On Friday, February 24th I spent a few hours volunteering for the SPCA’s annual Bake a Difference fundraiser. The event is tied in with National Cupcake Day. Helping animals and eating cupcakes, could there be a better way to spend my time?
This year the event was not held at the local SPCA branch but at the Bank of Montreal in downtown Campbell River. The location was perfect. Not only was it easy for regular supporters to come in and donate money for cupcakes but the SPCA also reached a lot of new folks who knew little or nothing about their activities.
The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. There were stacks of delicious home-baked cupcakes donated by volunteers, and the bank clients enjoyed having treats to munch on while waiting in line. We even had a couple come in and ask how many cupcakes they could get for a $60 donation. We filled up a big box with an assortment of the baked treats, while we offered our sincere thanks. It turns out this couple owns the local McDonald’s franchise and were going to bring the cupcakes to their staff. Lots of happy feels all around!
Though we had a couple of banners, we didn’t have much else in the way of signage and more than a few bank customers came over and asked us what we were raising money for. Usually, as soon as we said, “The BC SPCA”, there would be an instant flash of recognition and then they would drop some money in the box and take a cupcake.
But there was one gentleman, standing in line for the tellers, whose response was not only different but also crystallized some thoughts that have been swirling around in my cranium.
“What’s this for?” the man asked, gruffly.
“We’re fundraising for the BC SPCA,” I said, cheerfully.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” I said.
Before I could explain any further, his face darkened and he sneered, “Hmmpf, stray dogs and immigrants!” He turned away from me, indicating that this was the end of our conversation.
His obvious displeasure didn’t bother me. I am well acquainted with the SPCA and the good work they do—from the first dog I adopted in my early twenties, through my work as a veterinary assistant, and most recently as a kitten foster volunteer. His comment and attitude, however, was a jarring reminder of the narrow world view some people cling to.
How do we form our opinions? When do they become set in stone? How much of what we believe is based on facts and how much on emotion? These are the questions I have been asking.
The unspoken subtext of this man’s comment was that we were bleeding heart liberals—or Social Justice Warriors in today’s parlance—talking people into wasting their money and time on lesser life forms. He could not see beyond his bias, could not see how helping the less fortunate or the voiceless actually helps us all.
As a kid in the 70’s, a few dogs running around loose in the neighbourhood wasn’t a huge cause for concern unless you were, like my best friend Trish, terrified of dogs. But those dogs all had homes that they would eventually return to or owners who would go looking for them, or we all knew who they belonged to. In other words, these were not really stray dogs. Occasionally the dogs fought with each other, pooped on people’s lawns, or bit someone, but most of us accepted these free roaming canines as a fact of life. When most people in North America think of “stray dogs” that is likely the image or memory that springs to mind.
It wasn’t until I started traveling to Baja, Mexico that I understood just how much of a hazard stray dogs can be. Anyone who has traveled to or lived in in developing or third world countries knows how it feels to find themselves confronted with a pack of stray dogs. These animals are dirty, often diseased, usually hungry, carrying fleas or parasites, and sometimes aggressive. To be bitten by one of these dogs is to face the possibility of rabies and a painful course of rabies vaccines.
As a runner, this is special problem for me, since running triggers pack hunting instincts. I do not go for a run anywhere without a small canister of bear mace on my hip.
Stray dogs breed more strays. The problem escalates until it is a public health hazard and extreme measures must be taken. In some places, dogs are shot or rounded up and euthanized en masse. Sometimes locals will leave out poison meat and inadvertently kill not just feral dogs but a host of other animals, including beloved domestic pets.
The good news is that it doesn’t take all that much money and work to prevent a stray dog population from reaching that point.
In Mulege, the little city near where Fred and I had our beach house in Baja, an American vet moved in and started to offer free spaying and neutering for local pet owners. She also provided free or low cost services, including “puppy packs” to educate owners on the importance of vaccines, hygiene, and general health practices for their dogs. I volunteered with her a few times. It was a bare bones operation but in a few short years I saw the rampant stray dog population dwindle to almost nothing. The local dogs I saw began to look healthier and more content. I felt better about walking the streets and I know I wasn’t the only one.
In the Cook Islands I volunteered with a group of international veterinarians who made an annual visit to spay, neuter, deworm and vaccinate the island’s cats (there were no dogs on Aitutaki). They also rounded up as many feral cats as they could to spay and neuter. Feral cats may not be as much of a threat to humans as stray dogs, but an unchecked cat population can quickly wipe out indigenous birds and small mammals, which effects the local eco-system, which, you guessed it, effects humans.
These are two cases I witnessed first-hand that showed how caring for animals improves the lives of humans. But if I had not visited or lived in these places, had not seen and felt the hazards posed by stray and feral animals, would I still feel as strongly as I do about animal welfare? Sure, I would probably still care about animals but perhaps not as fervently and definitely without the same depth of understanding of the big picture.
Luckily, the generations of Canadians coming after me have been raised in an environment where animal welfare is the norm. That is due in large part to organizations such as the SPCA who have worked tirelessly, and often thanklessly, to educate us all and broaden our world view.
The issue of immigrants and refugees is infinitely more complicated than animal welfare but negative attitudes come from the same place.
Over the years, new people I have met, upon learning of my nomadic existence, have reacted with awe, confusion, envy, or admiration. I’ve heard a lot of “Wow!” in my lifetime. A lot.
The wow is because for most people home is a sturdy, solid, fixed place. For most people, there really is no place like home. Home is comfortable. Your friends and family are there, your job is there, your hobbies are there, your whole life revolves around that one dot on the map. It may not be perfect but it’s your place and that makes it special. Most people I’ve met consider moving any distance more than an hour from their current home a BIG move. Out of their province or state? Enormous! Out of their country? Whoa! To the other side of the globe? Nope. To a place where they don’t speak the language, know the culture, or practice the dominant religion? Ha ha ha ha. No thank you!
Yes, lots of folks dream about running away to a tropical island to live but for 99% of those people it will remain just that—a distant, safely far-fetched fantasy.
This is not an insult to folks who are happy staying right where they are thankyouverymuch, it is an explanation of human nature. We are tribal. We naturally cling to people who look like us, speak our language, and believe what we believe. Why on earth would any sane person pack up and move away to strange place where they didn’t know anyone?
If you are a person who has lived in roughly the same area for all or most of your life, consider for a moment what it would take to motivate you to move to, say, China, or Pakistan, or Iceland, or any place that’s far away and very different from where you live now. What would it take? A job or business opportunity that would catapult you ahead in your chosen career or would pay so much money that you’d be crazy not to take it or your absolute dream job on offer? Falling madly in love with someone from that faraway place? (Someone who could not move to your part of the world.) The rest of your family moving there?
How about a serious threat to your life or safety? Your family’s life or safety?
What I’m saying is that all humans like to be where they are. Even if it looks like hell to you, to the person living there it is home sweet home.
People who leave their home and move far away to a different country where they don’t speak the language, practice the dominant religion, or know the customs, those people are either a) born with a deep-seated instinct to wander b) have some extreme motivation or c) are desperate.
Legal immigrants tend to fall into the second or third category, depending on their country of origin. Illegal immigrants or refugees are more often desperate, terrified, willing to live anywhere that they and their family will be safe.
Think on that for a moment. These people are not traveling to your country on a whim. They know they will have years of legal and bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and—even for refugees—fees to pay. They are not sitting in their homes, twirling their black mustaches and plotting how to take your job and suck your welfare and health care systems dry. These are highly motivated people who are determined to make a better life for themselves and their families no matter the obstacles. They are industrious, willing to take jobs well below their skill level and outside of their field just for the privilege of living in your country. They are people who want to be good citizens and contribute.
Immigrants are exactly the kind of people we want in our society. They are the doers. They are the risk takers. They are the ones who appreciate how good life is in our part of the world. They bring new ideas, new ways of seeing the world, new cuisine, music, fashion and art. Canada and the USA have been enriched and strengthened by cultural diversity.
There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about immigrants and refugees out there, many of which get spread around the internet like social media herpes. I’m not going to refute them here—that’s not the point of this little rant—but I will encourage you to seek out the facts before you judge.
And, yes, some freeloaders and bad apples will always slip through, and if you live in an area with a lot of immigrants and refugees you will likely have a bunch of anecdotes about how lazy and thieving and terrible they are. I will only say a) every wave of immigrants through the ages has been painted this way until they eventually integrate and the next wave takes their place b) the actual numbers of “bad” immigrants and refugees is statistically insignificant.
Now, getting back to the cranky gentleman at the bank who lumped immigrants in with stray dogs, again, this is a person who can’t see past the tiny sphere of his own existence.
As someone who has traveled, lived and worked in faraway countries I can tell you this: it’s tough. It’s a lot of work; there are more papers to fill out and hoops to jump through than you can imagine. It’s hell saying goodbye to the people you love, even when you know you might be back in a few years. Some friendships cannot survive the separation and that hurts too. It’s expensive. And it’s frustrating to get to your new country and discover everyone hates you because they think you’re taking their jobs. It’s embarrassing to know that people are making fun of you in the language you can’t speak—and if you think learning a new language as an adult is easy…HA!
HA HA HA HA!!!
It’s also amazing when you finally make a connection, when you meet a local person who is kind and patient and wants to help you. What a feeling when you are able to share some of your culture that enriches the people around you, and then they share their culture with you, and you all walk away feeling better and wiser and more compassionate for the exchange.
It makes me sad to know that the Gentleman In The Bank Line will never know that feeling.
Almost as sad as it makes me to think that he missed out on some damned delicious cupcakes!
The Gentleman In the Bank Line was a good reminder to me to guard against the natural human instinct to settle, to refuse to examine our beliefs, to narrow our view until we are looking through a pinhole at our big, beautiful, complicated, glorious world.
May I always choose to eat the cupcakes and care for stray dogs and immigrants. May we all.