TAKING CARE OF OTHERS: Animal Liberation
By Tania Duratovic
Recently, my husband, Phil Hunt and I had the opportunity to journey to Tibet. Originally we were going to join our teacher from Sydney, but just days before the departure date, Geshe-la’s trip was canceled as the Chinese authorities would not issue him a visa. Phil and I decided we would still go to Tibet but modify the trip a little. We had to be in Nepal to work on the Animal Liberation Sanctuary so it was sort of on the way anyway!
As always, we look out for animal welfare and environmental issues when we travel. We really wanted to rescue some yaks from being slaughtered. We had organized for this to happen via a monk friend and were really keen to see it through.
The journey to this area in Kham (eastern Tibet) took several days. Our first stop was in Xining, the capital of Chinese Qinghai province in which a large part of Tibet (Amdo and part of Kham) now lies. Although used to working in Asia and other parts of the world on animal welfare issues, it never ceases to amaze me what people consider acceptable. China has some of the most horrendous cases of animal cruelty, such as the huge trade in dog and cat fur. These animals we are used to having at home as our pets, are rounded up on the streets, sometimes stolen, crammed into bags and shoved into the back of trucks to be skinned alive, fully conscious, and left to die a painful death. Much of the fur trim that lines the jackets (collars and sleeves) or gloves that people in others parts of the world wear is made in this way, usually sold as the fur of some other species to make it more palatable for consumers.
Yaks. Photos courtesy of Tania Duratovic and Phil Hunt.
Fortunately we did not (on this occasion) witness this type of brutality, although we did see many unusual sentient beings served as food. I shudder to think how they lived and died. We also saw several cats in cages or tied to the front of shops on busy main roads without anywhere to hide and without food or water. These cats were kept in full view of passing dogs and harassing children. We did our best to provide the often terrified animals with food and water and attempted, in my broken Mandarin, to explain to shopkeepers that perhaps this was not the best way to keep a cat.
We were glad to leave the city and head for the mountains. Upon seeing yaks, again we were so excited. I just love these animals and the way they so gracefully and nimbly move up and down the most precarious high-mountain terrain. I unwound the car window and madly shouted mantras outside at them. Our Tibetan drivers thought it was a little strange, but by the end of the two-day car trip, having seen us at every stop heading straight for any four-legged creature from dog to yak to horse, they thought it amusing.
The reality of yak meat. Photos courtesy of Tania Duratovic and Phil Hunt.
Once at our destination, our main purpose was to prepare for the retreat the two of us were doing. But first we wanted to rescue the yaks. Communication was difficult as our Tibetan is non-existent (other than prayers!) and few people there speak English. Apparently we were supposed to check out the animals and choose which ones we wanted. This, of course, was not something we wanted to do. How can one choose which ones live and which ones are to be killed? So we left it to the kind Tibetan family, who would be their caretakers, to choose.
Tibetans in many places we came across do not eat chicken, duck, or fish but mostly just yak. Their reason is that a single yak can feed many more people than a small animal, hence less animals are killed. And they certainly can eat a lot of it! We were being invited to meals constantly. They served all sorts of vegetarian food for us, ate a little themselves, and then took themselves aside to devour some meat. They all thought it very good that we did not eat any animals and many felt it was very pure but, of course, for most it was a habit too difficult to break. We did happily meet several monks who were vegetarian by choice and this seems to be spreading, so we are told. Many of these monks live in difficult situations where there really isn’t a lot of choice for food so it was very inspiring to see them extend their compassion in this way.
A dog tied up in a yard. Photos courtesy of Tania Duratovic and Phil Hunt.
Dogs are another animal kept by many Tibetans, mainly to guard their homes. Unfortunately, most of them are kept permanently chained up, usually with no access to water. The dogs bark ferociously when someone approaches and you can see that the dog is often just as scared as the visitor, or desperate for attention and affection. It was really difficult to witness this and not unchain the dog or give it a big hug. Again, we spent considerable time explaining how a dog needs access to water; how keeping the dog chained up permanently (often with the chain digging into the skin) was not kind to the dog; how if they treated their dog better, with more attention, etc., the dog would be, in most cases, very loyal and protective of them; and lastly, how keeping a chained dog was little deterrent to real intruders as they could simply walk around the dog out of reach. The dogs often barked at any movement or sound so their barking is regularly ignored anyway. Most of these families had their dogs chained within their fenced or walled property so it would be not only kinder, but more effective as a deterrent to intruders, for the dog to be free to run around the fenced area. They could always tie the dog up for short periods of time if they had guests, for example. It was obvious that many we spoke to were aware that this was not the kindest thing to do and felt embarrassed about it.
Dog blessing. Photos courtesy of Tania Duratovic and Phil Hunt.
We were asked to help set up an environmental program for the monastery and village where we stayed, including information about dog care. Rubbish disposal is also a huge issue throughout the areas we visited. Unfortunately, much of the garbage is dumped straight into the river thereby polluting the water. Litter is discarded out of car windows and left wherever people sit and gather. All of this affects the environment and the animals (and people) who depend upon it.
Many of the huge rivers we passed were being exploited for gravel by the Chinese, devastating the environment. Locals told us it was the gold they were actually after under the guise of extracting materials for building. The Chinese authorities also made the Tibetans plant numerous trees. Although this may sound good, they forced the Tibetans to plant in their barley fields, despite protests that they rely on these fields for food. The species of trees that they planted were also inappropriate. For example, they planted a gorse-like plant that animals cannot graze on and that can trap them in a maze of thorns. On the slopes around the monastery we were in, the monks had been told to plant pine trees which were in such high numbers and close proximity to one another that when they are fully grown, nothing will be able to grow in the shade and acidic soils beneath. Currently these areas are full of beautiful flowers and the Tibetan doctors collect their medicinal supplies here. I did a quick survey and in one small quadrant could identify at least 10 different species of medicinal plants.
Clearly the measures that the authorities have imposed will do little to actually protect the environment or help the local community. In response to a letter we wrote to the Australian government about these and other issues, we received a reply that said there are indications that China is “increasingly concerned about environmental degradation” – and that under “China’s 2011-15 Five Year Plan there will be an increased focus on improving water and air quality, and reducing heavy metal and soil pollution” (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, October 2011). If the current strategies rely on the methods that we have seen, they will be ignoring the time-tested sustainable landuse practices of the Tibetans in favor of imported strategies ill-suited to the needs of the local human and animal populations.
Mantras for chickens. Photos courtesy of Tania Duratovic and Phil Hunt.
After our retreat, we traveled to other parts of Tibet and everywhere we went, particularly in market places, we tried to bop the animals we saw with our little Buddha statue that Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave us years ago for this purpose, say mantras to them, and give them blessed water which we carry with us. Although we couldn’t rescue many animals, giving them Dharma in this way is still extremely beneficial and something we can all do very easily. We can also support rescued animals, such as those at the Animal Liberation Sanctuary in Nepal.
Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup, the former abbot of Kopan Monastery who recently passed away, told us last year that offering support to liberated animals was the same merit as rescuing an animal yourself. He said that without food, shelter and medicine they will die. That means that those sponsoring the liberation of the animals get great benefit, those sponsoring the care do too, as do those to whom the merit is dedicated (such as people who are sick or have life obstacles), and that is not even considering the fortunate animal itself, who has been spared an agonizing and terror-filled death.
We may not all be able to travel and rescue yaks in Tibet, or goats in Nepal, or chickens at home, but there are many ways to reap the benefits of animal liberation.
Tania Duratovic is an ecologist, zoologist and animal welfare consultant. Phil Hunt is an archaeologist who works for the Aboriginal Heritage Office and who has been involved in animal care and rescue for many years.
In addition to Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s advice for benefiting animals, FPMT makes it easy to support animals in a variety of different ways. Enlightenment for the Dear Animals, directed by Tania and Phil , provides advice, news and links to projects and people who are helping animals around the world. Tonya and Phil also serve as coordinators for the Animal Liberation Sanctuary, created near Kopan Monastery in Nepal to house animals that were to be killed so that they may live out the natural course of their lives in peace and gain a higher rebirth.
You can also support FPMT’s Animal Liberation Fund, a fund that directly supports Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s wishes to protect animals from danger and expose them to the Dharma (see Mandala January-March 2012).