Ceacht na toirtíse

My childhood experiences as a pet owner were not particularly happy ones. I have previously related the story of my goldfish and his sad demise. I was apparently given a second chance by my parents because, at age 11 or 12, I was once again the owner of an animal, this time a tortoise.

I remember very little about that tortoise. Was it male or female? What was he or she called? I have no idea. So I guess I’d better just refer to it as the “tortoise”, and use the male pronoun throughout.

It must have been early spring when I found my tortoise in our back garden. I had not seen him for a long time. When he turned up again I guessed that he had been hibernating for the winter. Now that the sun was warming up our north Atlantic island again, it made sense that he had emerged from his long sleep. 

I recall lifting up my pet to have a closer look at him after his lengthy absence. However he must have been alarmed by my action because he defecated on my hand as I picked him up. I was so alarmed myself that I dropped him to the ground. 

Unfortunately I was standing on the paved part of our back yard. There was insufficient time for the tortoise to retract his head before hitting the hard surface. So when I took him up again I spotted some blood around his mouth where he must have been injured in the fall. I was horrified. 

I decided to bring him further down the garden and bury him in the earth. Insofar as I had thought this through at all, I believed that I was simply putting the tortoise back into hibernation so that he could recuperate. I probably imagined that he would appear again in a few days as right as rain. Of course that did not happen and I never saw him again.

Filled with shame I did not tell my parents of the tortoise’s brief reappearance and the terrible incident that followed. As far as they were concerned he had vanished months earlier never to be seen again. I did not enlighten them. We carried on as if the tortoise had not existed, or at least had not survived the winter.

Maybe it was thinking back to my goldfish that brought the tortoise to mind. Both childhood experiences left me with an aversion to ever again having a pet. True, as I grew into adulthood, there were one or two cats and later a dog. Yet it never felt right somehow and with each passing day that feeling became stronger. I now find the idea of one species, Homo sapiens, “owning” another to be utterly repugnant.

Elsewhere I have detailed my scepticism at the widely-held assumption that humanity is the dominant species on Earth, and that we can do what we like with the planet and its resources, including the fauna. Whether through animal testing, hunting for sport or profit, or intensive farming, this assumption has led to untold, and perhaps unimaginable, suffering by our fellow creatures. As I mentioned above, I believe that pet-owning is also wrong, on a par perhaps with owning human slaves, however kindly the owner treats them.

It is a pipe dream perhaps, but I would like to see humanity make some gesture of atonement or reparation to the beasts of the Earth for our barbarity towards them. (I would certainly love a chance to make amends to my pet tortoise.) 

But then I wonder. Perhaps current events are already taking care of that. Are we now going through some kind of karmic readjustment that will restore balance to our world?

For nearly two years, Homo sapiens has been immersed in a state of mass hysteria that could destroy us completely. We humans have become so obsessed with the threat posed by an undetectable virus that we are turning our civilisation upside down in order to defeat it.

Are the other creatures on this planet completely uninterested in our self-inflicted miseries? Or do they feel their own form of schadenfreude towards us? For instance would lab rats find it amusing that, through their participation in new drug trials, their erstwhile tormentors are submitting to experimentation themselves?

Of course I am guilty here of anthropomorphism in projecting human feelings onto creatures I do not understand. But until such time as we can unlock the mysteries of the animal mind, what else can we do except follow this line of thought a little further?

If it turned out that anthropomorphism is closer to the mark than we think, maybe we would find that our fellow creatures are not as shallow or as petty as we are. Is it even possible that they actually feel sorry for us right now and, like dolphins that come to the aid of stranded swimmers, may even want to help us? 

If so it is more than we deserve. And if it were true, wouldn’t we be foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth?