Thursday, December 12, 2013

Don't blame poverty for thoughtless animal cruelty

   In the wake of the truly awful death of a little dog in our neighbourhood on Sunday, I've had a lot of conversations this week about animal cruelty in Honduras. The poor dog was scalded with boiling water by a restaurant worker trying to shoo her away, and died eight slow, suffering days later from her massive injuries.
    The news completely horrified me and virtually all of my Canadian friends, for whom that level of casual animal cruelty is incomprehensible. Were anyone to scald a dog to death in my hometown of Victoria, B.C., I am quite sure there would be something close to riots over the incident, and possibly the need for police protection for the perpetrator.
    My Honduran acquaintances, on the other hand, took the scalding as just one of those things that happens sometimes. They made it clear that while they don't endorse such things, they also don't feel moved to do anything about them. One told me his own dog had died two years ago in similar circumstances. Two other dogs on my street have also been scalded. I wouldn't suggest that Hondurans view dog-scalding as an acceptable practice, but nobody reacted with much surprise to the news of poor Coquetta's death.
    That Honduras has no animal-cruelty laws or SPCA-type body to take complaints is a problem for anyone who has a heart for animals. But I think the bigger barrier to preventing acts of unthinking cruelty is that many Hondurans don't even consider such things to be a problem. The most common reaction I got when I talked about the death of Coquetta was along the lines of, "Well, life is tough enough for the people here. How can they worry about the animals too?"
    But here's the thing: How can they not? Statistically, Honduras is one of the most violent countries on the planet. Hondurans talk all the time about the need to get a handle on their crazy murder rate, which tears apart the social order, sows terror and destroys the lives of an average 20 families a day in a country with a smaller population than New York City (which, for the record, had the same number of murders in all of 2013 that Honduras chalks up every 15 days).
    Sure, life is hard here for a lot of people. But hardship alone doesn't explain the extreme violence. No Latin American country has it harder than Haiti, for instance, yet that country has a murder rate 12 times lower than Honduras.
    If a society is serious about ending violence, it has to be tackled at every level in the culture. And at every level of Honduran culture, there are real problems.
    Whether it's executions ordered by the Honduras drug cartels, fights between rival gangs, domestic violence, ancient family feuds, child abuse or dog scalding, the common thread in my opinion is an acceptance of violence as a way to resolve life's problems.
    In terms of animal cruelty, the widespread poverty in Honduras does explain some of  the widespread neglect of animals. A family struggling to feed itself is also going to struggle to feed its livestock and pets.
    But deliberate cruelty is something else. Poverty doesn't explain why a person would scald a dog. Or swerve their car toward a skinny mutt in the street. Or break an animal's leg with a mighty kick. Or poison every dog in a small village with rat poison, because one of them ate your fish.
    I am routinely left gape-jawed by the small acts of animal cruelty habitually practiced here. Even the most social animals here will initially cringe when you reach out to pat them, having learned through hard experience that humans generally do harm.
   When they learned of the terrible death of Coquetta, my Canadian friends urged me to call the authorities, to organize other outraged Hondurans for a protest. They urged action against a perpetrator who they presumed to be sick and dangerous.
    Alas, there are no authorities to call, and no appetite among the people I know to do anything other than shrug the incident off. I wish I could believe that the people perpetuating cruel acts here really were demented and disturbed, but the ugly truth is that cruelty to animals is seen by many as a "normal" thing to do. The woman who allegedly scalded Coquetta to death goes to church every Sunday, and I wonder if she even thought more than a few seconds about her act even as she heard the screams of a little dog fatally scalded from nose to tail.
    I went to the restaurant Tuesday and talked to the staff about what I'd heard. The owner vehemently denied that anyone she employs would do such a thing, although she did note that dog owners should keep their pets closer to home. (She also said gossipers had best be careful in Honduras, because people get killed for that.) I also noticed one staffer who sat apart from us, listening but not participating. I can only hope that if one of them did commit this terrible act, at least they now know the impact of their casual cruelty.
    Of course, there are many Hondurans who love and care for their animals. At the risk of making a sweeping statement, however, I'd say there are more who don't. I don't know why. But until somebody other than the foreigners cares about that, nothing will change.


Unknown said...

Thanks Jody. Once again so succinctly put. My heart is with you in your time of grief and incredulity.

Sparkle said...

Good for you continuing to stay in such a violent country helping others when having to witness cruel behaviour, agonizing deaths and apathy like this, so difficult for us to imagine. I know I couldnt live with that, no matter how much I was changing lives! It would destroy my rather large faith in humanity and tear my soul apart. They are so fortunate to have you both there!

Lizzie Lau said...

I lived in Cozumel, Mexico for 5 years, Isla Mujeres for a year, and Roatan, Honduras for 5 years so I know exactly what you're talking about. I rescued a cat in Cozumel after seeing guys on the docks burning her whiskers. I also saw them pick up a stray dog and toss it off the dock, knowing that there were crocodiles in the water.
The good news is an expat, Lisa Ramirez, started a Humane Society in Cozumel, and has done a tremendous job educating the islanders. They implemented a free spay/neuter program which has dramatically reduced the number of strays. They also have an internationally renowned adoption program. I'd love to see the same model set up on Roatan, and I know a number of people there who would get behind it.