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Compassion, Empathy, and Rage: Some Thoughts from the Kaporos Protests

I’ve written before about my skepticism concerning love as a motivator for animal rights work (or, for that matter, liberation work of any kind). Whenever I hear “I just love animals” in the course of a conversation about someone’s rescued dog, I immediately crouch down inside my brain and wait for them to mention the steak they ate last night. The way I see it, love is too self-referential to provide a meaningful foundation for work on behalf of non-human animals in general, and it is usually too target-specific (e.g. I love dogs, but not cows) to be helpful.

However, ethics on their own, if applied in an emotional void, can be a tricky motivator too. Without the inclusion of some sort of emotional base, ethics can too easily stray into what I like to call Descartes territory: the area in which actual living things are trumped by abstract ideas and thoughts. Justice can be tricky as well. I was reminded by a friend with whom I have been having a conversation about such matters that justice isn’t always about an ethical striving to ensure liberation and equality for all. No – it can often be punitive, retributive, and just plain old-testament awful.

Besides: while I am primarily motivated by ethics, the reality is that I am deeply emotional about the animals with whom I work. I don’t like crying in front of people, so I avoid that at all costs. Frankly, I don’t talk much about my emotions in general with other people. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have them. In fact, I go to great lengths to avoid whatever I can in the way of footage or descriptions of suffering, because my ending up as a basket-case won’t help anyone, and my powers of dissociation can only stretch so far. So, at least for me, clearly there is some combination of ethics and emotions going on inside of me, acting as a motivator for me to do the work I’m doing.

But if it isn’t love, what is it? I had abundant opportunity to ponder that question in the wake of last weekend’s protests of the Kaparos rituals in Brooklyn. For those who don’t know, “chickens as Kaporos” is an outmoded, barbaric tradition still practiced by certain Orthodox Jews and Hasids, in which a chicken is swung over one’s head (or the head of someone else) in an effort to cast the sins of the human into the bird. The chicken is, of course, murdered later and the collected corpses are used to (in theory) Feed The Poor and other people who are deemed worthy of sin-infested flesh. Here is a link to more information about the whole thing:

Along with members from the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos and various other organizations, I watched as young boys gleefully grabbed baby chickens out of the stacked crates in the middle of the road and handed one or more of them to men (always men) who, in turn, rendered the birds motionless by pinning their wings behind them. They walked over to their family members and, one by one, waved the chickens over their heads. One chicken per person, including young children – including FETUSES, in fact – because apparently children and fetuses are full of sin. The birds were then either returned to the crates (to be murdered by a butcher) or else placed in cardboard boxes so the people could murder them personally.

It was a holiday for these people (interesting, given that Yom Kippur is supposedly the most somber, most introspective, most self-flagellating holiday period of the entire Jewish year). They were taking home movies with their iPhones and laughing it up as their toddler sons awkwardly held screaming baby birds by their wings. They were chatting with their friends. They were looking so adoring, and so smotheringly happy, that one might think they were attending their kid’s first recital or something.

We did everything we could to make it clear what a monstrous activity these people engage in, and through various tactics (including purchasing birds, a tactic which has both obvious benefits and serious drawbacks), some folks managed to get 80 birds out of their clutches, 30 of whom who are now safe at VINE. Three of us did two ride-arounds late at night to see if there was anyone we could help; tragically, despite hours driving all over Brooklyn, there was no one we were able to get free on those nights. Several of us also called the cops and the ASPCA about particularly egregious incidents of cruelty (since being held in a crate for days, being tortured, and then being murdered isn’t considered cruel if you’re a chicken), but of course no one ever came.

The cries of the chickens were the worst part. They are babies, every single one of them. Babies no more than six weeks of age (which is about when factory farms kill chickens for flesh consumption). Babies crying from fear, pain, and confusion, their bodies already showing the toll of terror: days and nights spent unable to move more than a couple of feet, unable to stand up all the way, stacked on top of and beneath other crying babies. Imagine yourself there. You don’t know what’s going on, you’ve had no food or water for days, no comfort except that one second when someone comes to take you from your prison, and that’s when you hope you might finally get the chance to walk about freely – but no! You are instead pinned in an excruciatingly painful position, swung through the air, and then thrown (often literally) right back into that prison. The next time someone picks you up will be your last, because the next thing you know, someone will be sliding a scalpel across your neck. And you’re a BABY. And now you are dead.

Even in those moments while I felt my body and mind freeze into some sort of survival mode – even while I watched those babies be tortured and then murdered – I can’t honestly say I loved them. In Brooklyn alone, there are about 50,000 baby chickens murdered every year in the name of this ritual. In time I will love the babies who are living here now, but I did not then, and do not now, love those chickens in Brooklyn. What I felt was something other than (and, to me, more meaningful than) love. It began with extreme compassion and transformed into acute empathy, both of which expressed themselves in one long scream that reverberated throughout my body.

It was the axe-cleave of wrongness, the nightmare from which one cannot awaken, that I felt. This is where emotions meet ethics: where the certainty of wrongness – the sheer and utter terror that the powerful so often force upon the powerless – becomes a clarion call to action in the mind. It was not love that pumped its way through my body in response to this horror-show. It was compassion which led to empathy which led to despair coupled with wrath, anguish interwoven with rage, all of which led to an even greater conviction that I must do more to end this obscenity.

These are the things we should all be feeling when we hear of, or witness, something like this. This is what we must feel every time the powerless are beaten down by the powerful. I’m not talking about lions killing zebras, either, so please don’t read that into this. I’m talking about gut-level wrongness perpetrated by powerful members of our species against the powerless members both of our own species and of others (which includes everyone, since de facto we are more powerful than everyone else).

This is a motivator I can live with. This thing for which we need a new word combines emotions and ethics into a powerful force, and inevitably leads to action, for to do nothing becomes intolerable. This is what fuels most of the animal rights activists I know. We are people who have allowed that thing to pulse through our bodies and knew we could not live with ourselves if we did not align with the powerless against the powerful.

Who else will allow this powerful force to enter their bodies, their minds, their psyches? Who will join the fight to end this sickening practice, not only in Brooklyn, but everywhere? Let us know if you’re in.

7 comments to Compassion, Empathy, and Rage: Some Thoughts from the Kaporos Protests

  • anitat
    I must admit, I’m terribly confused over this whole thing. As a practicing pagan we are frequently accused of sacrificing animals on the altar of our gods. I spend a lot of time defending myself from a practice that no pagan that I know of participates in today (with the possible exception of the Voudoun down south). Most of the pagans I know are regularly accused of this also. Yet, here is a religion actively abusing animals (in the name of salvation no less) and no one investigates or cares. Let me guess, they would yell First Amendment? The first amendment has limits when it comes to religious sacrifices, or so we’ve always assumed. I had no idea this was going on and I’d venture that few people do know.
  • Sheila Ray
    Very well written…you described the primal motivating force, that is denied to surface by most. Thank you for those words. I loved this!
  • erin
    Thank you for putting this certainty of wrongness/call to action/conviction stemming from compassion into words, even if there is not a single word that expresses all of it. Throughout the years I have heard some activists talk about animal advocacy stemming from abstract ethics (ie Peter Singer and other utilitarians) rather than “loving” animals. I relate to what I think you’re saying that the motivator may not be either/or ethics/love, but may involve both or an intersection of these things that is even more meaningful. I most certainly love individual animals, but my animal rights activism comes from a different (though intersecting) place. It’s what allows me to organize rather than just cry all the time, but it also isn’t a cold set of guidelines; it’s more organic than that.
  • victoria figurelli
    the first time I sw a video of the kapporas I was shocked to see that this was even allowed this is down right animal cruelty and should be stopped it sickens me evey year around this time that this practice still goes on and that organizations like ASPCA look the other way .chickens are not different than a cat or a dog that would neer be allowed .Yes my love for my chickens is the primary motivator and the rage is what makes me want to do more next year to try and stop this barbaric ritual that is unnessary
  • pattrice
    This is the kind of animal liberation theory we need: theory that is rooted in practice, theory that evolves in response to new experiences, theory that recognizes the role of emotion in motivating behavior. Thank you for wrestling with, and then sharing, the thoughts that came out of this wrenching experience.

    Oh, and by the way, “the axe-cleave of wrongness”–that’s one beautiful phrase!

  • Mary Finelli
    Thank you for being there, Miriam, and doing what you could, and for all of your wonderful work for animals. Your description of the abuse there reminds me of the behavior and depraved mentality at the pigeon shoots.

    I think the love of animals and of justice are both elements of animal protection activism. However, compassion and the desire for fairness may be the strongest elements of it.

  • CQ
    Ditto Miriam, anitat, Sheila, erin, victoria, pattrice, and Mary.

    For me, compassion springs from my deep-seated desire — need, really — to help free all living beings (myself included) from the darkness of ignorance and fear, of injustice and unfairness, of materialism and sensualism, of disease and death, of mindless theories and doctrines, of false influences and fake power, all of which are types of lies, in the sense that they violate and veil Truth.

    Perhaps this compassion could be called love — a love that’s not focused on a particular individual but instead aims to include all in one universal affection. I think Jesus expressed such powerful and effective compassion, in the sense that his practice of it released receptive hearts from every ill and encumbrance imaginable. My goal — sometimes seeming to be unachievable — is to emulate his compassion, his moral and spiritual activism.

    Rescuing 30 babies from the cruel grip of “religious” superstition because one despises the wrongness of the actions that superstition produces is, in my eyes, holy love at work.

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