Ollie and pet rescue

The new Ollie having milkWe are suckers for the face of a cat at the window, a hungry cat, a cold cat, a lost cat, a cat someone has abandoned to fend for themselves and is doing a poor job of it. The pleading eyes, the rough coat, the quiet shiver in the rain or the cold. How can you turn away from that and still call yourself human?

Ollie, our latest addition to our household, was one of those faces, quite recently. We had seen him in the neighbourhood for a few weeks, getting thinner each time we caught a glimpse. We asked neighbours and no one recognized him, or thought we were seeing another stray – a feral black cat nicknamed Buddy. It wasn’t, we knew that right away.

This cat wasn’t feral. Although timid, he would let you approach – slowly, talking calmly – or would approach you if you sat very still and spoke to him. Then he was affectionate and sometimes even a bit vocal. Clearly he had been a household cat at some time. He would sometimes show up on the back deck, looking inside, very evidently lost and hungry. A long nose, lovely face that reminded us of a former cat we had loved for many, many years: Ollie. Our heartstrings were being tugged.

Coincidentally, I recently began reading A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life, by Steven Kotler. It deals with dog rescue, human-canine relations, the meaning of life and the meaning of compassion to our core beings. Cats and dogs have a different relationship with humans, but the core ethical and moral questions remain the same, regardless of which you rescue (or which you refuse to help). It’s a bigger issue than just one animal, or even one species.

Kotler helped remind me that we have a responsibility that is greater than what or who we are. More than to one another, more than just to our species: we have a responsibility towards all life. Our own life is about making moral and ethical choices. And there was one staring at us through the patio door. No matter how we chose, there would be consequences.

We debated what to do. Adopt or call the humane society? The Georgian Triangle Humane Society is a great place run by wonderful, caring people, but they already have a shelter full of unwanted cats and dogs, of pets people got tired of, or whose circumstances changed. Why burden them more with another? We both accept that we, as compassionate humans, have a responsibility to other species, so why fight the inevitable?

But, our common sense argued, what about the other two cats? The dog? How will they handle a newcomer? Can we afford another cat, what with the food and the vet bills and our reduced seniors’ income? What if he proves aggressive? Or has an illness that requires treatment? Will he spray or claw furniture or even use the litter boxes? What if he’s trouble?

Altruism comes with a price. Taking care of strays – especially sick or troubled ones or strays of unknown provenance – can be both emotionally and physically draining, not to mention expensive. We’ve spent more on medical care for our cats and dogs than on ourselves (well, that’s in part thanks to universal healthcare that allows us not to sink into debt over our own maintenance). They get regular care, the best food and are treated not as property but as co-voyageurs on our life’s trip.
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A Compassionate Buddha?

Buddhist storyThere’s a story in Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the Dhammapada (Penguin Classics, 2010, commentary on verse 6, p 115-116) that caught my eye recently, and it made me wonder what the moral or ethical precept was buried in it.

And it makes me question what it says about the supposed compassion of the Buddha and his attitude towards animals.*

I have not found online the story exactly as Ms. Roebuck tells it**, but I have found many variations on it. It even has its own holiday: Madhu Purnima. In essence the story goes like this:

The Buddha is at the Kosambi monastery where 500 monks get into a doctrinal dispute (i.e. pissing match over minutiae) he cannot resolve for them. So he gives up and heads to the forest to find peace (first stumbling block: where’s the fabled patience?).

Meanwhile, an elephant (often described as a bull elephant), tired of living among the herd, joins him. There the elephant takes care of the Buddha, bringing him water and protecting him from predators.

A monkey joins them and brings the Buddha some honeycomb, which the Buddha accepts. The monkey is so delighted, he swings from branch to branch wildly, but in his excitement, falls to his death. He’s reborn in Tavatimsa heaven, so that’s supposed to be okay.

No indication that the Buddha felt any compassion for the animal, let alone any remorse for being the cause of its death. Personally, I’m not sure the trade-off between life and death is worth it, but maybe I’m just too attached to living. Or maybe I’m just a teensy bit too skeptical about rebirth, reincarnation, heaven, gods and so on (a la Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs).

Meanwhile, the monks come to the forest and beg the Buddha to return, which he does, leaving the elephant in the forest. Roebuck says it was “at the point where the animal might have been in danger from human beings if he had followed him.” Other texts say the elephant followed him to the edge of the city.

Again, no indication of gratitude for the elephant’s service. No thanks, no fond wave of the hand, no blessing.

The elephant dies of a “broken heart” from being abandoned. The Buddha in the tale shows no compassion or remorse. The elephant pops up in Tavatimsa heaven too, though. I suppose that’s okay.

Or is it?

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