Sunday, March 15, 2009

"I don't know where you get it from"

My mother calls, as she usually does on weekend mornings, to catch up on the banalities of our days. As part of our usual ritual, she asks me if I'm reading anything, as we're both pretty big readers. I tell her I'm knee-deep in Nim Chimpsky, knowing as soon as I say it how the conversation will go from here.

"What's that about?" she asks. I take a deep breath before I give the barest of synopses about the subject matter, a biography of a chimp used in sign-language studies in the 70's.

"I don't know where you get it from, all that animal-stuff. You sure didn't get it from me," she replies. She continues to extol for the next several minutes on how she simply doesn't understand how I turned out the way I did, as it relates to my feelings about animals and their well being.

She's right, but only partly. Certainly as I was growing up my family viewpoint about pets and animals was substantially different than the edicts I live by as an adult. We had pets --- many, many pets when I was young. But the dogs remained forever outside, regardless of weather, age or health. We had cats, too many to name. While they were all spayed or neutered, they were fed the almost-cheapest food at the grocery store, allowed to roam fairly freely and should one get injured or ill it was almost certainly a death sentence, as my family felt it was ridiculous to spend money on treatment when there were reams of other animals available for replacement. Taking animals to the pound who "didn't work out" was also acceptable, for the same reason.

So when she looks at me and sees who I am, when it comes to pets and animals, she sees someone utterly unrelated to how she raised me. I see something else. I see myself as someone who is an absolute product of my environment. Back then, I was young, too young to have much say in the events of the household. I tried, sometimes to the point where I was punished for not knowing when to declare the battle lost, but I made little impact on their world. It was not beyond me to make an impact on mine. I read everything I could find about animals --- companion animals, farm animals, research animals --- animal training, animal behavior, physiology, and the relationship humans have with animals of all stripes. And I became the person I am, the one she can't quite reach when it comes to matters concerning fur and feathers.

I don't blame her for it, nor do I think it bothers me as much as it does her. There are so few people who share my life who get how deep it all goes, and fewer still who wish to venture even part of the way down the path with me, into the shadowy places that cause you to question the very nature of humanity.

People hear me talk of small things and assign the "animal lover" badge to me, then move on, having neatly boxed me into a label. I know they don't get it. How can they? Most of the time I feel like a walking freak show, the animal weirdo who spends an awful lot of energy, time and money trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. It makes me awkward. It makes me wish I could turn it off, the way people change the channel on the television when they've had their fill of a particular program. But I can't. I can no sooner change the passion I have for animals and their well being than I can change the color of my eyes. I can only hope that along the way I maybe touch a person or two, and a person or two can touch me back.

And when we do, we won't have to ask "where we got it from", because we'll already know.

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