Saturday, December 18, 2010

Animals here and there

On my facebook page a week or so ago, I wrote on my wall that I had seen a pig strung up by the back leg in a tree, ready to slaughtered -- the week before I had seen a cow there. That post elicited a few comments regarding the treatment of animals. I promised on that post that I would write about the cultural view of animals here, at least in the villages -- things are always a little different in the cities. I thought about the topic for a few days, observed the way animals are treated, and on Thursday in my conversation group we talked about animals. In our group my theory was confirmed.

One of my first questions to the students on Thursday afternoon was, "Do you have any pets?" I knew full-well that every single one of them has a yard full of animals, but I wanted to differentiate between farm animals and pets. Their response immediately confirmed the conclusion I had come to after thinking and observing --
"What is a pet?"
"You know, an animal that you have just because you like it."
Blank stares. One student said, "I like my dog."
To which I replied, "But is that the only reason you have your dog - just because you like it?"
"No, we have dogs to protect the house and the family."
"And do you have cats just because you like them?" I asked.
"No, I hate cats, but they catch mice."
One student who is very astute said, "We have the animals that we have because they are useful."
At that point I explained to them that in the U.S. I had cats, but not because I had a problem with mice. I had them just because I liked them. We talked for the entire 45 minutes about animals and the difference between their having animals here and my having animals back in the U.S.

I have been here in Shamgona for four weeks, and in that time, the only animal mistreatment I have witnessed was to see some boys throwing rocks at a dog to make it leave a cow alone. Other than that, every human interaction I have seen with animals has been humane. At the same time, I have seen very little affection from people to animals. "Our grandmother" is always chasing the cats with the broom to shoo them out of the kitchen. I scratch them on the ears and catch the kitten when I can to hold it and pat it. Elene loves it when I hold the kitten. "Our grandmother" says "Oooooh?" (Yes, that's a question.) The people here have animals because they are useful. Cows and water buffalo give milk and some are raised for meat. Pigs are raised for meat. Hens give eggs and are used for meat. Turkeys and ducks - meat. Dogs - protection. Cats - mousers. Horses - labor. This culture does not have the luxury of having anything that isn't useful. Life in the village is a difficult life, and their subsistence off the land includes animals. So, even though I am vegetarian and I don't like seeing anything hurt, let alone killed, I understand that for the people living here in the villages, raising animals for food is a necessity -- the way things were in the U.S. not so long ago (and still are in some places).

The day that I saw the pig hanging from the tree, I was reminded of a day when I was eight years old when I saw the same thing. I lived in central Maine, and my best friend lived on a farm. One day when I was playing at her house, the men slaughtered a pig, and all of us kids watched the whole thing -- except I didn't look when they shot it. But once it was dead, I watched the men hang it from a tree by a back leg, slit its throat to let the blood drain out, cut it open, take out the insides, skin it, and then cut it up to put in the freezer. I remember not really liking what I was watching but understanding the necessity of it. Life there was not so different from life here. On that farm, we milked the cows, churned butter, made ice cream in the summer, and killed and plucked chickens -- but we also played with the animals. We rode the horses - and sometimes the cows, but they are really bony. Once we rode the pigs. Bad idea. In one house that I lived in, the only stove in the kitchen was a wood cook stove just like Tea uses here. My mom made the best biscuits on that stove. We had a garden, and in the summer and early fall, Mom canned and froze everything she could for the winter months. Dad hunted and fished. I loved growing up in Maine. To me, it was all fun and adventure in the garden and on the farm and in the woods. Now I understand what hard work it was (Thank you, Mom and Dad for your tireless work!), just like life here in the villages.

Thursday when I went running after school, I ran by the house where I had seen the cow and the pig in the tree. There was nothing hanging in the tree, but one of my students, Lika (there are many "Lika's" here) was standing in front of the gate. She waved me to a stop, and told me that this was her house. I was saying something about seeing animals hanging from her tree, as a man walked up to us - Lika introduced me to her father - the town butcher. People in town bring their animals to him to have them slaughtered and the meat prepared correctly for cooking and curing. Today when I ran by, there was a cow's tail still in the tree, the head was sitting on a post, and he was working at finishing cutting up the meat. I waved and said "Gamarjobat," as I tried hard not to look at the pieces of necessity.

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