Like a Caged Animal


We have all said it at least once in our lives….”I feel like a caged animal”

Does this mean that we know the feeling?  Does it mean we are really only one stop away from feeling compassion and empathy? Even if we really don’t know what it means to be a caged animal, we know the feeling of being anywhere we don’t want to be. 


Lying in bed one morning, I heard a distant siren make one of the dogs on our block start howling like the wild canine inside him.  When I hear a howling coyote or wolf in the wilderness the sound makes me feel like all is right in the world.  I love that sound. 


When I heard the neighbor’s dog howling, I pictured him in his pen. His name is Smokey and he has spent the last 14 years on a concrete slab with some chain link around it that is about the size of the average American bathroom. He is luckier than most of the dogs in town who spend their lives in roofless pens smaller than a closet or on the end of a short heavy chain and never get walked. He has a little dog house about the size of his body that he can get into if he needs to get out of the rain or sun.  His person walks him a few times a day. Other than those walks, he spends all of his time sleeping. The reality of life for most dogs in cages is that they have no shelter from the summer heat and sun or the winter cold and snow.  When it rains, they lie in the least deep puddle they can find and wait it out.  That same morning, I looked over at our 40 pound dog, Bean.  She got cold in the night and snuggled between us under the quilt.  She was dumped on our road as a puppy.  We have always had a dog door, so the dogs can choose to be outside in the huge fenced yard or inside the house.  This is as good as it gets in town.  And still I am aware of having to limit their natural instincts everyday. 


Our next door neighbor to the south collects animals he can’t really care for.  Dogs, cats, rabbits and any other animal in the unlucky position of catching his eye when he is at a pet shop.  When my partner and I saw the rabbits had no food or water, we started feeding them.  When we saw that they were exposed to rain and hot sun without protection, we asked if they could come over here for a “playdate”.  He agreed to the playdate about a year ago and they have not gone back there since.  He has not come to visit them.  Just once he made a comment about them, saying, “They seem happier at your place.”  We had to help them, because we could see them everyday.  But what about all the animals we don’t see who are in cages each day? 


I am haunted by the knowledge that there are animals in cages around the world living lives of boredom and frustration.  Animals used as food or in medical and product experiments or used as breeding stock for the “pet” industry are among the caged populations of living beings. What makes some people feel for these beings and other people not feel for them? 

I have witnessed caged animals biting the bars of their prison or biting themselves and pulling out their own fur or pacing and going crazy in their cells. 


Funktionslust is a German word that means the pleasure we get from doing what we are built for or derive pleasure from.  I think I am haunted by these suffering caged animals because I know what it is like to not be allowed to do what I am built for or derive pleasure from.  Last month I was waiting for three hours at a tire store while they worked on our truck. We were there waiting, not knowing how long it would be before they would get to us.  Surrounded by noisy freeways with nowhere to walk but a super Walmart, I started to go stir crazy.  I am not a shopper and I do not support Walmart, so distracting myself in the giant florescent lit cage filled with people distracting themselves with unnecessary purchases was not an option.  I felt like a caged animal.  I am at home in the wilderness.  When I am in a place where I cannot experience the night sky, natural non-human sounds, fresh air to breath or miles to walk, I start to feel trapped.  I feel the opposite of funktionslust.  


We were camping in Florida last winter.  At night when the world got quieter, I would hear the sounds of the lion at the Seventh Day Adventist Camp Zoo next door.  The camp has a zoo because someone who works there collects wild exotic animals.  The sounds that lion made were unmistakably the sounds of an unhappy animal.  We went to go see what the conditions were like.  The conditions were better than they are in many roadside animal exhibits, but the lion was in a cage about the size of a two car garage with a concrete floor and one swinging tire.  He paced continuously back and forth.  A small letter writing effort by a few of us got the camp to build him a larger enclosure with at least some real ground under his feet.  An improvement, but still a far cry from the broad savannahs and freedom this lion is built for both physically and emotionally.


A large fifty year old turtle at the National Zoo in Washington DC began mutilating himself.   Someone got the idea that this animal stuck in a cage for his entire existence with no one and nothing to interact with might be bored.  They started giving him balls and hoops.  The moment they put these in his cage, he began making up games with them.  As long as they keep a variety of objects rotating through his cage, he does not bite and scratch himself. 


One of the most effective punishments for a human prisoner is solitary confinement.  People who have experienced this really do know what it is like to be a caged animal. 


So what is the missing link that allows us to cage another being and not feel empathy for them?  We know the feeling of being trapped in something against our desire and wanting out of it. Why are most people not motivated to try to live lives that do not exploit and imprison animals?  I don’t have an answer for this.  The closest I can figure is that it is too painful to look at another’s imprisonment and suffering because we can in fact relate to it too closely. 


This week while walking our dogs, we met a woman named Shelly who has an un-neutered purebred dog.  She most likely has not considered that producing her dog means that some purebred female is living her life as a breeding machine.  If her dog came from a puppy mill, or a petshop supplied by puppy mills, the female never leaves her cage and gets minimal care and no social interaction.  Shelly also probably has not considered that buying that dog, rather than going to a shelter or rescue group to get him, means that one more dog will spend his life in a cage rather than being adopted by a loving home.


I used to have a woodshed that had wide open door and window openings to air out the wood I used for my woodstove.  Birds would regularly find their way in and not be able to find their way out.  I would stop by the shed a few times a day to make sure no one was caught in there.  When I did find a bird caught in the shed, I would gently cup my hands around their little body and release them back to freedom.  It only happened maybe four times in my years at that house, but I still remember each time.  I remember the joy I felt at giving someone back their freedom.  The same has been true when I have helped any wounded wildlife recover their health and released them back into the wild.  It is pure joy.  Anyone who has been around during those releases, feels this same joy.  You can see it in their face. 


For most people, helping others is something that brings more pleasure to us than to the one we are helping.  From small gestures like helping someone carry a heavy package to bigger gestures like helping someone move into their home, we feel good when we make the lives of others easier. 


What most people don’t realize is that you can feel that same joy everyday.  Every time you sit down to a meal or choose your form of entertainment or your household products.  Choosing not to support animal agriculture, animals in entertainment (zoos, circuses, aquariums, etc), animal breeding, or products tested on other species means you are not supporting industries that keep animals  (who have committed no crime) as prisoners.


If the missing link is not having the information on the reality of our choices, then it is our job to inform ourselves and then inform others about these realities.  If the missing link for those around us is having the information but not being able to act on it, we can be the inviting force in a community that helps normalize acting on what we know.  Can you imagine a community that is making its choices based on empathy and wanting a world with no caged animals?  What a beautiful place that would be.  And we can create that, starting now.