My poor long-suffering parents must have often wondered about whatever success they were having in raising me. My oldest brother was one of those kids who just seemed to effortlessly get everything right. He breezed through school with top marks, whilst my school reports regularly intoned the litany ‘Can do better’, ‘Must try harder’. By comparison, I was an early achiever; I started to fail academically at a very young age.
One of the earliest and most profound occurred when I was barely three years of age. I could hardly sleep with excitement the night after we acquired the sweet little butterballs that were my father’s new batch of barely hatched chickens. Waking early before anyone in the house began to stir, I crept to the back door, pulled on my mud-caked boots, and ran silently down the long pathway that led to the orchard.
When I reached the wire enclosure that contained our hens and also prevented a certain few of the neighbourhood children from helping themselves to our fruit and eggs, I slipped open the gate latch and picked my way carefully over the muddy ground towards the new cage that my father had built in preparation for our new 'toys'.
One of the great benefits that comes to children who have been raised with the company of animals is that they can learn early to treat them well.
He should show kindness to animals, how much more unto his fellowman, to him who is endowed with the power of utterance. -Baha’u’llah
You can imagine the shock and disappointment I felt when, inside the cage, I saw no bundles of fluff, no balls of cotton? Instead, huddled miserably in one corner was a muddy, miserable collection of shivering wet scraps no longer voicing endearing chirps, only pathetic complaints. No sign of their former cuteness, no longer adorable, merely an unappealing straggly assortment of avian misery.
As I wondered what could be done to snatch hope from the jaws of defeat, it occurred to me that perhaps all was not lost. How happy my parents would be if I bathed the chickens, just as I had seen my mother bathe my new-born brother. I thought of how he always gurgled and laughed when it was time for his bath. I remembered the happy look on my mother's face as she soaped and tickled and baby-talked him. I imagined their surprise if, instead of having to be faced with the pathetic sight that had shocked and saddened my own eyes that morning, my parents awoke only to the reassuring sight of the sweet cotton balls of the day before joyfully exploring the delights of their new home! Inspired and touched by the thought of this selfless act of goodness on my part, I collected the tin bowl that was kept near the tap in the cowshed. I filled it with water and, with as much care as a three-year-old can muster, my short outstretched arms carried the slopping, slapping contents until I reached the chickens.
I could now hardly contain my excitement at the thrill I was about to give my father's new acquisitions. I thought about a recent visit with my grandmother to the duck ponds in the Auckland Domain where we had watched the little ducklings splashing and wriggling their tail feathers, or sailing serenely on the still surface, dipping down and then bobbing up again, full of the sheer joy of new life.
Inspired by this image, I gathered up hands-full of soggy chicks and tossed them into the water, where I splashed them around and around, squishing water through their dirtier places until the once-clear water was now the same colour as the wet mud on which my cold rear end was firmly planted.
Although the chicks had seemed quite animated when they first entered the water, I was a bit disappointed at how quickly the thrill seemed to fade and their little bodies ceased to flap and squirm. In fact, a few of them were no longer even floating. I picked some of these out of the bowl for a closer examination. By now, all had grown still. Nothing cheeped or squirmed. There was only a muddy bowl filled with muddy brown water and cold, wet, mucky blobs.
My heart began to sink. I knew something terrible had happened. I didn't know how, and I didn't know why, but my heart felt as though it, too, was lying at the bottom of that cold muddy bowl. With heavy feet, my boots trudged back up the path to await whatever horrified parental reaction was awaiting.
It seemed as if, in the space of mere moments, I had been changed from the caring, thoughtful child who restored sullied newborns to innocent purity and won the admiration and acclaim of parents, only to mutate - in one dreadful act - into the Monster Child who seized upon innocent little creatures that were my father's hope and joy and coldly murdered them. No-one called me a murderer, but I saw the shocked looks on the faces of my family and in my heart I, too, wondered how an other-wise normal child could have become such a beast.
Honesty impels me to add that, far from this being the tale of a pure and innocent child who was cruelly misunderstood, it was not too many days later that I found myself feeling very angry with my mother for some now forgotten reason. After completing my regular chore of gathering up the day's harvest of eggs, I relieved that built-up ill feeling by stomping up the same path whilst, with each step that I took, I forcefully smashed one egg after another onto the grey concrete in satisfyingly vivid orange splatters.
But the lesson of kindness to animals stayed with me. On later learning that our beloved house cow Belzianna - on whose broad and accommodating back I had enjoyed so many childhood rides - had been 'disappeared' off to the slaughterhouse, I began to look at meat with a dubious eye.
By the time I was raising young children myself, the implications of feeding them with meat had begun to seem more than a little discomforting. But this isn’t a diatribe about vegetarianism. It is about the tenderness of children’s hearts and the importance of raising them to be extremely kind to animals. In the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
Briefly, it is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature. For in all physical respects, and where the animal spirit is concerned, the selfsame feelings are shared by animal and man. Man hath not grasped this truth, however, and he believeth that physical sensations are confined to human beings, wherefore is he unjust to the animals, and cruel.
These experiences of the importance of training children to be compassionate and watchful proved powerful in my future years as an early childhood supervisor and then a teacher of older children, as well as mother to my own.
Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests. And again: Most human beings are sinners, but the beasts are innocent... to blessed animals the utmost kindness must be shown, the more the better. Tenderness and loving-kindness are basic principles of God’s heavenly Kingdom. Ye should most carefully bear this matter in mind. ---'Abdu'l-Baha
A child who has been raised with the opportunity and also practical experience in treating an ill or injured animal will remember the positive feeling that came with that; of expressing tender-heartedness to another in need, and from the knowledge that he or she has the capacity to make a difference in the lives of others. 'Abdu'l-Baha further clarifies:
And yet in truth, what difference is there when it cometh to physical sensations? The feelings are one and the same, whether ye inflict pain on man or on beast. There is no difference here whatever. And indeed ye do worse to harm an animal, for man hath a language, he can lodge a complaint, he can cry out and moan; if injured he can have recourse to the authorities and these will protect him from his aggressor. But the hapless beast is mute, able neither to express its hurt nor take its case to the authorities. If a man inflict a thousand ills upon a beast, it can neither ward him off with speech nor hale him into court. Therefore is it essential that ye show forth the utmost consideration to the animal, and that ye be even kinder to him than to your fellow man.