I worked for a short time as a pet therapist at a drug and alcohol rehab center. It was interesting and enlightening work, and I probably benefited more from being in that environment than the people my dogs and I served. I’m not a drug addict or alcoholic, but so much of the tenets of recovery can be applied to those of us in the animal rights community where, so often, animals are our drug of choice.
Alcoholics Anonymous has taken the Serenity Prayer as its personal property and it’s driven home every day in every way in a drug rehab center. When I first heard it, I thought it was simply a beautiful piece of prose. It reminded me of the Desiderata, which I discovered as a teenager and still love to this day.
Nobody really knows who wrote the Serenity Prayer or why, but everyone from Plato to a protestant minister named Reinhold Niebuhr are credited with the words. St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, is among the possible authors. The irony that the Serenity Prayer is sometimes attributed to St. Francis is not just a happy coincidence, but also a confirmation that my interpretation of the Serenity Prayer and my application of its message in my own daily life is spot on.
You can find the Serenity Prayer on everything from needlepoint to tattoos and it goes like this:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I’ve decided to take the Serenity Prayer back from AA; those words of wisdom are not only for people in recovery, they’re for us in rescue and animal rights too. One of the many points repeated and driven home to our patients was that they have to live in this world as it is, they can’t change the world to suit their needs. Just because they can’t drink or do drugs doesn’t mean everyone has a problem. You can’t expect people to stop enjoying alcohol and recreational drugs just because you can’t handle it. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you begin recovery.
I have to remind myself of that every day. I live in paradise here in South Florida where the palm trees and gentle ocean breezes, crystal clear salt water and wildlife all around me makes for a veritable Garden of Eden. It’s therapeutic, being out in such a pretty world. But when I go kayaking on the river and see enormous fishing boats with gigantic rods and reels, sophisticated GPS equipment that tells them exactly where the fish are and implements of death and destruction such as drift nets and gaffs, my pleasant little kayak adventure turns into a nightmare.
When I walk along the beach and see someone fishing from shore, or catching baitfish in nets, a black cloud suddenly descends and my day is ruined.
The other day, I was swimming in the surf when a guy came along and tossed a purse seine net just inches from me. When I complained, he told me catching minnows for bait was not illegal and if I didn’t like it, I should go somewhere else. The sad truth is, he’s right. He was doing nothing illegal.
Like you, as an animal rights activist, I see sadness all around me. There are always dozens of emails in my mailbox every day with pictures of sad faces of homeless animals. Turn on the news and it’s all about how millions of cows were slaughtered because they found e-coli in one ;pound of beef. Read the local paper and you can be sure to find a story about some creep who threw a living creature out a moving vehicle. And the new and creative ways dogfighters come up with to torture pit bulls is never ending. Trunking, hammers and nails, tied to railroad tracks; it’s all so incredibly, soul-wrenching and overwhelmingly sad.
So, to offset this darkness and find a little peace so I won’t down a bottle of vodka, take a handful of sleeping pills and check out, I go to the beach, to the river, to the woods, to find comfort in nature. But it’s not there. I have to live in the world with people who do legal things like hunt fish in the water, kill the alligators and torment egg-laying Loggerheads.
I have to live in THIS world.
Last weekend, we found some living conchs while wading in the Intracoastal. Fearing for the safety of these creatures, I collected them, kayaked out to the channel where the water was deeper, and dropped them to the sandy bottom. Surely they were safer there in deeper water than in the shallows where dozens of people who were wading and swimming, would find them and take them home as souvenirs, killing them in the process. Within an hour, a boat had anchored very near where I dropped them, and kids with snorkeling gear and a net found the conchs and appeared to haul them aboard. It doesn’t matter that this is a highly illegal activity, I guess as long as the sheriff didn’t see them, it was all okay. I couldn’t be certain that that’s what they were doing, but I was pretty sure, and that’s not enough to call them on it.
Another day, I kayaked out to a little island that appears only at low tide. There are some mangroves there, home to sheepshead, rays and parrotfish. I was getting my gear together to visit these gorgeous and mysterious sea creatures when I spotted two young teenagers getting their gear together too. But they had something I didn’t, they had spears. They were headed into the mangrove with spears. I’d like to think they were only holding them in case Jaws made an appearance, but I know better. I scrapped my snorkel visit because I knew I couldn’t bear to see them spear a fish.
I have to live in THIS world as it is.
My son took me for a boat ride in the Keys last summer. It happened to be during lobster season and the lobster traps were everywhere, millions of them all scattered about the ocean and the gulf. People were hauling them up by the boatload. Yes, there’s a limit, but creative people find all kinds of ways around those limits.
I don’t want to go ‘round with a mad-on all the time. I’m generally an upbeat and happy person and I don’t like to be in a foul mood. My Irish humor sometimes works to help me pull myself up and out of the funk into which I routinely descend because I feel that nobody, really, nobody understands me. But it doesn't always work and since I’m prone to depression, I have to be careful. I have to find a way to co-exist with constant daily reminders of animal suffering.
So God, if you’re listening, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change like kids with spears and fishing boats and propellers that slice up manatees; grant me the courage to change the things I can, like becoming a vegan, attending demonstrations at pet stores and boycotting Seaworld; and the wisdom to know the difference.
Some injustices I can take on and maybe even win. But it’s getting harder and harder to find injustices with potential. I think having the wisdom to know the difference is the hardest one of the three wishes.
But I am child of the universe, no less than the trees and stars, I have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to me, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
And I have to live here. And so do you.