Day 87: Is compassion a muscle? If so are there any gyms nearby?
Can one train in compassion?
I spend my time at the Ark helping out where I can: walking dogs, occasionally de-ticking others, helping to feed them, watching over the puppies and taking pictures (of the cats too – yes Avis looks after a few of them too. I want to help make a calendar to sell in the local shops to raise money.
It’s small daily exercises for my heart – not much, little star jumps perhaps. Can one train in compassion? Can one practice opening our heart to suffering so that we become more and more…able to help?
Watching Avis, super-athlete
If we are talking compassion then Avis is an olympic athlete – she has a toned and flexible heart- but in her physical body she is frail. It worries me. She works so hard: brushing dogs, managing her staff (who don’t all speak English well), replying to emails, cleaning toilets, filing legal complaints against cruely cases, occasionally losing her temper.
This morning, as we walked through the centre, she tripped on a dusty slope and ended face down on the floor unable to get up. It was a cruel sight. As I lifted her back up she brushed herself down with a laugh.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, ‘totally fine. But my feet are weary after all the chemo’
I get the feeling she’s had a life-time of falling down and getting back up.
Avis’s legal trials
Avis has an understanding with the local government that the dogs within a certain territory are hers to control. She collects them, treats them for sickness at the centre, neuters them and releases them back at the same spot.
It is a proven method recommended by the World Health Organisation for managing both dog population and disease.
This programme is called ‘ABC’ or Animal Birth Control and in theory it is as simple as a,b,c. Not, however, if government dog catchers come on your patch and take dogs from under your nose with the likely intention of destroying them (because it’s a quick, cheap ‘solution’)
Avis says that the government have killed many of her dogs that she has treated and sterlised. It makes you aghast.
A few years back, Avis saw some dog catchers doing just this and called the police. The police came and she took photographic evidence. But shortly after she found herself in court for apparently attacking the dog catchers.
“BRITISH PENSIONER VS INDIAN DOG CATCHERS”… would draw a crowd at a cage fight, I’m sure, but this was no light entertainment and the legal battle lived on for years in the Kafka-esque court system until it finally died as mysteriously as it was born.
In India it takes three years before a charity is allowed to accept foreign contributions. Avis did her three years from 2001-4. Then she had the court case and for another three years she wasn’t allowed to apply because she was on bail. Then she got cancer – and understandably other things were on her mind.
She needs a break!!
Now 11 years on she needs to retire, but it is vital to secure the right to foreign contributions to keep the charity going. In the meantime she has been using her own savings and been accepting limited payments through paypal (please please consider donating any amount – it is desperately needed). She has applied again and expects to hear back tomorrow.
One gets the feeling that India doesn’t care much about the dogs or Avis.
You might argue that what Avis is doing is pointless – she is swimming upstream against a raging current of cruelty and indifference. What impact can she make in such a vast country with so many dogs that has so much resistance? Change must come from the politicians, from big organisation. I looked at her ‘control’ area on a map – it was only a fraction of the local state, which in itself was a tiny fraction of Kerala. Avis’ patch all but disappears in the totality of India.
And yet what she does has SO much point.
I have decided – in my quest to unearth more compassion in myself – that Avis’s response is the highest form of caring: it is helping DESPITE the impossibility of finding a total solution. When a nurse tends to a dying soldier and applies a bandage to the wound it’s something similar – and thank goodness we are capable of that sort of instinctive kindness.
‘I can’t keep on taking in dogs, I can’t afford it’ Avis says, ‘I don’t have the answer. I just do my best, but what else can you do?’
There is a lot else you can do. Like give up and watch TV.
Avis is not a politician, an intellectual, or even a leader – her qualities are more simple but solid as if carved in rock: kindness and dogged determination. Pun intended. Thank goodness we have people like her.
This afternoon a puppy that had been rescued was found to have the deadly and contagious Parvovirus. If the ARK had more resources, more isolation rooms, more medical supplies it might have made sense to try and keep it alive in the slim hope it would survive. But it was decided the best option would be to put it out of its misery…in about thirty minutes time.
What could I do to help? Obviously nothing.
Then it seemed clear. I took the poor little beast out of its solitary cage along with its bedding (appropriately enough it was black cotton) held him in my arms and talked to it.
I have no idea what I said – it was certainly not an Indian dialect and it was certainly not DOG – but there was some communication I think. I held him as he was injected.
I did not save an animal, but it counted for something. Somehow.
Screw this ‘animals saved’ thing for just a minute. A little compassion will do for now.
I once heard a Buddhist say that in the West we have a mistaken view of compassion. We treat it as a quality that we simply have – like eye colour or brown hair – and believe good people have more of it. And yet if we talk of other personal qualities like agility, strength, memory, wisdom or even, let’s say, jumping on a pogo stick, we all accept that these are things that can and must be practiced and developed.
So can compassion be strengthened like a muscle?
I’d like to think so…. but right now I have doubts. At this rate it feels as though my heart is buckling, not getting stronger. But maybe that is the process.
Tomorrow I will go out on the street to help catch stray and sick dogs. More heart training I guess. But right now I want to watch mindless TV.