An Apostle of Pity and Tenderness

by Alison Banville

The word ‘vermin’ is defined in the dictionary thus:  ‘Various small animals or insects that are destructive, annoying, or injurious to health. Animals that prey on game, such as foxes or weasels. A person considered loathsome or highly offensive.’

Perhaps you noticed something behind the stark words of that definition? Something which, if you were looking, would alert you to a deep truth about our culture’s relationship with animals and the natural world. It is the soulless anthropocentrism infusing every syllable, the monumental arrogance that assumes the right to demonise any other earth inhabitant which happens to displease the human species. Because, of course, that species is able to dominate and subdue all other life through its wiles, and so it must, by the principle of ‘might is right’ have all its needs ‘most fastidiously catered to’. (J. Howard Moore). And so, as someone very wise once said, the term ‘vermin’ is applied to any creature that ‘interferes with either our pleasure or our profit’.

The glaring injustice upon which this warped principle is constructed is obvious, and yet, how completely is it accepted by the majority of people. How unquestioningly is it embraced and how enthusiastically acted upon.  Notice the relish with which any life-form labelled ‘vermin’ is persecuted – rats, foxes, grey squirrels – with the persecution often wrapped up in a crusading self-righteousness, as though it’s about ridding the world of an evil that would otherwise undermine everything good and wholesome in the fabric of our lives.

Such unconsciousness is dangerous on many levels: not only is it unhealthy to absorb any sort of propaganda mindlessly like an easily programmed automaton, but to assert a value system that assumes superiority on the basis of a superior ability to oppress the weak and defenceless is to set up a fundamental opposition to the web of life as it actually exists, so that, finally, the web that sustains all life unravels, taking the ‘superior’ species with it. For all life is vitally interconnected and, as we are finding out with the disappearance of bees, (‘colony collapse disorder’ in which industrial chemicals used in farming are the number one suspect) if these creatures were to die off, human beings would have but a few short years left on the planet.

Our arrogance creates an imperative for us to separate ourselves off from ‘lower’ life forms, but that gulf is like the grave a murderer digs for his victim – only to fall in himself. Separation has the consequence of cutting off our empathy so that the suffering of individuals is unfelt because the victim is re-characterised as the perpetrator and is ‘guilty as charged’.  No longer does it matter that every squirrel or fox or rat is a highly sensitive being whose own life is as full of meaning for each of them as ours is to each of us. They are simply ‘pests’, and no more thinking need be done.

When we fail to see this individual capacity for sentience, we suffer from what Einstein described as ‘an optical delusion of the consciousness’ which becomes, ‘a kind of prison for us’, so that, ‘our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.’

We are the ultimate losers when we blind ourselves to the depth of our connection with other life and the depth of their experience. We make the gross error of judging their lives by what they are worth to US, rather than what they are worth to THEM. What poverty of mind and heart!  Our only hope is to recognise our kinship with them and extend our empathy to them. If we come to know them, then we will reject the stupidity of propaganda in the service of our most selfish wants and free ourselves from the prison Einstein so lamented we languish in.

Whenever someone breaks out of this prison it is a moment of beauty and joy! One W.J. Stillman made his own escape with the help of a baby squirrel he rescued:

‘The dear little creature had been to me not merely a pet to amuse my vacant hours..but he had been as a door open into the world of God’s ‘lesser’ creatures, an apostle of pity and tenderness for all living things, and his memory stands on the eternal threshold, nodding and beckoning to me to enter in and make part of the creation I had ignored until he taught it to me, so that while life lasts I can no longer idly inflict pain upon the least of God’s creatures.’

When we can see our fellow earth creatures in such a way we know then the word ‘vermin’ for what it really is – ‘a brazen lie!’, one that diminishes us all in mind and spirit. Therefore we should be grateful for any opportunity to meet one of the persecuted races, and with that in mind we are very happy to bring you Andrew Tyler, director of Animal Aid, with his heartfelt tribute to Philip, the pigeon he and his wife rescued. Read on then, and remember……..

Philip the Pigeon by Andrew Tyler Feb 2012

Philip The PigeonThe little chap in the photograph is Philip the pigeon, who lived with my wife Sara and me for nearly six years. An old lady named Phyllis found him wandering around Tonbridge in June 2006. His right wing, which drooped slightly, wouldn’t carry him off the ground, although there were no signs of it having been broken.

Philip lived in the scullery part of our kitchen overlooking our little courtyard garden. On a shelf three feet off the ground, he had a couple of adjoining rooms made from cardboard boxes, each one furnished with a couple of logs on which to perch, and a multi-layered carpet of newspapers that was kept clean by removing sheets (around five times a day) as they got dirty.

At first, Philip was too fearful of going into the garden, as were we on his behalf. Neighbourhood cats are always on the prowl for visiting birds. And there are plenty of such visitors given all the ailing pigeons and doves my wife has restored over the years and who then often come back to see what is on offer. We saw one of these birds snatched and carried off by a cat.

Philip in the gardenAnd so, initially, we allowed Philip access to the garden only for so long as he was caged and ‘safe’. But the caging just made him feel vulnerable – and, of course, that isn’t freedom. And so we let him wander freely, though pretty constantly monitored his progress.

Philip had plenty of visitors. He tried to woo some of the girl pigeons, while driving off troublesome males. Others he made friends with. He had a little box at the foot of his scullery area, and when he climbed on the log within that, we knew he wanted to be lifted back on to his shelf. And he would tell us, at dusk, when he was ready for bed, by pacing back and forth on top of his house. Each night, we covered his area with a ‘black-out’ blanket. When the mood took him he’d wander about the kitchen or visit us in the sitting room, parking himself on a log in a basket facing the couch, untroubled by our five dogs.

He felt at home with us but remained wild, never quite trusting us and not wanting to be handled. I said to him many times, ‘I wish you’d let me pick you up and give you a big kiss’. Be careful what you wish for. On February 1, he had a stroke and dragged himself unseen behind a water butt. We found him within minutes but his legs were already gone. He couldn’t walk. We thought, at first, a cat had got him or that a gust of wind had dashed him against a wall or a door. But he was unmarked. He had another stroke two days later and died in his bed. Shortly before he went, my wife had held and stroked him in an attempt to restore movement, and then I did the same for 10 minutes short of two hours. We knew him well enough to recognise that he took great pleasure from all the attention we paid him in his last hours. How bitterly ironic that, at the very last, he finally worked out that we could be trusted… and I got to hold him.
PhilipPhilip and all the others like him are the answer to those who regard pigeons as vermin – something to chase, spit at, shoot and poison, because they dare to try to live amongst us. Next time you see someone being hostile to a pigeon or hear of council plans for a mass slaughter, please speak up on their behalf. Charismatic animals such as monkeys, dogs, badgers and elephants have mainstream appeal. When persecuted, they need and should receive our help. But even more in need are the humble, ‘contemptible’ ones: the pigeons, mice and rats. RIP Philip.

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