Demons or Deities?

At the end of 2021, Gentle World volunteers put on our animal rescue hats once again. Quite unexpectedly, a little dog had come to us. She was starving and exhausted after braving the elements to escape an abusive situation.

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"We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form."

William Inge (English Clergyman, 1860 - 1954)

As grim and disheartening as it may be, the quote above is one that I find myself returning to again and again. I believe it describes perfectly the tragedy of the tormented relationship between human animals and the rest of animal kind.

Perhaps what makes Inge’s assessment at once unnerving and enlightening is the awareness that while it may be painfully accurate, the failure it describes is altogether within our capacity to rectify. Undoubtedly, we humans move through this world with faculties that give us tremendous power over the other beings with whom we share this planet. But it is through our own devices that we have become a force of destruction. While lions and tigers are also feared throughout their domains due to their unavoidable appetite for blood, the havoc wrought by us is not fueled by innate ferocity. Unlike the prey of sharks or alligators, our victims are not objects of our predatory instincts, but of our indifference to the anguish of our fellow animals. 

By contrast, as can easily be seen by those who love and care for nonhumans in their homes, and those who are drawn to various ‘animal causes’ such as the rehabilitation of the injured, the orphaned, and the endangered, our relationship with other animals can just as easily be one of tenderness, one of care and concern, and one that makes us so critical to their survival that “the rest of the animal creation” could credibly perceive of us as gods instead. 

In fact, there’s another passage that keeps returning to my mind, one I cannot seem to locate. If anyone reading knows the poem of which I’m thinking, please send it my way. In my memory, the poet describes how it feels to be on the receiving end of a dog’s gaze when filled with adoration for the person who cares for him: 

“I would swear he thinks that I am God.” 

A beautiful golden dob looks up with love in his eyes
Paulius Dragunas / Unsplash

When we change our role from that of predator to that of protector, we have the opportunity to see in quite a different light these powers with which we have been endowed. 

We can harm, but we can also heal. 
We can break, but we can mend. 
We can hurt, and we can help. 

Over the years, Gentle Worlders have participated in more animal rescues than we will ever be able to share with our readers (though we do have hopes and plans to put some of them into writing.) 

At different times over the decades, Gentle World members have:

Rehabilitated a free-living fawn with a broken leg
Repaired with fiberglass the cracked shell of a turtle who had been crushed by a car
Resuscitated a suffocating fish by forcing water back and forth through his gills
Removed a frog from a snake’s mouth and then stitched up his lacerated skin

To those fellow earthlings, injured beyond their ability to save themselves, I wonder how it might have felt to have been recovered from certain death by these two-legged creatures who towered over them like giants: Shrewd, dextrous beings vested with all the power to annihilate them who chose instead to pull them back from the precipice and set them back in the land of the living. In the moment they realized they were no longer facing death but had been returned to life, mustn’t their rescuers have appeared to them to be miracle workers? Angels, perhaps… or even gods?

At the very end of 2021, Gentle World volunteers put on our animal rescue hats once again when we found ourselves in a foster situation for which we were ill-prepared.

Quite unexpectedly, a little dog had come to us.

She was starving and exhausted after braving the elements to escape an abusive situation, and when she collapsed in relief inside one of the Gentle World cabins, she found herself on what was probably the first soft bed she’d ever experienced. It was just something we had thrown together for her out of a pile of old foams covered with a raggedy sheet. But she crawled up onto it like she had found the Promised Land. 

Her little body was skeletal. The patches on her elbows suggested she had been sleeping against concrete. Her nails were so long they had begun to grow backwards into her pads. One vet described her as the most emaciated dog she had ever seen, and another concluded that she must not have eaten in four weeks. 

In recognition of what she had been seeking when she broke free, we called her Haven. 

Whenever we’ve cared for animals who have had the bad fortune of ending up on the receiving end of human heartlessness, I can’t help but contemplate how it all must appear through their eyes, to be rescued and tended to by beings of the same species as the individuals who subjected them to such abuse in the first place. And I can’t help but wonder how they must feel, after experiencing the human power to hurt, to then experience the human power to help.

Whenever we walked through the door to Haven’s little room, delivering food, and water, and treats, to her it must have seemed like magic. After a couple of days of sleeping off her exhaustion, she started to stand up at the window as she anticipated our approach, the little nub of her chopped-off tail wagging furiously. We brought her a crate that made her feel safe, and we delivered to her blankets, jackets, and toys donated by kind and caring neighbors and friends. We freshened up her bed, cleaned up after her accidents when she was sick, and administered her medicine.

We did everything we could to provide her with the care that she needed in the condition that she was in. But given that she had certain needs that we couldn’t fulfill, we were hugely relieved when a more suitable foster situation opened up for her (in the home of a vet’s assistant, no less!) where we were assured she would be cherished and pampered until she’s able to be adopted. And since the sad but hopeful morning when she was picked up to be taken to her next place of refuge, we have received reports that she continues to gain weight and recover her health.  

Despite our many and varied human failings, with Haven—that little bundle of needs—we had the opportunity to step out of our everyday selves, and experience the joy of providing for her the miracle that she desperately needed. This did not require any particularly heroic acts on our part. We simply gave her safety, shelter, water, comfort, and sustenance for her malnourished body. We transported her to receive medical care, and brought her to the vet who freed her toes from their painful, ingrown nails, and allowed her the relief of feeling her pads pressing firmly into the grass. 

We recognized her goodness, and her beauty. We treated her gently, showed her kindness, and gave her a chance to feel loved.

One morning, when the sun was streaming through the window of her cabin, I sat down with her and we enjoyed the warmth together. I exhaled deeply as I rested my hands on her side: little Haven, whose only experience of humanity prior to this was our inhumanity, whose only experience of my species was to learn that we are not to be trusted. With the light of the sun shining on us, warming and relaxing our bodies and bringing us both a little respite and calm in the midst of the whirlwind that those weeks had been, she moved closer and pressed her body against mine. 

And just for a moment, when that little face turned to me and looked into my eyes, I could have sworn she might just have thought that I was God.

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