I was at my internship yesterday, and managed to bum a ride on one of the mobile clinics into a township. (The organization I work with sends mobile veterinary offices (trucks with medicine and an examination table in them) to townships and holds clinics for poor people and their pets/work animals.) Howard and Junior, two of the animal officers, park the truck wherever and people see us from their shacks and come over with their puppy or cart-pony or whatever if it’s ill or needs a vaccination.
Yesterday we parked on a soccer field next to a school. It was a very rudimentary soccer field, of course – a couple of poles for goals, and an uneven ground scattered with broken glass and made of sand, dirt, and scrubby bush in different places. The kids seemed fine with it, they were all dressed in their little school uniforms and kicking a ball all over the place. We normally wouldn’t have parked on their field, (we were supposed to drive around to the front of the school) but the road was blocked off by a throng of people and a police vehicle standing around a dead body. Figures.
Junior and Howard started gabbing away in Xhosa to the person who lived in the shack across the road from the school (and the body). I tried to catch a few words by Xhosa is one of the most ridiculously-hard-to-understand languages for a romance-language speaker to understand, so I soon gave up and let the babel turn into a gentle thrumming and clicking around my head. I watched the children playing soccer and complimented a passer-by’s shoes (nice black flats) and watched a scrawny black puppy in a shopping bag waiting to be given de-worming paste by Howard or Junior (or myself).
We treated the puppy, an old man’s three dogs, and a few other animals that I don’t remember in the middle of the soccer field. The kids seemed to be at recess forever, or maybe school was let out early, I don’t know. Some of them stopped kicking the soccer ball and watched us with curiosity. We gave out pamphlets to them about proper care of die hund (“the dog” in Afrikaans). Every once and a while I took a glance over at the body, covered by a baby-blue blanket. I could see a hand sticking out underneath it.
The body belonged to a man who had, according to the mob surrounding it, been a thief, a robber, and a murderer. That morning, a group of people – some of whom perhaps had known someone the man had murdered – decided they weren’t going to take it anymore. They found him walking along the street in front of the school earlier in the morning, cornered him, and began beating him furiously. This attracted more and more people and a mob of stone-pelters and people with sticks formed. They beat him until he was nearly dead, until one member of the mob had come back from the gas station with enough petrol to douse his body with. They lit him on fire and burned him the rest of his way to death.
When Howard and Junior translated this story for me, I was basically … aghast? Confused/afraid/disgusted? Something like that. By the time our mobile vet clinic had arrived at the school, the murdered thief and murderer had been dead for an hour or so. Someone had thrown the baby-blue blanket over the body. The police were standing around with the mob. No one seemed to be unduly upset, least of all the police. All I could think of to say was, “Is that … even LEGAL!??!?!”
Sort of a stupid, ditzy thing to say. Of COURSE it’s not legal. It’s murder. Duh. I knew this, but the police were standing there in what seemed to me to be a rather la-di-dah fashion considering someone had just been beaten and burned to death in front of children walking to school. It was hard for my sheltered American mind to comprehend. It really should be hard for any mind to comprehend, but there is brutality that occurs daily in front of people who live in township environments … so perhaps they learn to block it out. As necessity. The way I block out a slight headache.
Towards the end of the day a woman came carrying a mongrel dog towards the truck. The woman gave it to us. It wasn’t hers and she didn’t want it, she said. She’d been having to feed it. Please take it away. So we did. It had the perked-up ears of a German Shepherd, the appealing eyes of a Labrador Retriever, the small, lithe body of a terrier and the genetic make-up of perhaps 20 different dog breeds. A “township dog” or a “pavement special” as they call them here. A true mongrel, underfed and flea-ridden and oh-so-helpless and friendly.
The problem with these dogs is that for every 100 of them, there are 2 decent homes for them. So you have to put them down. No-kill shelters really aren’t a viable option in a country where the government can’t even alleviate all of the humans’ suffering, let alone the animals’. Howard apologized to me – they think that, as a female and as an American, I can’t handle the euthanasia of a young, healthy, cute dog or any of the other realities of South Africa.
They’re kinda right. I kinda can’t. I kinda know I should. But I just don’t have the stomach for watching a dog be put to sleep more than once a week, and I’d already seen a sick 4-week-old puppy be euthanized. I suggested to Howard that maybe this dog could just … live at the animal hospital, back at the office. The hospital already has a few cats that we end up feeding. Why not a dog? Howard said, “ok, we’ll see.” I know what that means … that means they’ll drop me off at the minibus station, wait till I’m out of eyesight, and then put the dog to sleep. It’s a small gesture of consideration, but in a place, time, and country with so few gestures of consideration even for people who deserve them and need them more than I do, I appreciate it.
I really gotta start toughening up, though. I can, I just don’t want to. It’s a question of compromising the empathy that I have been afforded from my priviledged life for the reality that I must adopt around people who have not had my privileged life. I can’t decide if I NEED to lose the feeling I have for people and animals who suffer, or if it is a good thing to keep, even though it can be painful.