Just before waking this morning, I had funny dream that caused me to chuckle when I opened my eyes. There was this many-legged arachnid-like creature on the floor in my apartment. It had numerous flailing arms with menacing pinchers like a scorpion’s, but the many legs reaching out from the central body was more like a daddy longlegs on steroids. There was even a resemblance with one of those giant crabs they catch in the deep waters near Alaska. Topping off this creature's comical look was an expressive face that was probably pulled from my subconscious recollections of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Anyway, this “spider” would swing several of its arms madly about while jumping upward to spin like a demonic kung fu fighter. I, in the dream, was intent on staying just far enough away from this thing so it wouldn’t jump on me to bite or sting or whatever this beast would do. I managed to back it into a corner potted plant where I then began stabbing and crushing this creature with a vacuum cleaner extension tube. Go figure.
As I said, when I awoke, I chuckled at the silliness of this dream. I sensed that my creature was some kind of conglomerate of many things built upon the theme of the jumping spider that resides around my desk in my office at work. This little bugger has taken up residence in my office and I have allowed it to share my space. But shortly after this dream, I began to feel remorse. Did I really need to kill that kooky creature in my dream? Why am I afraid of spiders in general? I really don’t like spiders much; my initial reaction upon seeing one is to squash the thing. And yet, I am fascinated by these bugs.
I’m not sure if one creates kamma in their dreams, but I’m fairly certain that dreams are mixed-up representations of the kamma we create in our waking life. All of this brought once again to the surface some thoughts I’ve been having about the First Precept – to refrain from killing living creatures – and its connection to how we treat animals in general.
There is a story in the Udana that tells of the Buddha observing a group of boys beating a snake with a stick. From this vignette we have the Buddha saying this:
“Whoever takes a stick
to beings desiring ease,
when he himself is looking for ease,
will meet with no ease after death.
Whoever doesn't take a stick
to beings desiring ease,
when he himself is looking for ease,
will meet with ease after death.”
There have been a few recent stories out of the Toledo, Ohio, area about folks shooting dogs and the dogs surviving despite some critical injuries. They are heart-wrenching to some degree, like this one in which a couple go out of their way to kidnap a neighbor’s dog before they shoot it several times, the dog later crawling back to its home where it collapses.
And there is the story about the two men who allegedly shoot a caged German shepherd, one time through the head; the dog survived.
Reading comments attached to these stories we see a common reaction: that there must be a special place in hell for people who treat animals like this. It is a fairly universal reaction among humans. It is also fairly common for folks to decry the sentences following conviction of people who do things like this to animals as being too lenient; animal abuse – even horrific animal abuse – is often a misdemeanor offense that carries little to no jail time and insignificant fines.
Yet, the Buddha recognized that if a person cannot respect other animals, even if a person kills animals to feed his or her family, such a person will not respect other humans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that many serial killers have past histories of killing and torturing animals. That’s not to say that every person who kills or tortures an animal will become a serial killer, but it is a fact that almost all serial killers began with animals before moving on to people.
I had a moment of clarity about this subject when I was 16. I had been a hunter of sorts in my teens, although a very unsuccessful one. I had gone bird and rabbit hunting before equipped with a shotgun. It’s hard to miss with a shotgun, but I often did. I also had a .22-caliber rifle, a single-shot with a scope. One August afternoon, I had walked to a sand pit where I set up some paper targets to practice my shooting and adjust the scope on the rifle. It was kind of boring, I suppose, and I was distracted by the repetitive chattering of a nuthatch in a tree nearby. Nuthatches are small birds – no more than 4 inches or so from beak to tail – with a quirky behavior of walking upside down on a tree, or climbing down head-first; they are the only bird I am aware of that does this.
I took aim at this bird, got its head in the crosshairs of the scope, and squeezed off a shot. The bird fell from the branch to the ground. I walked over to the bird to see where I had shot it; I wanted to know if my scope was sighted properly. The nuthatch was still alive, my shot had cut across its breast just enough to sever its breast muscles so it couldn’t fly, but not enough to damage any internal organs or kill it. I looked at it on the ground in the leaves rapidly breathing; for a brief second, I felt as though the bird and I had made eye contact. It made no sound. I crushed its head with the butt of my rifle.
I returned to my spot where I lay prone to shoot at the paper targets in the sand pit. While taking aim, a chipmunk was darting back and forth near the target. I guess I hadn’t enough yet, because I aimed at the chipmunk and fired a shot. Again, I failed to make a good kill shot; the chipmunk began screeching loudly and was flipping up and down frantically. Fuck, I thought to myself, missed again. I rushed up to the screeching animal to see that I had shot its lower jaw off. It also lay still briefly to look at me before I put the barrel of the rifle against its head to squeeze off the fatal shot.
It was very quiet all around me. No birds chirping, not even the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze. I looked up at a bright blue sky and the few clouds that floated by indifferent to this drama. I picked up my targets and walked back home where I cleaned my rifle and then slipped it into its case, placing it into the closet where it stayed, never to be taken out again. I later gave it to someone who showed interest in it.
While that incident marked the end of my hunting days, I continued to fish for many more years. That, too, however, eventually stopped. Even before I found the Buddha’s teaching, I realized that while I like to eat fish, I wasn’t fishing to eat. After a while, it gets tiring to be releasing one-eyed fish back into the water.
I’m not hostile toward hunters or those who fish, even if they do it for “sport.” I have my own issues to deal with. I’m on the hunt now for understanding and compassion, which is not always an easy task. And so I tolerate this little black-and-white jumping spider that lives in my office. I’ve resisted giving it a name; that would be pretty lame. I still squash bugs in my apartment from time to time, but other times I capture them and release them outdoors. I have roach traps in my apartment too, and you better believe I will kill a roach if I see one and can capture it.
So when I read about these folks who shoot dogs or mistreat animals, I find myself feeling just as much pity for the poor deluded soul committing this violence as I do for the suffering animal. It takes a twisted mind to commit such acts. I’m just thankful that I have found a way to untwist my own.
Postscript: The photo of the tarantula I took while hiking many years ago in the Bandelier National Monument near Sante Fe, N.M. It was just slowly walking along and I watched it for a bit. I then decided to blow a puff of air against it, not sure why. But when I did, the spider jumped up in the air about two feet and then ran fucking freaking fast in a direction away from me. It nearly made my heart stop, I was so happy the freaking thing didn't jump on me! I never knew a tarantula could move that fast!
Second postscript: There was another time I took my rifle out. I was a cabin counselor in the New Mexico mountains at a private boarding school. We had problems with skunks getting underneath the cabin, making all kinds of caterwauling and stinking up the place. I would take a squeeze bottle of bleach, shoot some bleach into a hole in the floor, which would chase the skunk out. I then waited by the hole where the skunks got in and shot it as it attempted to escape. I didn't miss that time, because I knew if I did, the skunk would likely spray me. It was shortly after that I gave away my rifle. Memory is a funny thing.