Friday, October 23, 2009

African animals--the domestic kind

When thinking of coming to Africa, I knew I needed to prepare myself to see wrenching, heartbreaking things. I knew I would see heart-wrenching things in people and in animals.

In study of human nature, I’ve learned that humans must deal with matters of survival before they can think about others or anything, really, outside of themselves. For example, if I’m trying to haul water and build fires so I can eat and drink, I can’t concern myself where an empty tin can ends up.

And my expectations have proved true: I’ve seen wrenching, wrenching things. And as native South Africans living in rural areas survive with basic survival, I’ve seen that they can’t really concern themselves with other things.

And these other things that native South Africans, living in rural areas, can’t concern themselves with (because they are too busy with trying to survive) are those things that do concern me, because I am an American who doesn’t have to struggle to survive. Two things in particular that concern me are the environment and the care of animals.

I’ll speak more to the environment later—and at length, I’m sure. And please know too, that my concern number one is for the people of South Africa. For now, I’d like to speak to the care of animals.

Let me qualify the following with the fact that when I was reading meters for LG&E, there were days I could come home and bawl for hours about the treatment of dogs I witnessed from the homes I visited on my job. The cruelty and neglect, in many cases, was beyond my comprehension. I could not then, or now, see how people can subject dependent creatures to such horrible living conditions, and feel especially tender around the suffering of animals “kept” by human beings.

Native South Africans, living in rural areas, depend upon domestic animals for their survival. Many, many native South African families have domestic animals in their care. These animals usually consist of cattle, chickens, donkeys/burros, goats, sheep, and pigs. Depending on the “wealth” of the family, they might have several kinds of domestic animals in their care.

Often in South Africa, groups of large domestic animals (cows, donkeys/burros) are allowed to roam about at will. What I have observed, and I find quite troubling, is that often times, especially for the donkeys/burros (who are famously stubborn), their front legs are chained together in a way that severely limits their mobility: one front leg is bound to the other with 3-4’ of chain or rope. I feel certain this limitation is imposed in order contain and/or retrieve the animal easier, but is heartbreaking to watch such a large animal crippled in such a way.

It’s also alarming to see large animals, especially cattle, lying dead on the side of the road having obviously been hit by a car.

These free-roaming, (well, free in that they can go wherever they’d like) animals are herded back home with the smack of a stick or the prod of a rock thrown into their hides. Because these animals don’t fare well at the hands of their handlers, most domestic animals here are afraid of people and will not allow my approach. (Which is a good thing, because if I were allowed to approach a suffering animal, I’d likely attach myself to it in a way that I’d try to care for it and worry about it. And I’ve been warned about becoming attached to animals in Africa.)

In the States, I would sometimes see a dog chained in such a way that he could barely move; so limited would the animal be that I wondered how it could sit, let alone lie down, get water, or poo. It’s heartbreaking to look into the eyes of a creature “living” in this way. I know of a cow that is restrained here in Africa in that way.

Every morning a herd of goats comes to the college campus to browse. How many US colleges can claim that distinction?

A city girl, or at least a girl of the suburbs, I’m not used to the ways of domestic animals. When I lived with my host family during training, I was alarmed at the crowing of roosters off and on throughout the day. (I’m so used to the sounds now that I don’t even notice them.)

I’ve not lived near goats and didn’t realize how loud their calls could be: especially the calls of baby goats.

Yesterday morning, I was distracted by the sound of a baby goat obviously in distress. It sounded very much like a small child having a temper tantrum, but it was much more urgent. I thought to myself, “Will someone please quiet that child?”

I looked out the window and watched the herd run up (they run in the morning; I think they must be hungry) and saw most of the goats run past but clearly a young one was running behind.

The main group of the goats disappeared around the corner of the dormitory to go into a gated area where grass grows. The screaming little one finally caught up I felt relieved that he would find his family. My relief was short lived though, because the little goat tripped onto the pavement parking lot and stood looking off into the wrong direction. My heart fell a bit, because I thought, “Oh no, there must be something wrong with it.”

The little goat stayed in the parking lot, crying and crying for its mother, who was with the rest of the herd.

I left for work few minutes later and saw that the little distressed goat was still at it, crying for its mother, and had made it at least to the fence with the gate. However, his little head was caught between the bars and he stood there, unable to move forward, and crying all the while.

As I approached him, my fear was confirmed: there was something wrong with him. H was certainly blind because his little eyes were cloudy and white.

Now I knew that this little guy probably wouldn’t allow me to approach, and I wasn’t about to try to pick him up, but I did approach him with my best, very gentle “Come here little puppy” voice.

I was surprised that he responded and did seem comforted with my voice and it worked well enough that I maneuvered this little guy out of the fence, through the gate, and back with his herd.

I knew at once that this little guy didn’t have a chance and his situation was proving, right before my eyes, the notion of “survival of the fittest.”

So I went about my way, had a good cry, and tried to console myself with the fact that this was an example of God having the earthly experience of a baby goat’s suffering. (One way I soothe myself it to imagine that God, or “that which we think of as God” resides in every living (and even not living) thing on earth with the goal of experiencing everything that we do).

Later that day, on returning home, I saw a dispersed herd of goats nearby my dorm and a little one off beside himself. I wondered if it was him again, this little blind one. It was, and when I tried to herd him back to his mother (she was calling for him) he seemed disinterested, wasn’t bawling, and not motivated to go to his mother.

I don’t think he’ll make it much longer and somewhat hope that his end comes soon, as it is heart-wrenching to watch him suffer.

Soon, Karen

PS. Peace Corps is in no way connected to or supportive or approving of what is written on this post.

PSS. The photo is not of the blind baby goat, but of one born when I was living with my host family during training.

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