had been 13 years since the black-and-white kitten had come into my life (we called her Mouser to make Dad happy about the mice in the barn). And I think she wanted to live up to her name as well; she was an aggressive mousing cat — except …well… except she didn’t seem to know a mouse from a dog. And it was dogs she chased from the house, and it was dogs she lay in ambush for in the front yard and chased down the street with me running after her, screaming for their lives. “You’ve got to do something about that cat,” Mom would warn me. “She’s terrorizing the neighborhood.”
But I didn’t do anything about that cat, and not because I wouldn’t, but because I couldn’t. Mouser made it clear from the beginning that I belonged to her. Later, when my car was stolen along with my house keys, and the locksmith, hired by the apartment manager, arrived to change the door locks, I got an urgent call at work. “You’re going to have to come down here after all, ma’am,” he said kindly. “Your cat won’t let me in the apartment.”
But as determined as she was at voicing her opinion, she was equally affectionate — with me, that is, her possession. I’d lie on the sofa, tap the center of my chest, and say, “Kiss? Kiss?” and she would oblige, leap onto my chest, press her forehead against my lips and take as many kisses as a cat could stand.
She was also an extremely intelligent cat. Traditional cat games were out of the question. If you wanted to play with Mouser, you had to play games by rules you learned as you went along. “You throw the ping-pong ball to me,” she would say, “and I’ll lie here comfortably and hit it back to you. I’m not moving, so if I miss it, you fetch it.”
Mouser preferred, you see, to spend her waking hours eating. When she failed to remind me to feed her, I’d sneak off to work or to sleep, hoping she’d never remember — because Mouser could stand to lose a few pounds. One night, after forgetting a meal, I was awakened by a horrible cat cry at bedside. I snapped on the night lamp and leaned over the mattress. Mouser was sitting there, blinking up at me with that, “You thought I’d forget again, didn’t you?” expression while a small can of cat food — which apparently she had carried in from the kitchen — sat nestled on the carpet between her front paws.
I laugh about that to this day—but in the split second of that memory, I hear again the eternal silence on the phone line, the vet’s voice in my ear, patient, waiting, hollow — like the way my heart felt then: “Do you think we should let her go?” And I could see Mouser, in my mind’s eye, lying there on that exam …
by Laura Moretti
It was a gentle-sounding crash, as gentle as the giant that had made it. Fifty feet of humpback whale breached the quiet, calm ocean, forty tons of living flesh and sentience crashed onto the water’s surface with an explosion of spray and foam unlike anything I could ever have imagined. In its wake, another awesome mammal gracefully silhouetted the horizon, effortlessly twisting against blue sky, an infinite pause as if still-life, and then it smashed the perfect crystal sea into fragments of sunlit beads.
From the bow upon which I was standing, leviathan had reawakened my soul to the self within me. The moment felt like an eternity. In the silence of the whales’ disappearance, I was spellbound.
Not just for whales, not just for the tragedy of their murderous destruction; human greed over yielding grace, profit over power, death over what is alive, what is unique, what is necessary and indescribably beautiful. Nor was I merely sorry for the discoveries we have not yet found: what is the meaning of their eerie, soul-reaching, inexplicable songs? Mostly I was sorry for our alienation from them, our misfortune for having taken form — in a natural sense — so far below them. Unlike many of us, unlike most of us, whales are free.
Those were the only words I could find that day to describe how I felt in the presence of leviathan. Earlier that morning, I rested my gaze on the first whale I had encountered. I was leaning over the bow of that drifting boat, listening to the ocean slap the hull with a hollowness that reminded me just how far from the nearest shore we all were. It was a long way for me, from the emptiness of my alienated existence to the fullness of that moment, wishing the boat would tip just enough so I could reach down and touch the cool water with my fingers. And grasp home again. And a song in the back of my mind: Well, I was born in the sign of water / and it’s there that I feel my best / the albatross and the whales / they are my brothers …
We had seen her earlier, sounding with calf, her flukes more graceful and flexible than I had imagined a whale’s could be; the sun reflected the essence of this-is-all-there-is-ness from the curve of her tail. And then she was gone. Now I waited, without time, for her reappearance, for the opportunity to see her once more; just a glimpse, just a flash of a moment to feel in touch with home again was all I wanted. All I had ever wanted.
Below me the water was a murky bluish-green, seeming to move only on the surface, as if the great sea was merely solid earth beneath the boat. Suddenly, the ocean turned a grayish-black — breaking all thought processes inside my head, leaving me only with image, with now-ness—as if a sea of algae drifted past, holding the …