On a cool, late May evening in Nairobi, Kenya, I met Love and soon said good-bye.
I met Love as my colleagues and I returned from training a group of health professionals on how to evaluate and care for child survivors of sexual violence. The week of training left me with mixed emotions. I grieved for the children left vulnerable to abuse, and admired the dedicated doctors, nurses, and police officers who make daily sacrifices to protect them.
As our work always does, it left me wondering how we can reduce vulnerability to physical and psychological injury, especially for individuals who can’t always protect themselves. At the time, I had no idea how my reflections on vulnerability would be tested.
As we drove back to Nairobi, traffic along a main highway came to a near stop. Love was the reason. A car struck Love and continued on, as other cars maneuvered around his still body.
I insisted we stop. A colleague clarified that Love was not human, but “just a dog.” I explained that I would insist we stop for anyone left to suffer to his death.
When our driver stopped, I immediately jumped out of our van and ran toward a security guard who pulled Love to the median. I asked the security guard to take me to the dog, and he helped stop traffic to reach Love.
Love looked up at me with big brown eyes. Though he whimpered in pain, he didn’t even retract his big floppy ears as I approached him. He had old scars and scratches on his face, a torn ear, bitten nose, severe fractures in his front and hind legs, and ticks and fleas all over his body. My obstetrician-gynecologist colleague, Michele, helped me pick up Love with some clothes I grabbed from my bag. Since I wasn’t sure if he would bite out of fear, I took some old scrubs to tie as a muzzle if needed. (It wasn’t necessary.)
A severed electric cord wrapped around Love’s neck. It appeared he was tethered by the cord and chewed through it. Michele and I carried Love to our van and, despite earlier objections, my colleagues had already arranged for a veterinarian to meet us at his clinic.
Meanwhile, I placed a call to my Kenyan friend, Jos, who runs an African animal welfare organization. Though Jos was in the US at the time, he quickly put me in touch with friends at the Kenya Society for the Protection & Care of Animals (KSPCA), and they verified that the veterinarian we chose had a good reputation.
We reached the veterinarian in fifteen minutes. As we surveyed Love’s injuries, we realized he suffered from multiple wounds and shock, and he was unlikely to pull through surgery. We made the difficult decision to euthanize Love. He lay in my arms while Michele and I gently stroked him and whispered that we loved him in soft, soothing words.
Love died quickly. Though I knew we saved him from further suffering, I struggled with the decision to bring his life to an end. The veterinarian asked me to name him and I gave him the name Love. It was love that saved him from suffering to death by the side of the road.
When I returned from Kenya, I told Love’s story at a University of Oregon conference on vulnerability, where I was asked to give a keynote presentation about the overlap in human and animal vulnerability. The task wasn’t difficult. Animals are similar to humans in the ways that they suffer and mend, both physically and mentally. Our flesh and minds are similarly vulnerable to fear, pain, thirst, hunger, and disease.
But we need more than air, food, and water. We need shelter, love, respect, and opportunities to pursue happiness. When deprived of these needs, humans and animals can suffer from mental disorders including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Love was vulnerable in so many ways. He had no political power. Legally, animals are property, so they can be bought, sold, and subjected to unimaginable lives. Love was restrained and ridden with disease. Just as children depend on adults, Love was completely dependent on his relationships with humans. Children and animals are some of the most vulnerable individuals in society, since they have few legal rights, if any.
I thought of Love last weekend, just after the Fourth of July, when I met Spot, a dog who is chained near our West Virginia cabin. I approached Spot’s owner, who turned out to be a frightened widow who used Spot as a guard dog. She graciously accepted my concern, suggestions, and literature detailing how she could bring Spot into her home. I hope she realizes how Spot shares her fear and vulnerability.
Someone asked me why I stopped for Love and Spot. My answer is pretty simple. If I were in their place, I would want someone to do the same for me. Although we can’t save everyone, it is worth trying to reduce vulnerability to suffering whenever we can. My husband and I try every time we help turtles cross the street, stop for wounded or lost animals, and whenever we do the same for humans. Though he and I are fortunate to have medical expertise, it isn’t necessary. Every day, I am touched by what people do to save others from lives of despair. A recent poignant example was the rescue of Raju, an elephant in India who was finally freed after living in painful, spiked shackles for half a century. Raju wept as he was freed.
In the meantime, it is equally important to reduce vulnerability through policy change, our power as consumers, and by raising our voices to speak out for those who can’t always speak for themselves.
There is a lot of work to be done. Although the US has signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is one of only two UN members that have not ratified the convention. (Somalia is the other.) Elsewhere, the Animal Legal Defense Fund is working to leverage public and congressional support for a basic Animal Bill of Rights, while attorney Steve Wise and his team at the Nonhuman Rights Project work to secure legal rights for animals. Recently, Muhamed Sacirbey, human rights proponent and Bosnia’s first UN ambassador, suggested that perhaps the time has come to appoint a UN Ambassador for Animals.
It would be easy to surrender to all the horrific images on television, Internet, and daily life. Instead, I see the promise of a better world. Working together, we can lift the burden of suffering and transform systems that underpin neglect and violence into freedom, safety, love, and respect.
Though some people were surprised by our quick actions in Nairobi, they were also inspired. And they inspired me. The security guard didn’t have to pull Love to the median or help us cross the highway, but he did. Our driver was exhausted from driving all day but, by the end of the evening, he was exuberantly shouting, “God Bless You!” The veterinarian offered free services, though we opted to pay him. By the end of the night, I learned that KSPCA had received other calls on Love’s behalf.
So, the choice is ours. Will we turn our backs on those who need us most, or will we join the heroes and heroines who refuse to cower from the challenge of making the world a better place?
Let’s choose Love.