IT may be shocking to some who personally know me, but I do have a shameful memory involving me inflicting abuse on animals. I was about four or five years old when my primary school in Australia kept a little coop on a patch of grass, full of the fluffiest yellow chicks that were being kept as school pets. I recall tempting the chicks to the corners of the coop by feeding them blades of the grass on one side, then pulling on any tail feathers that stick out through the other side.
Their screams of pain came out as cute little cheeps. I don't know why I found it fun to do. What was worse was that I only did it when no one was looking, which meant that I knew I was doing a bad thing.
Thankfully, I eventually got caught red-handed and the well-being of the chicks was promptly restored.
Within a year of moving to Kuala Lumpur in the early nineties, my uncle gave my siblings and I a male lesser goldfinch, whom we affectionately called Tweetie. This bird was no larger than a golf ball but sang the loudest and most cheerful songs in the neighbourhood. He was the first animal in the household from which we were old enough to understand the concept of pet ownership.
Along the way there were more birds, a tortoise, a rabbit, schools of fish and the omnipresent dog or two. Our first dog in Malaysia, a spitz-mongrel mix called Crystal, lived to be ten human years when a mysterious virus attacked her brain and took her life in a matter of hours. She did have her fair share of flaws, like being unnecessarily vicious towards strangers, but I loved her through and through, and the sadness and despair I felt the evening she passed on will stay with me for the rest of my days.
All these memories have reinforced my belief that there is a strong association between my attitude towards animals and my developing sense of morality.
I'm glad that my parents kept their children growing up with animals. We learned together how to feed them, clean them, make mistakes together, and eventually we watched them come and go. I learned about the fragility of living things, the massive responsibility of looking after them, and how much love and joy pets can bring into our lives. Had I not grown up without them, I am certain that I would have turned out a completely different person, most likely having less respect for animals, affecting the ethics I would uphold towards the environment and humankind itself.
As an adult, I have come across kids who kick dogs and throw stones at birds. And just last week, at a bus terminal in Johor, I saw a little girl, dressed in a lovely pink dress, let go of her mother's hand to run right up in front of me to stomp a beautiful moth to death at my feet. I uttered an “EH!” in shock. She looked up at me, the face of an angel smeared with imprudence, and ran back to hide behind her mother. I would have felt half as concerned if her mother had shown a little less apathy and defeat about her daughter's deed.
Perhaps it is good that I did yank on the tails of those chicks. It is interesting to remember my innocent malice so vividly, and how huge, complicated and beautiful the process of 'growing up' actually is. I believe it is important to find things out on your own as a child, and that we are all entitled to our moments of mischief. I also believe in the ever-so-important role of nurturing compassion as best as we can in the new people we introduce into the world.
One of my family's dogs, Pepé, is a ripe 17 years of age. After being in China for 8 months, I have seen a huge difference. Her body is fading fast; she is now deaf as a post, blind as a bat, and her tumours are spreading rampantly. But she still manages to find her way around the house, and has learned to bark when she is hungry, thirsty, or needs help going outside to do her 'business' in the garden.
The other night, she successfully gnawed through a plastic bag to steal a bounty of tofu that my mom had just bought from the night market. I'm glad that she has stuck around for me to be able to look after her again, and that she keeps us laughing with her antics. I'm sure that somewhere inside, her puppy spirit is bounding, waiting to be freed. Until then, I am grateful for her being the oldest teacher I have.> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.