The heavens may fall…

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James Somerset was around eight years old when he was captured in Africa and taken to Virginia in America. Here he was purchased by the affluent Charles Stewart and taken to Boston for a life of servitude as a slave. For the next 25 years, that’s just what Somerset did; however, in 1769, Stewart went to London, taking Somerset with him. In 1771, Somerset had himself baptised, and in doing so, earned three godparents. Not long thereafter Somerset escaped, only to be hunted down and captured some two months later. So enraged was Stewart that his “slave” had deserted his service, he had him thrown onto a ship, the Ann and Mary, to be sold aboard to work on the plantations in Jamaica. So arduous, brutal and cruel was this work that it would surely have claimed Somerset’s life, something that Stewart would have known.

But here is where Somerset’s three godparents—and now advocates—stepped in. John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade applied to the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus: requiring an imprisoned person to be brought before a judge to determine whether their imprisonment is lawful.

The case’s precedent, in determining that Somerset was not an item of property, provided one of the greatest catalysts for the abolition of slavery movement—a movement that lends itself well for us today, as it commands us to consider that it is not what is on the outside that counts, but what lies within. A movement that says we are not separated by our differences but united by our similarities.

The trial lasted some seven months, which was groundbreaking at the time, and included many noteworthy happenings, such as when the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield prefaced his historic decision by saying “let justice be done though the heavens may fall”, and Somerset went on to be granted freedom.

It was unheard of at the time—for a black slave to be considered a person in charge of his own destiny, and I am sure at that time, people whose skin was dark must have thought things would never ever change, they would never get any better—but they did.

I’d like to now share with you now my Lord Mansfield moment; it came in 1972 when I was just ten years old. And despite my tender years, my love of animals was already legendary, well, as legendary as any ten-year-old’s could be. I was presented with a tiny turtle who had been found in some debris, washed over the banks of a swollen creek in Lower Plenty, Victoria. The turtle’s captor, also knowing of my love for naming all animals “Freddie”, had emblazoned, in stark white paint these very letters on the hapless turtle’s back. To this day I do not know where that name came from, and thankfully for the sanity of all those who come to Edgar’s Mission, it is something I have outgrown.

I was so excited to meet Freddie and think of all the cool things I could do with my new buddy, like take him to ballet class and school, take him for a ride on my pony and maybe even dress him up in doll’s clothes that I had never found a doll worthy of. I borrowed books from the library and learned all about turtles: exciting things that I still remember to this day, like that the top part of a turtle’s shell is called a carapace, and the underlying bottom part is a plastron. That their shell is made up of 60 different bones all connected together, and they have been on this earth for more than 200 million years, which means they predate mammals and birds!

But most of all I learned that turtles loved to be turtles and hang out with their kind, which was not little girls. And as I knelt down by the then not-so-swollen creek some weeks later, I granted Freddie his turtlehood, kissed his craggy turtle neck one last time and set him free.

Every now and then, to this day, I think of Freddie, trust the paint quickly washed away and that he got to do all the things that really rocked his tiny turtle world and bask in the glow that I did set him free. But sadly, my Freddie experience all those years ago was not to be my catalyst for realising that incarcerating animals for our sole amusement belongs to a backwater of our history. I collected bugs, went to circuses where exotic animals “performed”, visited aquariums where majestic sea animals had their liberty traded for our fleeting moments of wonder, and ogled at animals in barren zoo environments. Whilst I am not sure at what exact point in my life all that changed, it did change and I take great heart in knowing that the idea of doing so is daily gaining currency and that the fact we are not alone on this planet in our desire to have a life of joy, meaning and purpose is becoming more widely embraced by a greater number each day.

We have company: they are others, yet we are the same; they move in different manners, yet we are we same; they speak in languages we do not understand, yet they feel; we exploit them in many ways, yet they feel; we separate them from their families and loved ones, yet they love; we enact legislation that placates our thoughts about what we do to them, yet they love; we confine them in their millions, despite their desire to feel joy;

we herd them into vehicles and vessels and transport them miles from their home, despite their desire for joy; we incarcerate and harm them, yet they yearn to live; we end their lives at our will, yet they yearn to live—they are, in the words of Carl Safina, our “kin under the skin”; they are non-human animals and we are their flood.

I have recently returned from the America, where I attended a symposium entitled “I am not an animal—the signature cry of our species”. I found this experience incredibly insightful as it went to the core of our fractured relationship with the animal kingdom, which is that we, as a species, so desperately seek to see ourselves apart from the animal kingdom, rather than a part of the animal kingdom. Because in doing so we negate any questioning of our treatment of animals—they are different, they are not like us, they are “others”.

But this is not a story without hope, there are so many reasons for hope, each and every one of us represents the hope that things can change for the better and that we can chart a better world that will sit us on the right side of kindness. And I truly believe this will happen for no other reason than we will be fulfilling our evolutionary trajectory of becoming the best that we can possibly be, of recognising that each generation has the ability to address the wrongs perpetrated by those who went, naïvely or otherwise, before and in doing so make the flood waters recede.

Whilst I don’t know exactly what the future will look like, there are so many signs our world is changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But I am so encouraged by the many conversations we are having that are calling upon us to review how we see the other animals with whom we share the planet. Those porous borders are becoming more porous by the day; we are now seeing animals looking back at us asking, “Why, why has it taken you so long to see me?” I believe that the time has come to do as I did all those years ago on the banks of that little creek in Lower Plenty, to set them free from the both visible and invisible shackles we have placed upon them, to allow them to be exactly who they choose to be. And they will not be the only ones set free.

I’d like to end with a quote from another learned judge, this time one from America, who when handing down yet another decision to dismiss one of lawyer Steven Wise’s attempts at achieving personhood for a chimpanzee, delivered words along these lines: “that the court was not prepared to entertain the case” adding the poignant words “for now”. “For now” is our greatest reason for hope. I think the flood is about to end, and the heavens may well fall.

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11 thoughts on “The heavens may fall…

  1. Such a beautiful, warm and loving story of how you came to be the angel for animals you are today. THANKFUL, I am, for all the pets you had and things you saw that drove you down the road to help all the animals that would not have a chance if it was not for you. Each night I pray for your place, your work, you abundance, knowing angels are providing you with just what you need…food, medicine, and endurance..and warm love wrapping you all. THANK YOU from my heart for changing my life too…I have also loved animals all my life, and wish I had just kept doing it instead of listening to others in family and others…derail me from my passion. I now sit alone, a retired teacher of students at risk , some of whom I am sure I helped too, with love as well, but now….I bask in animals, Rescuing them, taking them to safe places and thinking of you….it leads me to have hope for the world just reading your blogs. and seeing you all work there with deep love and commitment…..I love your family . Thank you for including me in it..it is indeed heaven on earth.

    • Thank you Merri for your wonderful comments, I love it all and feel just as you have listed here. Thank you Pam for that beautiful story, lovely to know about it all, I just wish I had had the guts to follow my love of animals earlier than 70 years old, but hope what I now do will help in some small way.

  2. Thank you. Yes I have been waiting all my long long life, but happily am seeing the flood gates breaking open. From being dismissed as a ??? Over 50 years ago, “crying alone in the wilderness, to now, where there are many many organizations & people who are voicing & standing up for our fellow travelers on this beautiful earth of ours. God Bless you & them. Kindest regards Margaret Norriss,

  3. I love the line ‘But this is not a story without hope…..’. Indeed things are changing (bit by bit!). The mere fact that these symposiums exist are proof that more and more people agree that animals deserve rights and respect. Good on you (and us!)
    Love your work! Virginia (and on behalf of all my past, current and future pets, and all other critters too!)

  4. The world is slowly changing and I to have hope there will be more love and kindness to our animal family. We must show the children how wonderful a world will be when cruelty and worse indifference to the neglect and abuse of all living creatures. I hopefully am passing on my passion for animals to my granddaughter and grandsons (by proxy we have adopted each other) they will be the future guardians of our world. Thankyou for lighting the candle of hope.

  5. Thank you so much Pam – you have a wonderful gift for storytelling which inspires and does give hope. We so need hope but I know we also need action which, for me, means using your inspiration to take a more meaningful stand for what I believe is right, and what I say I feel passionate about. Not easy amongst strong-minded friends and family who have a very different attitude!

  6. Such wonderful and inspiring words Pam!! There are times when I shake my head in disbelief, but then smile at the positive, at the wonderful people like yourself!
    Yes there is hope for the voiceless, just in the last years the changes are everywhere! Vegan products galore – and – increasing all the time!
    Thank you Pam for the wonderful work you and your gang do!!

  7. I hope that we can encourage our children to do what our generation should have done a long time ago and that is to speak up for animals and the terrible cruelty that they suffer on this planet every day. We need to show our children respect for animals and for each other and leave this planet in better shape than how they found it because of our complacency. I can see big changes starting to happen. Thank you Pam for being an example of how one voice can become many. Public opinion does matter.

  8. Beautifully written. Thankyou Pam & Edgar’s for your tireless passion and drive to help the world understand that animals are feeling beings like us :)

  9. To actually HELP animals one needs to be their voice to obtain better rights for them. Whilst it is commendable that there are kind hearted souls who take care of the unwanted, it’s not actually achieving anything for animal rights.
    We need to stand as a united voice for animals. Until then, people will still struggle with the pure weight of rescue and animals will continue to suffer DAILY
    We need to WAKE UP

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