Carissa kissing Akachan. Photo by Laurelee Blanchard
Karen Davis, PhD presented this topic on the panel “Where Did Our Compassion Go? Children, Adults and the Loss of the Human-Animal Bond,”
The City College of New York, December 2, 2014.
My background with children and young people
I grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania in the 1950s where my father and three brothers and virtually the entire male community took sport hunting and fishing
for granted without question. I never participated in their activities or had any desire to, though my father would sometimes invite me to join them,
“just for the walk.” I could say no, but my brothers could hardly refuse. Boys are as much at the mercy of “male domination” and
punishment for deviance as girls are, sometimes more.
Through the years I’ve worked professionally with children and young people of all ages. In the 1960s, I taught at a daycare center in Baltimore, MD
called – yes! – The Little Red Hen. In the 1970s, I was a juvenile probation officer in inner-city Baltimore for five years, where I counselled
troubled teen-age girls. From 1980 to 1991, I taught English at the University of Maryland-College Park to students who often sought my counsel not only
about literature and writing, but about themselves. Thus I have had many interactions with a variety of children and young people over the years, and my
views on the effect of socialization on the human-animal bond include these encounters.
Art by Greg Schlindler
Source of the title of my talk
My talk is inspired by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850), whose poem Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood recounts his loss of visionary insight into Nature as he became an adult.
The poem begins:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore; –
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
In the poem, Wordsworth argues that children enter the world with a light of perception that fades over time “into the light of common day.”
Seeking to understand the loss of this light, he describes how children, despite their affinity for Nature and the bliss this gift confers, are driven
simultaneously to imitate and please their parents. Wordsworth views the eagerness of children to model and fit into the adult world as a tragic but
inevitable motivation that, unbeknownst to the innocent ones, guides them into “the darkness of the grave.” Toward the end of the poem he asks
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,
Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!
Portrait of William Wordsworth
by Benjamin Robert
This is a rhetorical question but one that seeks an answer. Wordsworth finds solace in his belief that there are compensatory forms of adult happiness
commensurate with the hard realities that Life brings, and that despite the loss of visionary joy in Nature that comes with growing up, there remains in
each person a “primal sympathy” that custom cannot destroy.
Children are not blank slates
The seventeenth-century English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) argued in opposition to Wordsworth that the mind of a child at birth is an
“empty cabinet,” a blank slate or tabula rasa devoid of innate ideas or content. Whereas Wordsworth argues that people are born with a
supernal knowledge that informs the young child’s perceptions and enthusiasms, which he regards as positive attributes that socialization stifles,
Locke views the human infant as an empty vessel whose content develops from the elements of each person’s life experiences. Locke said, “I
think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.”
Modern genetics disproves the idea that individuals come into the world as blank slates. Instead, we each have a unique genetic blueprint. As noted on
microworld.org, “Almost every cell in your body contains DNA and all the information needed to make you what you are, from the way you look to which
hand you write with.” As for Wordsworth’s idea that children possess an inextinguishable primal sympathy with Nature, even if so, the question
remains as to how, and why, biology, psychology, aging and socialization conspire to smother this primal sympathy as part of the growth process in most
people. Must socialization conflict with compassion for animals?
Let us note that compassion for animals as individuals is not synonymous with primal sympathy with Nature. Wordsworth’s own passion for Nature had
more to do with waterfalls and woods than with animals per se, and being a Nature enthusiast can involve treating animals badly. Worship of animal Spirits
and concern for animal Species can coexist with callousness toward individual animals, even disdain for a “mere” bird or a single squirrel.
4-H crushes compassion for animals
Writing in the anthology Sister Species: Women, Animals, and Social Justice, farmed animal transport and slaughterhouse investigator, Twyla
Francois, describes her experience growing up in a small, religious farming community in Manitoba, Canada. In rural Canada, she writes, almost all students
are enrolled in the 4-H – Head, Heart, Hands, and Health – program, where they learn to suppress their feelings of compassion for animals. She
recalls how her friend who unknowingly was raising her beloved calf to be auctioned for slaughter, wept as the calf was loaded onto the trailer to be taken
away and killed. Immediately, the organizer handed her a check for $1,000. “To my surprise,” Twyla writes, “her tears were quickly
replaced with thoughts of how she would spend the money.”
What this episode shows is complicity between the “child” and the elements of adult callousness – not just between Twyla’s friend
and the auction organizer, but within the girl herself. The elements of socialization include desires, satisfactions and compensations that compete with
and often overwhelm empathy and compassion, not only for animals but for anyone. Socialization is not simply an outside force bearing down on innocent
children. Like all animals who live in herds and flocks, humans have evolved to be socialized in order to live within their own group.
Being a child vs. being socialized
In “At First Blush,” in the December 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard describes a childhood
episode in which he was shamed by his teacher in front of the class. He goes on to consider what it means to be a child:
To be a child is to be within yourself, inside your thoughts and feelings. To be a child is to be free of the perceptions of others. To be a child is also
always, in a certain sense, to be inconsiderate. Your own needs, your own hunger, your own thirst, your own joy, your own anger – these direct
everything you do. To grow up is to learn to show consideration, to know who you are in the company of others, and to act in relation to them, not only to
yourself. Shame is our way of regulating this relation. Shame is the presence of the gaze of others within ourselves. This is what I experienced back then,
in the classroom.
Knausgaard discusses the role of shaming – bullying – in socialization. Bullying isn’t so much learned behavior as it is instinctual.
Children will bully a deviant without any help from adults. This “dark side of childhood,” while cruel and pitiless toward the victim, acts as
a social correction. Without bullying, he says, there would be no rules or sense of belonging to a community – “just individuals who would each
be forced to create and maintain their own separate worlds.” The cost and benefit of being part of a community is that the “deviant” (the
individual or that part of the individual that differs) has to be sacrificed. “It is the price we have to pay to be more than one,” he says.
Ethical deviance and socialization
Where Did Our Compassion Go? CCNY, Dec. 2, 2014
Left to right: Chris Parucci, Bill Crain, Karen Davis, Brian Shapiro, Nancy Cardwell, Joyce Friedman, Daisy Dominguez
Psyche and socialization are complicated, but let us assume that there is a compassionate “child” – a primal sympathy for animals in most
of us. One of the saddest ironies in life, I believe, is that there are adults in every community who love and empathize with animals, only they
don’t know that there are others among them who feel the same way, because everyone keeps quiet about it. Fear of ridicule and rejection, isolation
and ostracism, enables people to bully one another into silence and submission. Ethical deviance challenges the tyranny of custom and blind compliance.
Ethical deviance is the element in society that prevents socialization from becoming sclerotic. The ethical deviant opens the window a crack to let in
fresh air, fresh ideas and perceptions. The ethical deviant may be thought of as the “child” within a society who, lucky for that society, will
not grow up to be just another replica. The ethical deviant reassures people whose sensibilities have not gone totally underground or been beaten to death
that they are not “crazy” for caring about a chicken. The ethical deviant refuses to be bullied into becoming a slave or a clone in order to
belong. The ethical deviant provides a social service.
In a very valuable sense, then, the “child” aka ethical deviant is a grownup. In his Ode on Intimations of Immortality,
Wordsworth contrasts his instinctual, unreflecting passion for Nature as a child with the “years that bring the philosophic mind.” The ethical
deviant’s primal sympathy with and insight into the life of things matures to become the conscious sensibility, awareness and purposefulness of the
adult. This person is the poet, the peacemaker, the social justice activist, the animal rights advocate – the “outsider” who keeps the
consciousness and conscience of society alive and growing.
The struggle between conscience and callousness isn’t just between the self “in here” and society “out there”; the struggle
takes place among conflicting impulses within our nature in response to situations we find or put ourselves in. Running a sanctuary for chickens, I can
tell you that whereas I like mice and raccoons ontologically, I am not fond of them situationally. There is an ethical struggle among competing forces,
feelings and obligations even within a sanctuary and a sanctuary provider. For some people it may be that being or becoming vegan changes them to feel more
peaceful inside, but as I once wrote, this hasn’t been my experience. Rather:
Veganism has made me more conscious of behavior patterns that are not consistent with my adherence to philosophic veganism. Being vegan has not made my
personality more peaceful, as by some sort of physiological or mystical transformation or holistic purification; however, it has made me intellectually
more aware of my feelings and behavior and less able to rationalize and do certain things that I might otherwise overlook.
I’m concluding this presentation with the Introduction I wrote to a book for children that dramatizes issues that are raised here. An important point
is that we must never take for granted that people “over 25” are unreachable, unteachable, or dispensable in our quest to make compassion for
animals part of the socialization process. Not only is this assumption wrong, but children who are surrounded by adults who don’t support their
compassionate feelings suffer in lonely isolation and confusion and will often turn against themselves, and against animals, violently for having feelings
that no one they looked up to when they were little seemed to share or understand. Our best hope for the future isn’t five-year-olds. Our best hope
is five-year-olds supported by adults who have nurtured their own primal sympathies to maturity.
A Boy, A Chicken & the Lion of Judah:
How Ari Became a Vegetarian
By Roberta Kalechofsky
Micah Publications, Inc. 2012
INTRODUCTION to the New Edition by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns
Ari, who is nine years old, has a secret he’s afraid to tell anyone. He doesn’t even understand it very well himself yet. It’s a feeling
inside of him, a “secret misery.” He lives in the Negev desert, in Israel, with his parents who are staunch environmentalists. They participate
in the Green movement to save the earth – the land, air, water, flowers, trees and wild creatures – from pollution and destruction. One of
their big projects is preventing a huge radio station from being built in the path of the migration of millions of birds – storks, pelicans, eagles,
kestrels, and raptors in flights so spectacular that people from all over the world come to see them.
Ari shares his parents’ love for the wild birds so much that he decides to create A Big Book of Birds for his school project. But it
isn’t just the wild birds who inspire him. Ari has a pet hen, a chicken he loves called Tk Tk, who is named for the contented clucking sounds she
makes that endear her to him and his family. And then there are those other birds – the ones he’s seen that haunt him like a dirty secret in
the desert and fester like a sore in his spirit. These are the chickens and geese who are caged in warehouse “barns” without sunlight or fresh
air, for their flesh and eggs. The eyes of these birds express misery and madness.
Ari seeks to understand the baffling mystery of the different “classes” of birds – the birds of the air the environmentalists care about,
his affectionate pet hen Tk Tk, and the tormented hens and geese in the cages that no one seems to care about at all. His mother, Ima, who is usually open
to her son’s inquiries, disappoints him this time. She evades his questions, just as Joseph the chicken caretaker does, causing Ari to puzzle
unhappily, but more and more thoughtfully, over “why his parents felt so strongly about the birds of the air and did not seem to care at all about
the chickens in the cages.” He wonders why his parents are so passionate about other ethical and environmental concerns, but indifferent, even
hostile, to this one.
Though Ari feels anxious and lonely with his thoughts, his quandary relates to another secret that he broods over. Ari does not like meat. He does not want
to eat the meat that everyone else enjoys, takes for granted and insists is necessary for health and strength.
He is bullied at school for throwing away his chicken sandwiches; he’s bedeviled by his Grandma Ellie who taunts him and buys him steak against his
will. She is not bothered by the flesh of a once living creature skewered on her dinner plate, but watching Ari wash the dead body – the
“meat” – before he will eat it makes her “sick.”
Ari is alone with his feelings, but in his quest for understanding, he discovers that not all grownups are the same, and that even those in positions of
authority and accomplishment have secrets both hidden and revealed that are not unlike the secret underground water in the desert that was once an ocean
with the power still to appear in surprising forms that refresh and make life flourish.
A Boy, A Chicken & the Lion of Judah
is the story of nine-year-old Ari’s quest for moral sense and self-determination in a family, in a community, that both encourages and discourages
his project of becoming his own person. Biblically, he is situated in a region of the earth where “revelations have taken place,” and he knows
that “freedom and redemption were first pronounced here.” Ari lives at a time – our time – when the fate of the earth and all of
its inhabitants are affected as never before by human activity and human attitudes. Even as people claim to care deeply about our planet and the necessity
of “protecting species,” we lock up billions of innocent birds and other creatures in tombs of living death that torture them and desecrate the
environment, merely to indulge our appetites. While many might wish to believe that ceasing this merciless cruelty to animals has nothing to do with saving
the earth, let alone our own souls, Ari’s experience offers a different, more challenging insight.
A Boy, A Chicken & The Lion of Judah: How Ari Became a Vegetarian
is available from United Poultry Concerns for $10 including shipping. To order this and other fine books for children, please visit our Educational Materials for Children webpage at: