The Compassion of Animals

by Tera Thomas

One of my greatest teachers is Ferdinand, a 2,500-pound Black Angus bull. I have written about him numerous times, and each time people tell me how much he moved them, how he opened their hearts, how they love and respect him. When I met Ferdinand in 1990, I thought I treated all living beings with respect, but he showed me a new way of honoring others, of sharing, and of forgiveness. Ferdinand died years ago but his teachings continue.

Tera Thomas and Inka Hummingbird Farm

When he was very sick and dying, I had the naïve idea that his person would make him comfortable and nurse him back to health or assist him in his crossing. I had no concept then of “livestock care.” Ferdinand would be loaded onto a truck and taken to the pet food auction while he could still stand so that a small amount of money could be made and so there would not be the problem of a 2,500-pound body to get rid of.

One day, before I knew that Ferdinand was sick, I went to visit him. He had been taken away from his cows and put in a small pasture by himself. He was so distraught that he was actually crying tears. I wanted so much to comfort him and I felt frustrated and helpless. “It will be an honor to die for you,” he said to me. “There will be a gift for you in my death.”

I could not take this in at the time. I wanted to believe that he would get well, that he would continue to be my friend, and that everything would be okay. I apologized to Ferdinand for his person. I told him that I would make it a priority to tell this man to respect the animals whose lives he held in his hands. Ferdinand looked at me with such kindness. He knew that I couldn’t understand his love for this man nor his calm, quiet acceptance of his own fate. When I think of Ferdinand I can still see his eyes, as they were that day, full of love and compassion. “Accept my gift,” he repeated.

Before I knew it, Ferdinand was gone and my heart was broken. I honored him as deeply as I could and I honor him still. True to his word, many gifts came to me from his death and I found a deep well of compassion within myself that I had not previously tapped. Many years later, I am still receiving gifts from Ferdinand; I am only beginning to understand something of his acceptance and his ability to love and to forgive. He was selfless in his giving and I realize now that it was Ferdinand who really changed my thinking on how we can change this world.

I used to want to fight to change things. I was often angry; I was judgmental and intolerant. I was embarrassed to be part of a species that was destroying the planet, that thought they were above all other species, and had little capacity to love and honor others. Many animals, not just Ferdinand, told me that if I did not learn to love my own species I could not work with them. They helped me to let go of my own fears, my desire to close off my feeling so I wouldn’t get hurt. Animals helped me to open my heart to every species, including my own. I began to see clearly that hatred, abuse, neglect, and lack of compassion are manifestations of a fear of our own feelings. You have to be divorced from your feelings to abuse another and that is a sad thing. It is opening the heart and connecting to each other that can heal this wound. And it is often the compassion of an animal that can melt the armor around a person’s heart and change their lives.

I work with many rescued animals and I am often astounded by their ability to love, to forgive, and to open their hearts. Many of these animals have been distraught that their new person is angry or unkind about the animal’s previous home. I have had animals ask their people not to say bad things about that person; I have had animals tell me that they were the only connection to spirit that their person had, that they were the only source of love that person had access to. They ask for my acceptance of their choice to assist these people.

I’ve read about lab animals that opened the hearts of the scientists who experimented on them by showing love and kindness in the face of terrible abuse. How do the animals do it? Will I ever have that much love in my own heart? Will I ever be able to see all humans as members of one family? Can I truly love them, as the animals do, no matter what they do?

When I look into the eyes of Inka, my llama, and see the depth of his compassion, I know I have a long way to go. But I am getting there. If we humans could look at others, all others, with the same compassion the animals have, our lives would change. Even a small act of kindness is a powerful thing and can change the world.