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Concussion Frustration

8 weeks ago I gave myself a concussion. I was rushing around in the morning, trying to get a gazillion things done before leaving the house that day. In my haste, I bashed my head on a cupboard door and the impact knocked me backwards–as I crashed down to the floor I smacked the back of my head on the stove. I later learned I gave myself whiplash in the process and probably blacked out for at least a few seconds as I can’t quite piece together what the heck actually happened.

That was 8 weeks ago. I’m still dealing with some pretty crappy post-concussion syndrome symptoms including: dizziness, nausea, fatigue, constant headaches, and difficulty concentrating. My “screen time” is very limited as being on the computer or looking at my phone triggers a severe headache (note to self: this needs to be a short post!). I’m doing a lot of resting – thank goodness I have some furry friends to keep me company!

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Miss Ernie and friends are good company while I recover.

I’m beyond frustrated. 8 weeks! I want my life back!  I miss reading, spending time with friends, going for walks, kettlebell, doing my research, etc. I am, however, incredibly grateful too. I’m grateful that I’m able to take the time to recover, for my kind and caring partner who has been so patient throughout this whole process, and for the kindness of friends and neighbours who check in, cheer me up, and let me vent. I’m also very grateful for my colleagues who have stepped up to help with the work I can’t be doing right now.

I’m learning that recovering from a concussion can take a long time, that rest, patience, and reducing stress are really important right now. Easier said than done! Everything is on hold – my work, my life, my writing. I’ve had to withdraw from a major conference, cancel travel plans, the final edits to my book manuscript are on hold, I’m behind on my work with The Unbound Project, and I can’t keep up with an online class I was really looking forward to taking.  I feel like so many people are waiting on me for things and this makes me feel awful. (If I owe you an email, chapter, book review, etc. I’m sorry. So sorry!) I hate letting people down! As an academic I’m finding my current inability to think clearly or read/write for more than a few minutes at a time both frustrating and frightening. This is all very stressful!

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Getting some help with a jigsaw puzzle.

I’ve been told that things like puzzles, colouring books, and board games are good for my brain as it heals. While these are fun activities, it feels very weird to be looking for “edge pieces” while so many other people are out there fighting the good fight and doing important work.

I’d love to hear from others who have been through this — how did you cope? It gets better, right? It has to!

 

 

Blinders, Barriers, and Bearing Witness

This morning around 7am a truck carrying pigs to their death tipped over outside Fearmans Pork Plant in Burlington. Media outlets are reporting that some of the pigs died in the crash and many others were injured. Those pigs who were able to walk were marched in to the slaughterhouse to meet their death.

Activists arrived on the scene soon after the incident occurred, and over the day their numbers grew. Tensions between the workers, the police, and protesters continued to escalate while the squeals of terrified, injured, and dying pigs filled the air. Steve Jenkins from Happily Ever Esther was on site pleading for mercy for the pigs, and offering to take some of them to his sanctuary, but his requests were denied.

I was not in Burlington this morning, but was watching this unfold via social media. My heart was heavy and tears streamed down my face. This was a horrific scene, but let us not forget – this is only in the news today because a traffic accident took place. Each and every day, truckloads of terrified and injured pigs arrive at this location except, most days, only those who have chosen to bear witness as part of the Toronto Pig Save vigils pay any attention. The routine suffering that happens at this location is not normally deemed newsworthy.

Perhaps the most striking part of today’s incident were the reports that workers were holding up barriers in an attempt to block the pigs from the view of people who had gathered at the scene. They must not be seen. To see the suffering, fear, and confusion these animals were experiencing would be upsetting for most people, so those who were in charge of the scene took steps to try and prevent people from seeing what was happening. Let’s get something straight – this is upsetting. Whether we choose to look at this or not, suffering is taking place.

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A tarp being held up so that the scene of the accident was blocked from view. Photo by Rara Subramanyan

One set of pictures taken by activist Andrea White appears to show an injured pig being comforted by another pig. It was not long, however, until workers were holding up large pieces of cardboard to block this moment of tenderness and compassion from the sight of cameras and prying eyes. We must ask ourselves why this kind of scene was perceived to be so threatening. What would happen if people witnessed this exchange? Would they, perhaps, begin to rethink their own complicity in this scene of suffering?

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A pig comforts another pig who is injured and can not stand up. Photo by Andrea White.
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Workers hold cardboard barriers to keep the injured pigs out of sight. Photo by Andrea White.

This overt attempt to block witnessing and taking pictures is a very significant part of this story. It strikes at the heart of what Timothy Pachirat has referred to as the “politics of sight.” In other words, our contemporary food and agricultural systems in North America are sustained by carefully regulated systems controlling who gets to see what. Out of sight, out of mind. If you don’t see something, it is hard to question it.

I have a series of photographs on my desktop of a pig running for freedom. These images were not taken today in Burlington but, rather, in 1945 in St. Catharines, a city about 36 kilometers down the road from Burlington. This pig escaped from the truck that was carrying her to slaughter, and she spent some time running around Ontario and St. Paul Streets, two major streets in St. Catharines, before she was eventually caught and returned to the truck for what was described as “the last lap of her ride to the meat rationing counter.”

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A pig who escaped a transport truck runs along Ontario Street in St. Catharines, Ontario in July 1945. Photo by St. Catharines Standard.

I have frequently walked down the streets that this determined pig who lived and died in 1945 travelled along and, as I do, my mind often turns to this photograph, and I think about the pig who tried to get away. I wish with all my heart that she had. The article accompanying the photograph tells us that as she was running around she spotted “some luscious grass” in a nearby park and began running towards it. While my heart breaks for this pig I never knew, the tone of the media reporting of this incident is such that this pig is granted a sense of agency. Sure, there is still a struggle between the pig who wants her freedom and those who want to eat her (she had a narrow escape, we are told, from a driver who had “a hungry look in his eye.”), but the pig here is recognized as a sentient being, one who has tried to change her fate – “This Little Pig Didn’t Stay Home,” the headline proclaims. While things didn’t work out in the pig’s favour, she is still recognized as an individual with preferences and determination. She wanted to get to that grass!

There is a decidedly different tone to the reporting going on with today’s incident at Fearmans. There was an active and deliberate attempt to shield the pigs from view. Activists were kept away “for their own safety,” we were told, and yet, was that really what this was about? How is being denied the sight of one pig comforting another going to help anyone be safer? What seems instead to be going on here is a deliberate attempt to suppress any recognition of agency or emotion in these animals. It is for our own good, we are told. You don’t want to see that. And yet if we don’t look or aren’t permitted to see, how can anything change?

The question of animal sentience is increasingly being explored in books, films, and articles in the popular press, and yet, paradoxically, there are ever-tightening restrictions on who gets to see the animals who live and die in our food production systems. From the so-called “ag gag” laws in the United States, to the makeshift cardboard barriers that workers held today in Burlington in an attempt to prevent the suffering of pigs being made visible, there is a deliberate and concerted effort to make sure that these lives and deaths remain culturally invisible.

Tonight I am thinking about the pigs who died today in Burlington and, indeed, of all of the billions of animals slaughtered for our contemporary food system. It does not have to be this way. If the footage of today’s accident outside of Fearmans upsets you, please do not turn away. As Dr. Seuss’ character the Lorax reminds us, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Remembering Fanny Martin

Being an advocate for animals can be a challenging task. It is very difficult to so be acutely aware of the many ways in which animals are exploited and harmed in our contemporary world because we are surrounded by reminders of just how ubiquitous this cruelty is. Take, for example, a holiday meal with friends and family where a meat dish is the centrepiece–where others may see a tasty treat, an animal welfare/rights/liberation activist may see a visceral reminder of suffering and death. To be constantly faced with these material reminders of the ways in which animals are (mis)treated in our society can certainly take an emotional toll. Recently there have been a number of articles offering tips on how to avoid compassion fatigue, activist burnout and how to combat the depression that often goes hand-in-hand with caring deeply for those who are suffering.

As I read these articles I can not help but think of Marie-Françoise (“Fanny”) Bernard (née Martin) who was married to Claude Bernard, a 19th century French physiologist best known for his experiments on animals. Claude Bernard was often the focus of public anti-vivisection campaigns conducted by people like Frances Power Cobbe, but this tension also played out within his domestic life. Fanny Martin detested her husband’s experiments on animals, many of which he conducted at home. To add insult to injury, the dowry paid by her father at the time of the marriage in 1845 helped to fund many of Bernard’s experiments on animals.

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Fanny Martin

Perhaps as a way to attempt to make amends for her husband’s treatment of animals in his laboratory, Fanny Martin and her two daughters established a “rescue home” for stray dogs and cats. They also attended anti-vivisection protests and volunteered with the Société protectrice des animaux. Finally, in 1870 the couple legally separated, no easy task for Catholics in 19th century France!

Fanny Martin’s empathy for animals must have made her life with Bernard nearly unbearable. I marvel at the courage it must have taken for a woman in the 19th century to stand up to her husband and to take their children to protests that directly opposed their father’s work. Her volunteer work and the efforts she put in to setting up an institution to care for neglected, stray, sick, and lost dogs and cats (many of whom would otherwise end up in vivisection laboratories) is an almost forgotten footnote in the history of animal advocacy. Indeed, very little has been written about Martin and what does exist is mostly gleaned from biographies of her famous husband, biographies that, as one writer noted, “dismiss her as an uneducated woman who made Bernard’s home life hell and deprived him of the company of his daughters.”*

I propose we change this dialogue and remember Fanny Martin for her courage, bravery, and her uncompromising empathy for animals. May she serve as an inspiration for those continuing to stand up against cruelty to animals.

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* Deborah Rudacille, The Scalpel and the Butterfly: The War Between Animal Research and Animal Protection (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000): 19.

**This post was also published on the Unbound Project website.

 

The End (of Sabbatical) is Nigh

And just like that, we are at the end of 2015! I’m always amazed at how fast a year whips by, but I was especially aware of it this year. When I began my sabbatical year back on January 1, 2015 a year felt like a nearly endless expanse of time. Perhaps I thought that this year would be different. Perhaps I thought that being on sabbatical would slow down the passing of time, that if I took the time to read, to savour, to think, that I wouldn’t feel as though the weeks were flying by. I was wrong.

So, now I’m in the final days (7 left!) of my sabbatical, although as my friend and colleague, Gregory, pointed out the other day, I am, in actuality, “like everyone else at Brock now, on holiday break.” I suppose he has a point given how quick I was to jump in to sabbatical mode this time last year.

It has been a good year. It was a busy year and when I look back at where my days went, the list looks something like this:

Over the course of the year I also was constantly reminded about what sabbatical (in an academic context anyhow) is and isn’t.

  • It is a gift. I felt so grateful to have so much dedicated time to work on my book manuscript. I sat with it day in and day out for months. I immersed myself in the project in a way that would have been impossible without sabbatical. I put in long hours and worked 7 days a week on the manuscript for a good chunk of my sabbatical time. People kept telling me to “take a break,” but I had been gasping for time to really sink myself in to this work and I wasn’t going to tear myself away from it until I had a full and polished manuscript ready to send to the press.
  • It is a privilege. If you get to take sabbatical you are very, very privileged. Do not forget this. It is important to check your privilege and to be careful how you talk about your sabbatical with others.
  • It isn’t a vacation. I am sure I had friends and family who were genuinely baffled by the fact that I couldn’t drop everything and come for a visit or go on a leisure outing this past year. As mentioned above, I am sure that I actually put in more hours at my desk this year than I regularly do during the years I’m not on sabbatical. When you are on sabbatical you are hyper aware of how rare and precious this time devoted to your research is. I know I won’t get another sabbatical for a while and I didn’t want to waste a single second of it.
  • It isn’t a magic “cure all.” I think I was guilty of imagining sabbatical to be this blissful, stress-free year. I might have imagined that I was going to sit at my desk, think lofty thoughts, and become a better person. When I imagined my sabbatical I didn’t imagine the days filled with writer’s block, panic, and stress related to “imposter syndrome” (“what if I don’t have anything interesting to say after all?”). My imagined version of sabbatical also didn’t include getting sick, debilitating migraine headaches, sick pets, sick friends and family members, bad weather, travel woes, and financial worries. But, guess what? All of those things were also part of the year–of course they were, because sabbatical isn’t a magic bubble!
  • It is a limited amount of time. At the start of sabbatical it may seem that you have SO MUCH TIME to do ALL THE STUFF. But, in reality, it is only 365 days, just like any other year. I did get many of the things I set out to do crossed off my list, but there are other things (clean out the basement, reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories) that I’ve not yet managed to accomplish. I guess I still have 7 more days!

It has been a good year, but I am looking forward to going back to teaching  in January. I love my classes and I am excited to teach in the beautiful new Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts.

“We Practice the Convictions of our Minds and Hearts”

As the weather starts to turn colder, many of us are thinking about getting a new winter coat. I love that there are so many cruelty-free fashions to pick from! Imagine my delight, then, when during the course of my research I learned about a woman who was making cruelty-free alternatives to fur coats, silk scarves, and “kid” gloves over 100 years ago! Her name was Maude (“Emarel”) Freshel, and she was the co-founder of an organization known as the Millennium Guild. The Guild advocated for a lifestyle that included a vegetarian diet and hosted lavish meat-free Thanksgiving dinners in Boston in the early years of the 20th century. The sale of the cruelty-free outerwear that Freshel sewed helped to fund the activities of the Guild. A number of these fashions were featured in the Boston Sunday Post on November 17, 1912.

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Freshel told reporter that members of the Millennium guild “have found splendid substitutes for furs,  feather hat trimmings and kid gloves, and know we are better off without eating meat. We practice the convictions of our minds and hearts.”

Freshel was also the author of The Golden Rule Cookbook, a vegetarian cookbook promoting the abstention from meat eating for ethical reasons. Freshel defined a vegetarian (remember, the term “vegan” didn’t exist until 1944) as someone who “for one reason or another condemns the eating of flesh.” She saw this as occupying “a very different place in the world of ethics from one who is simply refraining from meat eating in an effort to cure bodily ills.” Freshel’s dog, a terrier named Sister, was also a vegetarian and reportedly enjoyed such foods as lentils, peas, apples, oatmeal, and buttered toast.

*This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.

The Mouse’s Petition

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In 1773 Anna Laetitia Barbauld published a poem called “The Mouse’s Petition.” The poem was written from the point of view of a mouse who had been captured in the home of Barbauld’s friend, the renowned natural philosopher Joseph Priestley. The mouse was placed in a cage in Priestley’s laboratory as he intended to use the animal in one of his experiments the next day. Barbauld’s poem was a plea for mercy, and she slipped in to Priestley’s lab to affix it to the cage so that he would see it prior to beginning his experiment on the mouse.

The poem begins with the following lines:

O hear a pensive prisoner’s prayer,
    For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
    Against the wretch’s cries!

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
    Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at the’ approaching morn,
    Which brings impending fate.

Priestley reportedly released the mouse after reading Barbauld’s poem.

Many of Barbauld’s contemporaries championed “The Mouse’s Petition” as an important contribution to the conversations about cruelty to animals that were taking place in the 18th century. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, noted that “thanks to Mrs. Barbauld,… it has become universally fashionable to teach lessons of compassion towards animals.”* Barbauld later stated that this poem was actually meant to be a “petition of mercy against justice.”*  In either case “The Mouse’s Petition” is an important early example of a creative work that prompted readers to empathize with nonhuman animals and to consider the often unjust ways they are treated.

Thomas Holloway, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1785)
Thomas Holloway, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1785)

*See Mary Ellen Bellanca, “Science, Animal Sympathy and Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition.’” Eighteenth-Century Studies 37 no. 1 (Fall 2003): 47-67; Julia Saunders, “‘The Mouse’s Petition’: Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Scientific Revolution.” The Review of English Studies 53 no. 212 (November 2002): 500-516.

**This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.

“Not a Drop to Wet Their Poor Parched Mouths”

Around 1870 Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, witnessed an act of compassion that deeply touched her. She had been on a train journey, and near Fitchburg her train pulled up alongside another train at a station stop. As she waited for her train to continue, Alcott passed the time by looking out her window at the sights — a beautiful waterfall caught her attention, but she also noticed that in the train next to hers were several cattle and sheep crammed in to rail cars.

It was a hot, sunny day and Alcott recognized that the animals must have been scared, uncomfortable, and thirsty. As she noted, “how they must have suffered in sight of water, with the cool dash of the fall tantalizing them, and not a drop to wet their poor parched mouths.” She was troubled by the very visible distress of the animals in the next train and was pondering how she might best help them when she noticed two young girls come up beside the train. The girls had been out picking berries and, upon noticing the animals in distress, one of the girls dumped out her berry pail, ran to the water’s edge and filled her bucket with water. She returned to the train and offered the water to the sheep “who stretched their hot tongues gratefully to meet it.” She repeated this numerous times while her companion picked grass and clover to feed to the animals. Alcott was touched by this kindness and wrote that she wished she “could have told those tender-hearted children how beautiful their compassion made that hot, noisy place.”

Kindness to Sheep on a Cattle Train (from THS book)

This story was repeated in a number of 19th century animal advocacy and humane education publications, often with the above image accompanying it. The actions of these two young girls became a lesson in kindness and compassion.

Over 140 years later a similar story is being told. Members of Toronto Pig Save, a grassroots organization that aims to bear witness to the suffering of animals who are raised and killed for food, have made headlines for giving water to pigs arriving at slaughterhouses on transport trucks. Their actions mimic those of the young girls that Alcott wrote about in 1870. This past summer, a heated exchange between one of the activists, Anita Krajnc, and the driver of one of the trucks has led to a criminal charge of mischief for Krajnc.

It is utterly absurd that we live in a world where kindness and compassion is criminalized. What, I wonder, would Louisa May Alcott have to say about this ridiculous charge?

*This post was also published on The Unbound Project website.