I remember one morning standing beside a very ‘with-it’ vice-principal as he greeted teenagers coming through the front door of a secondary school – eager to get in before the bell rang – well most of them. Fresh out of college, I was new to the teaching game: eager to win both him and my students over. Part of my teaching role was working with small groups: students who were at risk of leaving school early and those who needed additional academic supports. On this particular morning, he sent three of my students home, before they even crossed the threshold. I quickly forgot my place as I protested and argued their case. I told him we should be happy they made it to school in the first place and sending them away meant they could get into all sorts of trouble. These were some of the boys I was working hard with to get them to stay in education. His reason for sending them home: they were wearing runners and not the required black shoes. When I had finished arguing, he politely walked away, after he left me with this line: ‘Catriona, if we can’t get them to respect the small rules, how will they ever master the bigger life ones.’ I guess his reasoning was if the boys started wearing their own choice of uniform, they were free to make other choices, not suitable for a school environment. So, what has this story got to do with animal rescue? Everything.
This week thousands of us watched with horror and disbelief as a shetland pony collapsed as she/he tried to pull his owners up a hill. This tiny pony was nearly ‘home’ but his journey to there was exhausting and brutal. Every bone in his body aching; his heart slowing down. We screamed at our screens as did the brave woman who videoed this pony ‘giving up’. Her emotional upset and her well-placed anger probably over-rided her fear – for her and her baby in the car. Rocks and abuse were thrown at her. Why? For caring. When their much valued cart was unhooked with ease from the pony, one of the young men then thought of the defeated animal on the ground, and he attempted to pull her up, with another man pulling her by her tail. She/He was choosing death over returning home with them. The lady’s question is one we are haunted by: HOW CAN YOU DO THIS? The answer is: they can – despite all the legislation in place, despite all the bodies named in the animal welfare legislation to intervene in cases of cruelty . These owners know they can get away with it. They place a higher value on their cart than they do their pony. Why wouldn’t they? Afterall, you can get a pony for a packet of cigarettes today. Not having facilities does not come into horse ownership for these people. Their right to own is enough.
Do you think this pony was chipped (legal requirement)? Do you think she or he was returning to land registered with an equine number? (legal requirement). Do you think this pony’s five freedoms is guaranteed? (which the animal welfare legislation is based on and influenced by).
Yes, this week even those of you who think very little about animal rescue in your day to day life have been affected by this emotive scene. This pony represents the suffering of many many more – in every town and in every city in this country. They are mostly ‘illegally held horses’ and they are being abused in broad day light as cars and walkers pass them by. They are tied to trees with no access to food or water. They are standing on concrete. They are being driven beyond their limits without food in their belly or without being given even a bucket of water. They are beaten when they try get away. They die in their efforts to cross roads to get to grass. They are left in vast swamp areas to run in herds where mares are covered by stallions twice their size. They are dying giving birth. They are Ireland’s forgotten horses. Intentionally forgotten by those who are paid not to.
You see if we continue to tolerate this, we are giving a continual free pass to law-breakers and animal abusers. There is a worrying breakdown of lawfulness and society norms in Ireland. In fact if you tolerate this , your children could be next. Some already have been. As a counsellor, I have worked with many children who have been beaten up – only to be told, to let it go or else ‘you will bring trouble on your family for the rest of your lives’. There is no reason good enough to turn a blind eye to criminality or abuse. Nobody should be beyond the law. Can anybody give a good reason why that should be so when the results of ‘letting it go’ is creating the perfect environment for criminals, for abuse – even death.
Throughout the country there are rescuers who work alone and there are rescues made up of teams of like-minded animal activists who are suffering from compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue describes ‘the overall experience of emotional and physical fatigue that people who care for others experience due to chronic use of empathy’. Also known as ‘vicarious trauma’ it increases when a carer sees that the situation is not improving. In Ireland, animal welfare is in crisis. Rescuers constantly work in challenging situations where animals present often with serious injuries and trauma. The chances of burnout in these situations are a real possibility. It is often impossible for rescuers to put into place ‘self-care’ when they are caring for so many animals and when the very people paid to care and intervene, are not consistently doing it. Rescuers must have a formidable resilience to keep going despite all these symptoms of being a rescuer. They not only rescue animals from terrible situations, they are often leaving these situations fearing for their lives and well-being as a result. It is critical we see the state of animal welfare through their eyes – otherwise we are missing the extent of the problem and their daily dilemmas.
Rescuers and their supporters possibly make up more than a million people in the Island of Ireland. So, why isn’t the government taking this group of people seriously? Why do they lack the same credibility as all the other lobby groups in this country that have political clout. Why aren’t they listened to and taken seriously as much as the farmers, the vintners, or the racing industry? We too are tax-payers and voters!
Will that change? I believe it is about to. I believe if people transfer their ‘keyboard energy’ into marches, protests, meetings, volunteering – only than will animal welfare advocates, activists, and rescuers become a unified force to be reckoned with.
As I write this I am thinking of A Pony Called Whisper (named by Deirdre) in Clonmel. I am thinking what his/her little body endured that day before he/she fell to the ground. I am thinking of all the times I have emailed the Department of Agriculture about horses at risk; I am thinking of all the calls to my local Garda Station for help. Let me tell you, in the last 5 years, I have never witnessed an appropriate intervention by them acting alone. I have been met with silence, with token visits and even a letter from the regional office telling me I am part of the problem. But I know this, the majority of horses I feed or have taken into my care would be dead today if I or another rescue did not intervene. Dead.
Whisper reminds me of Summer, a pony I fed and loved dearly in Ennis. After his first injuries, I made him up a stable in a shed that had weights. I filled it with straw and put in his buckets. In that shed was a small cart – bought just for him. I dreaded and welcomed everyday he got better. Yes, I felt terrible conflicting emotions all at once. The cart was waiting for him to be better and I dreaded would he be able for it. Summer never got to pull that cart. He will never pull a cart. His tragic death stole him from the life he should have had far away from there, but it saved him too. I know . . . nothing makes any sense in the rescue world.
So, back to the black shoes. It wasn’t the next day or the day after that, but those boys eventually turned up for school with their black shoes on. And if they could not afford them, they were lent to them. Yes, this principal built up a collection of them. Because whilst he adopted a zero tolerance approach, he had the empathy to know, that some homes could not afford the price of a new pair of black shoes. He still put something in place for these cases, once a student showed a genuine interest in coming to school. He used his position, his wisdom and his emotional intelligence to bring about change. Real change!
Whisper and his plight to make it up that steep hill should push us on now even more. Whisper should make us ROAR until we are heard and until the law is enforced. And when people break the law, they should receive the appropriate sentences in the courtroom. How hard is that? Are we asking too much for people to use their professional position to bring about change? I don’t think so.
This week on FaceBook, I poured my heart out, and it really helped me to do so. Since Summer’s death, a part of me was broken, and day after day, I felt less able to cope. When we lose, it is as if that one loss, joins onto all the others, and we feel them all at once, and when we feel guilt, it is compounded by all the other times we could have done things differently. And as you know, sometimes when it rains, it pours, and other things happened (one after the other) that were upsetting. But let me tell you about the rescue world, rescuers may be divided on many issues, but when a rescuer falls, there are many rescue hands reaching out to lift you up! Yes, when it rains, it feels like it will never stop, but there is a protective rescue umbrella you can step under, until you can face it again.
Right now, there are rescuers with their heads in their hands and they are crying from stress and exhaustion; there are rescuers travelling from one end of the country to the other to do a home check or to rehome and they are wondering have they enough diesel to make it home after paying off a huge vet bill, and there are rescuers debating will they have to steal an animal to save his life! How could the minister and relevant authorities let it get to this stage when it is volunteers picking up the pieces of a society falling apart. Without them, everyday ordinary people would be witnessing more ponies just like Whisper struggling or dead along our roads and in our towns – that is something you can be sure of.
And for all my rescue friends . . . when the world says, ‘give up’ – hope whispers, ‘try one more time’. x
PLEASE JOIN ACTION FOR ANIMAL WELFARE IRELAND AND SUPPORT THEIR MARCH FOR CHANGE IN OCTOBER