Guest Blog: A Tale of Compassionate Transition and Unconditional Love

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The following post was written by a personal friend, Jim McFarlane, about how he came to see animals as more than food and as living, feeling, and integral parts of our lives. He lost a dear member of his family this week and each and every one of us that has ever loved or been loved by a dog will understand this. Dogs are our family and we are a part of theirs. I am not so sure we humans deserve what our canine companions give us considering how so many are horrifically treated both domestic and wild. 

A week or so ago, my friend asked me if I would consider writing a guest entry for his blog, with the topic being basically how I had been a life-long carnivore for almost 47 years but as of last December (2016), I finally made the commitment to transition to a meatless lifestyle. I agreed to write this and thanked him for the opportunity to do so, but admittedly, I was having difficulty getting started. For the last six months or so, I’d already fielded the usual questions about why I had “suddenly” become a vegetarian, as if anyone suddenly wakes up one day with such an epiphany, and so I didn’t necessarily want to waste my opportunity to tell my story here rehashing the same old fodder.

In fact, I would bet that my general story is similar to that of most people. Although I believe that I will eventually realize a general improvement in my overall health and wellbeing, my decision was more of an ethical decision than health-related. That’s not to say that I feel morally superior to my carnivorous brethren, or anyone else, for that matter, I can promise you that; well, people who are not trophy hunters or bull fighters, that is. Regardless, it has been my observation that most of us Veggies gradually transition from carnivorous to meatless lifestyles after finally allowing the scales to fall from our eyes, being open-minded enough to take in the shocking information that is readily available to us, and comprehending what horrors, tortures and abject cruelty are inflicted on the animal population on a daily basis, all in the name of full bellies and entertainment.

After reading articles and watching documentaries about how our various clothing and cosmetic products, such as lipsticks, perfumes, fur coats and fuzzy boots are made, all in the name of vanity; how our factory farm systems treat our cattle, poultry, and porcine friends, all in the name of (mostly overly) full tummies; and the unspeakable behavior displayed by humans as we utilize animals as mechanisms for our fleeting concepts of amusement, such as canned game farm “hunts,” bull “fights,” trophy hunts, and organized greyhound racing, to name a few, the idea of railing against such abhorrent activities on paper while continuing to eat meat seemed…well, disingenuous, to say the least. So, after “taking the plunge,” as it were, last year and going completely meatless, it has been surprisingly easy to stay “on the wagon,” and I’m happy I did it and hope many others will consider doing so as well.

All that was well and good, of course, and I’m sure most people who read this blog are sympathetic and well aware of, and probably even more knowledgeable about, such animal welfare issues, and would react affirmatively to any reiteration of such visceral and shameful incidents. However, my friend who owns this blog informs us of just such information on a regular basis, and does so better than I ever could. So, I still struggled with how I could properly describe my feelings on the importance of animal welfare. That is, until something occurred this weekend which slammed into me at 100mph. I hope my story won’t be too long and that you will stick with it until the end, as it is important to me and I would appreciate it very much if you did.

In 2008, we brought a German Shepherd/(Beagle? Retriever? Who knows?)-mix puppy into our family. His given name was Boogie Boy, he was about 6-8 weeks old, and he was a rescue dog. Of course, the very first thing we did when we were out of earshot of the nice lady who rescued him from a kill-shelter in Indiana was to promptly rename him JJ, after the then-Milwaukee Brewers shortstop JJ Hardy. JJ was as cute a puppy as you could imagine, with big floppy ears and that classic German Shepherd tan/black coloring. As he grew during the following year, he was so full of energy and became very aggressive, biting and generally not being very nice to our daughter, damaging our property, etc, to the point that I feared we may have to give JJ to a different family. I hated that idea with a passion because our daughter loved JJ so much; even though he was aggressive toward her, she is just that kind of wonderful, loving, kind soul. It seemed like he was just being playful, but it was too rough for humans, and if he couldn’t assimilate into our family and realize that we couldn’t play with him like other animals could, that would have to be the necessary outcome. After we did some research on the matter, we came to believe that the final thing that could possibly help us was obtaining another dog to serve as a companion to JJ and hopefully, that would save his spot in our family.

In 2009, almost exactly a year after finding JJ, we found a Dodge County animal shelter listing for an approximately 1.5-2yr-old black and white female German Shepherd, who was rescued after being found roaming the streets of Milwaukee for an unknown period of time. Her backstory wasn’t really known by the staff at the Dodge County shelter—even her name wasn’t known; they said they thought she looked like a “Sophia”—but it was clear she was extremely anxious, nervous, untrusting, etc. She would bark her fool head off whenever anyone even came close to her kennel in the shelter, and it seemed as though she definitely mistrusted males in general. It didn’t seem promising at first, but she was so beautiful, and of course our daughter was smitten with her (as was I, if I’m being honest), so we decided to at least meet with her at the shelter and say we tried.

The shelter’s policy is such that you complete an adoption questionnaire/application, and then meet with an adoption specialist who reviews your app and works with you to find the right animal for your individual situation. After that is squared away and both the family as well as the adoption advocate agree upon an appropriate animal to work with as well as the ground rules of adoption, the family and animal can meet a few times and get acquainted to see if they are a good match. For the first meeting, the prospective new family are to wait in a room and the dog is cautiously brought in to meet them and the shelter employee stands by, ready to remove the animal if the meeting proved overly upsetting to either party, or even potentially dangerous.

Well, nothing could have been further from the truth in our case—“Sophie,” as we eventually decided to call her, strutted into the room, sniffed us all, turned around once or twice, and plopped down on the floor in front of our daughter, comfortably panting/smiling and crossing her paws daintily in front of her as many large breed female dogs often do when they are obviously fully content in their surroundings and with the company they are currently keeping. And yes, even though she would spend the rest of her life showing everyone in our family more love than any of us could ever imagine or probably deserved, for whatever reason, Sophie took to me in particular. That, of course, makes the end of this story all the sadder for me personally, but let’s press on—it’s so worth it.

After ten minutes or so of Sophie allowing us all to hug her and pet her and basically fall in love with her (as if that took even ten minutes), the shelter staff, as well as our family, were confident that Sophie would bond with us humans and assimilate into our family quite nicely, and unless we wanted more time with her, everyone agreed that this single meeting was sufficient proof of that. Therefore, the second hurdle to Sophie finally being placed into her forever home had been accomplished.

Now, the final obstacle is whether or not the prospective animal candidate can get along with any other animals in the family’s home; in our case, that meant the aforementioned infamously difficult, but loveable-in-his-own-way, JJ. It was the shelter’s policy that the adoption advocate observe actual in-person interactions between the animals, so there was no avoiding bring JJ to meet Sophie before we could bring Sophie home with us. Yikes! Well, that was the whole reason for us searching for a second dog in the first place, and since this was a firm shelter policy, there was no avoiding it, so we brought JJ to the shelter for the arranged meeting. Fingers crossed…

Sophie saw JJ for the first time and charged up to him, and JJ…well, Mr. Big Shot froze in place, just as nervous and curious (and frightened?) as we were to see how this meeting with this twice-his-size dog was going to go. Again, in retrospect, it’s now laughable how worried we were then—a couple of chest bumps, a butt sniff or two later, and they were chasing one another around the large, grassy front yard of the shelter, lovingly yipping and yapping together all the way. With that final hurdle cleared, Sophie found her forever home, and I met the best friend I have ever known (my wife and daughter both being the human equals to this relationship, of course).

Did JJ’s behavior improve after Sophie finally arrived at our house to stay? Did it ever! It was like a switch was flipped inside of JJ—as soon as Sophie took him under her wing and became not only his playmate, of sufficient size and weight to easily withstand his aggressive onslaughts, but also as his big sister, JJ’s demeanor toward humans (and other animals, truth to tell) instantaneously changed, transforming him into the docile, loving and adorable creature that we all knew lurked just beneath the surface. Sophie, for her part, easily and readily assumed the duties of loving family protector, conversational centerpiece, neighborhood ambassador, and the best buddy and companion I could have ever asked for.

As much as JJ has remained aloof but somewhat begrudgingly became loving of our daughter, Sophie immediately adopted her as if she was her own, loving her with all of her considerable heart and soul and being her best buddy, too. If there was ever such a thing as an instant bond between a human and another living creature, I experienced that with Sophie—I’m not sure who was as excited for me to come home from work and reuniting, Sophie or me. But that’s how she was with everyone she met and trusted; they couldn’t help but fall in love with her instantly, and if you fell into her circle of trust, she loved you unconditionally, forever. That’s how it was for us, blissfully living our near-perfect lives together for the next 8 years.

Fast forward to the very early morning hours of June 25, 2017, in the Veterinary Emergency Service Center in Madison, WI. We had to bring Sophie in for examination because she was acting so un-Sophie like—listless, no strength to walk, no sparkle in her eyes, etc. It was so strange because the day before, she was acting perfectly normal—energetic, loving us up/licking us half to death, barking at the UPS truck and driver and anyone else who dared get to close to our yard, playing with JJ, etc. The doctor on duty gave her a short examination, and we were informed that Sophie had been harboring a large growth on her spleen that had basically exploded and she was essentially beyond any meaningful help at that point. So, after spending more than an hour holding her in my arms, and crying more tears in that time (and I have had to stop more than a few times during the writing of this to dry my eyes) than I ever believed I could have produced in a lifetime, she gave me a final weak lick on my nose and laid her head on my shoulder, and we finally made the decision to let Sophie go and be at peace.

Now, as I write this and look down at JJ laying here next to me, breaking my heart with every sad hoot and drooping-head glance that tells me that he finally comprehends that his sister and best friend isn’t coming home to him, I know that he, like me, wonders how life is going to be from now on, and I don’t really know how to answer him, except to say that in time, it will; it always does, regardless of how hard it can be sometimes. I certainly don’t mean to imply that JJ is any less important in my life than Sophie, but everyone in the family knows that JJ is “mama’s boy,” and as such, has bonded to my wife as much as Sophie bonded with me, my daughter and my wife. I wonder if JJ and will grow even closer now to both me and our daughter in Sophie’s absence? I think so.

I relate this intimate story not to garner any sympathy or tug at your heart-strings, but in order to relate to anyone who will listen that Sophie was as sentient a creature as has ever existed; as warm, loving, caring, generous and giving a being as any human I’ve ever known. I have never felt such profound, utter and complete sadness as I am currently experiencing, and I do not recall ever feeling such pain and sense of loss. I know that eventually the emptiness in our hearts caused by the loss of a loved one is almost always replaced with nothing but happy and loving memories, and loss is an inevitable part of life, but her passing has impacted me as intensely as any human’s could. If that is the case, and I promise you with all my heart that it is, doesn’t she, and others like her, deserve the same expectation of treatment with kindness and respect, including any legal protections as needed, as any human does? After seeing the calm look of love, comfort and contentment in Sophie’s eyes, which could only be due to her comprehension of being in the presence of her loved ones in her last moments before she closed them forever, I will never be convinced to the contrary.

I know not everyone agrees with the humanization of animals, and so maybe would not agree with my characterization of my relationship with Sophie, but no matter; interchange her in my story with one of your own human loved ones. Now, imagine eating his or her flesh. Again, I certainly am not judging anyone for their decision to eat meat (so long as it is humanely and responsibly sourced), and I’m really not trying to be incendiary, but as I said goodbye to my best friend of 10 years, my decision to transition to a meatless lifestyle was reaffirmed and slammed home to me in an instant, and I don’t regret a thing, regarding neither my dietary decisions nor all of my time spent with Sophie.

Dogs have convinced me over my past 47 years that they, and all similar beings as they, possess highly developed, if not always overtly recognizable by we stupid humans, cognitive reasoning skills, conscious and educated thoughts, deep-seeded memories, feelings, and yes, certainly viable and measurable emotions that, while maybe not as sophisticated or definable, are still just as valid and viable as that of any human I have ever met. So then, if I was able to have formed such a fiercely loyal and lasting bond with such a being as Sophie, a bond which, I can assure you kind readers, will never dissipate with time, shouldn’t she and others like her expect and enjoy the same level of respect and humane treatment at the hands of humans as other humans do, even if it must be enforced by the pens of our legislators? If we are to agree on that concept, then shouldn’t the same be said for wild animals as well as their more domesticated kin? How do we know that wolves, coyotes, fox, bobcats, bears, deer, and so forth do not possess the same level of cognition that their more domesticated brethren?

After experiencing the copious research studies filmed, posted and published by not only members of well-respected universities and research institutions worldwide, but also from the anecdotal observations from simple layman such as me providing ample evidence of animals living sentient lives with sophisticated and developed interpersonal relationships, both with their mates as well as offspring, I personally find it difficult to believe otherwise. Regardless of all of my own personal observations and experiences with animals that may or may not influence opinions, I am certain of a few things, and I implore everyone to hear me, please.

I am certain that the maltreatment of animals by humans, whether via neglect or intentional harm, only weakens us as a species, making us less sensitive to the pain and suffering of all living creatures other than ourselves, including humans, and more and more inconsiderate to life itself, really. As we continue to commit such intentional atrocities against animals of all shapes and sizes, I believe we diminish our own species immeasurably; hopefully, not irreparably, but considering much of the news reports I’ve read in the past few years, who knows?

I am certain that vegetarians will never convert all carnivores, at least not in my lifetime, but hopefully we will grab a few more of you in the coming years.

I am certain that we will not shame or guilt most trophy hunters into ceasing and desisting their awful and disgusting activities, but maybe we can convince a few others who share the concept of basic common decency to try to help us do so. Even one or two of them is better than none.

I am certain we will never eradicate “legitimate” (non-trophy seeking) hunting altogether, but maybe we can convince its practitioners to observe responsible and humane tactics if they insist on wanting to kill other living things, until such time as they look into one too many eyes and watch precious life drain away, and hopefully they consider converting to a meatless diet as well.

Maybe all of this will happen some day, and maybe none of it will; I can only that hope some of it will. May you all be so fortunate as to have even one Sophie in your entire lifetime. If so, maybe some of my wishes will come true.

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Jim McFarlane is a Marine, two decade long law enforcement officer, vegetarian, and resides in Fall River, Wisconsin.