To Begin the New Year, I Look to the Animals

01/13/2011 11:28 am 11:28:33 | Updated May 25, 2011

When I turned on the car radio , WAMC was airing a listener essay on random acts of kindness. It was a feel-good piece about an experience the listener had at Starbucks. As he pulled up to the window, the cashier smiled and said, "The car ahead of you just paid for your coffee," and then explained both that folks did this fairly frequently, and that today, he was the fifth customer in a row whose purchase had been paid for by the previous customer. Naturally, the driver paid for the purchase of the woman behind him, and in his essay, went on to speculate about the power of kindness.

January is an important month for me. In a life that's long on demands and short on time, it's my quietest month...a time when I do lots of reflecting and yes, a little resolution-making. And despite the fact that celebrities' resolutions make headlines, and that writers score big when they suggest what politicians' resolutions should be, my resolution-making is serious business that involves getting to the heart of where I'm stuck. For guidance, I look not to Anderson Cooper or President Obama. Instead, every January, I look to the animals, and this year, I'm focusing on kindness.

Let me present a few of the hundreds of acts of kindness we've witnessed at Catskill Animal Sanctuary:

  1. An old Holstein steer named Samson came to CAS from a horrifying hoarding situation. A gentle soul, he lived with us but a year. One day, the ailing steer made it abundantly clear that he was ready to move on. We called the vet, and a dozen of his human friends surrounded Samson, who lay in the field on a bed of hay, his legs tucked under him. The vet injected the drug that would make Samson fall asleep, and as we waited for it to take effect, I sat in front of him, his enormous head in my lap. As I rubbed his cheeks, I will never forget what happened. Samson reached up to my face, touched it with his wet nose, and then he licked me. He licked me again, then again, and he continued licking until the drug took over and he was too sleepy to hold his head up.

    How many messages there were in this simple act of kindness! I believe he was saying thank you; I believe he was saying goodbye, I believe he was telling me he loved me; perhaps he was even trying to comfort me. In that precious moment forever seared into my heart, he most certainly did.

  2. Sixteen animals in addition to Samson were rescued from that same hoarder. One was a violent sheep with great curled horns whom we named Rambo, who spent his first 18 months at CAS trying to kill us. Gradually, he let go of the rage that was the result of a lifetime of mistreatment, and became our first free-range animal, literally sleeping in the middle of the barn aisle on a deep bed of hay.

One bitter November night, I entered the barn to check on the animals, and walked right past the stall where our turkeys Chuck and Thomasina slept at night. I didn't notice the open door--had I done so, I'd have run outside to check their enclosure. Instead, I continued down the aisle, offering a kiss to Maxx the horse, a treat to Bart the pig, and so on. When I turned at the end to call, "Good night, animals!!" Rambo hopped up from his bed, trotted up to me, and bleated.

"Something's wrong, follow me," was what he communicated, as clearly as if he'd uttered the words.

"What, Rambo?" I responded. "Show me what's wrong."

The great beast strode halfway down the long aisle, walked into the empty turkey stall, turned around, bleated again, and changed my life.

In that moment, a sheep who'd known nothing approaching kindness for most of his life indicated that not only knew what was amiss. He also figured out how to tell a human being, understood that I would help--a clear indication that he understood our raison d'etre--and most astoundingly, revealed empathy for two birds who were locked outside on a miserable night.

I ran outside, accompanied by Rambo, retrieved the shivering birds, toweled them off, then dropped to my knees to thank my friend. To say that I had an epiphany minimizes the import of this moment. The lessons inherent in this startling act of kindness inform nearly all our practices at Catskill Animal Sanctuary, and certainly guide us as we shape programming that we hope will change lives the way a wise old sheep changed mine.

  • Our main barn is our special needs barn. Here, in twenty stalls, live blind horses and ancient goats, pigs recovering from surgery and chickens and turkeys who, for one reason or another, would not fare well in one of several other flocks. The horses are turned out into spacious pastures during daytime hours, but the smaller animals, known affectionately as the Underfoot Family, roam the barnyard freely.

  • On the coldest day this winter, our crippled goat Atlas was laying in Rambo's bed.. Despite the strides he's made since his arrival, I knew that Atlas' arthritic knees would be painful on this bitter morning, so I went over to comfort him. As I approached, I saw that he was asleep. But my approach woke him, and he lifted his head and blinked his eyes sleepily. There beneath him was our crippled chicken Nutmeg, who lifted her head, too.

    Of all our disabled animals, these two--a sweet goat and an ancient hen--are the most physically challenged. But there they were, unlikely friends, comforting and drawing solace from each other, utterly content on a raw December day. Lessons offered by animals are immediate and unambiguous, pure and powerful. And while animals aren't always kind, of course, those of us who are paying attention witness random acts of kindness all day long. They have the ability to stop me in my tracks, redirect my day, or, occasionally, to suggest that an entire CAS practice be redesigned. And they certainly encourage me, during this time of introspection, to think about kindness: about resolving to apply it without exception, as some of our more remarkable animals do.

    For starters, and just for fun, I'm heading to Starbucks.