Back in college, at the Blue Hen University of Delaware, I used to enjoy reading on a little bench in the waning sun of autumn. There was a squirrel that would come visit me and I’d throw him a nut or whatever I had. I like to think it was the same squirrel every time, but who knows? The trees would whisper in the cool breezes, the students were wandering all around, oblivious to my bench, and it was a respite from the normal college life of binge drinking, Adderall cramming or generally being cool. But I remember once, I had a strange day sitting there. Winter was fast approaching now, and I saw a bee struggling on the ground. He was fat and as cute as a bug can be, but he couldn’t fly anymore. He could barely walk. I don’t know the exact life span of bees, but I know they don’t last much longer than one summer (except for those lucky queen bees sitting on their honey thrones). So, the question I posed to myself was: “Is this bug suffering, and if so, should I end it?” Suffering, the central avoidance of Buddhism, is subjective or objective? I stepped on the bee, presumably ending his “suffering”, but felt guilty immediately. Did I do the right thing? Do I need to be worried about ending any other suffering besides my own? Am I even capable of helping anyone or anything in ending his or her own suffering?
What brought that memory back to me was a recent YouTube video. YouTube is great for silly and fun things, but there is also a large piece of the YouTube puzzle devoted to social awareness. The video was of Angora rabbits’ hair being harvested in that ever-present realm of animal cruelty—China. They tie and stretch their little fluffy legs on a board and pull the hair right out. The rabbits scream in pain. Their heads tilt back in agony. And that was only the first ten seconds, I couldn’t watch more than that! That was all I needed to see. Those little bunnies with soft, desirable fur were suffering. They were not suffering due to their own fault, or for the benefit of their children, which many animal mothers might willingly endure. They were suffering great torture so that we may have sweaters and scarves. It’s not a debate. Our eyes and ears know when pain is inflicted. In The Princess Bride, when Westley was put on the rack and Prince Humperdink put the “machine” to 50, Westley made the sound of “ultimate suffering” the identical sound Inigo’s heart made when his father was killed by the ruthless Count Rugen. And, the worst part is, it doesn’t have to be that way. I found videos on YouTube of those big fat Angora rabbits calmly sitting on their owner’s lap while they cut, not tore, off the fur, causing no pain beyond a haircut. There has been a universal outcry on this barbaric system as well as numerous other practices of animal cruelty and things will hopefully change.
The next vision of animal cruelty was the movie Blackfish. It’s a documentary of Tilikum, the killer whale who has been responsible for at least two human deaths in his 20 years of confinement. He was captured as a baby, taken aboard the boat as his family bobbed in the water helplessly watching and screeching. The movie outlines how family oriented and emotionally sensitive killer whales are, as well as having virtually human equivalent life spans. Yet, many whales only live one-third of that when interned in a theme park. There has never been one documented attack on humans by an orca in the wild, whereas there have been 82 reported cases in the 30+ years of captivity around the world. Orcas can swim over 100 miles every day, but are forced to live in a tank only 35 feet deep. When I saw Shamu as a child, I was fascinated by its beauty and size, but I remember thinking the pool wasn’t big enough for him, then he splashed me and I forgot again.
We are selfish creatures, the apex of the apex predators and therefore we can do what we want. The Bible says god gave man dominion over the sea and land, and whales and rabbits fall under those auspices. Many use that as an excuse for their own agenda. But, shouldn’t our power be a cause for benevolence to the lesser creatures? We don’t need the Bible to tell us we run Earth. We’ve expanded into every part of this planet and across the solar system! I am aware of my hypocrisy, in that, I eat meat, am aware of the mistreatment of many edible animals, but cannot find it in me to stop being a carnivore.
But, human upon animal is not the only version of imposed suffering in the modern world. The famous Dr. Jack Kevorkian advocated a personal way to end life. “Dr. Death” assisted terminally ill patients in ending their lives, which were full of suffering. He was imprisoned for helping adults step on the proverbial bee of their ailing lives. Assisted suicide is now only legal in four states. The rest of you must wait in pain for the sweet release of death. The recent case of Ariel Castro, the kidnapper of three women in Ohio, is a good example of humans desecrating another human’s right to live a life without suffering. It’s complicated. Sometimes, life is too full of sadness or sickness, and we want it to be over. Sometimes, desire for nice or delicious things causes animals to suffer for us. Sometimes, malicious people hurt others to satisfy a hidden or unquenchable pain inside themselves.
Desire leads to suffering according to Buddha. Unfortunately, the capitalistic, commercial world in which we live breeds desire of all kinds. Desire is what moves product. Desire is the background noise of every commercial and advertisement. Desire is monetary motivation. Desire for something keeps many of us working. If Buddha was right, and desire is the root of all suffering, then abandon all hope, for that is never going away. But, perhaps if we look at it another way, if we desire to end suffering, if we aspire to consistently help others and ethically handle animals, we can move to the next stage of human life, one far away from Hobbes’ nasty, brutish, and short archetype.