Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Dandelions in a meadow outside Thunder Bay, ON

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

To End All Wars

Today is a day to reflect on the meaning of World War I and to make sense of the lives lost in the horror that was supposed to end all wars. When I was younger I rebelled against the words "hero," "service" and "sacrifice" in a context where people - and animals used in war - had no choice in the matter. I was enraged by the arrogance that permitted humans to drag innocent animals into a carnage of their making. Now that I'm getting old(er), I have come to realize that a sacrifice need not be voluntary; most, in fact, are not. But I still insist that it must not be wasted, and today I have been reflecting on what this means.

At this point it is customary to show your credentials. Russia pulled out of WWI to attack itself and thereby made it much easier on Germany (a bad thing to do), but my grandfather served in the Soviet air force during WWII (a good thing to do), so these contributions even themselves out. This says absolutely nothing about my own virtue or glory. My grandfather taught me how to be systematic and not make empty promises, but I did not defend Moscow in December 1941. My husband, born and raised in Germany, had no hand in starting WWII. We both left behind the countries of our birth because of irreconcilable differences with them, and because Canada really is unique in its benevolence and capacity to bring out the best in people. Still, I don't wear a poppy on this day: as the literal-minded person I am, I must first figure out exactly what it means.

It is common knowledge that as a Russian in WWII my grandfather fought for freedom and against evil. Interestingly enough, so did my husband's grandfather, a fighter pilot with the Wehrmacht - so he was told, so he believed. Everyone wants freedom, everyone knows it's a good thing. The word works miracles, for better and for worse. This magic word is indispensable if you're going to put the burden of an emperor's wayward madness on working grunts and have them destroy working grunts of a different nationality. If your emperor won't give you freedom while you live, you can at least die wishing for it and blaming a foreign land for taking it away. Those other guys had it right: World War I was supposed to end all wars. It didn't, and there will likely be more. The best I can wish for is that we stop dragging freedom into this sordid affair to make it look prettier than it is.

The nature of today's wars is already very different. We may not be dying for our country or even someone else's, but a distant war is never entirely foreign to us. What worries me is the carelessness with which Canada is extending its naive benevolence to victims of the war in Syria. Such promises are not to be made lightly; these people are not an opportunity for us to feel pleased with ourselves. I am afraid Canada is unprepared for such a commitment because I see on each volunteer trip to a First Nations reserve how badly it has failed to understand a different culture already living here, and to coexist with it into the present day. To this day the white man is simply afraid to speak to native folk as to grown people, preferring to treat them as perpetual children to be placated rather than taken seriously. To assume that the newcomers will just melt with gratitude in the warm glow of our benevolence is nothing short of arrogance, a 21st century version of the white man's superiority. I do not know what the practical solution to this is, but I firmly believe that charity begins at home, and must be our priority until the very word "charity" becomes obsolete.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Darla of the Foggy Raincoast

On a November morning in the Pacific Northwest Darla wakes to pouring rain. At least it’s dry where she’s taking shelter, and the three children who are with her are warm and well fed. But carrying and raising them is draining her strength, and Darla cannot live such a life for much longer. With some persuasion from a friend she trusts, she has come today to the clinic where her life will be changed.

Darla has the most beautiful eyes, and a quiet dignity about her which some might call shyness. She is gentle and loving, and her many children have grown up to be like her. Perhaps this is why they are so highly prized and why she was left to have many litters of puppies until her owner made the decision to have her spayed. She lives on the Ahousaht First Nations reserve on Flores island off the Pacific coast, a place of rare and wild natural beauty. The very idea of owning and keeping animals is alien to people who had a deep bond with nature before the advent of the white man, but it is here to stay, and the way the Ahousaht community relate to the animals in their care is changing. There is a growing understanding that dogs and cats are as vulnerable as people, not part of wild nature that must be left alone to follow its wisdom. Only a few days before the Canadian Animal Assistance Team arrived in Ahousaht for its fourth makeshift clinic here, Darla’s owner was one of the first to come to the rescue of the passengers and crew of the whale watching boat “Leviathan” that capsized not far from Flores island. The community felt deep grief for those who perished and joy for the lives saved. Life here is tough, and precious.

Darla’s day at the clinic begins with an exam to make sure she is healthy enough to undergo surgery. Next she is given an injection to make her drowsy and prevent pain before it is sparked off, but as the vigilant mother she is, she resists going to sleep. The drugs win, and sleep gets the better of her. A swatch on her arm is shaved to put in an intravenous catheter, a portal through which she will receive fluids to keep her blood pressure from dropping during surgery. But first it is used for induction, an injection that makes her completely unconscious and unable to feel my instruments and hands as I operate. A tube is placed in her windpipe to make sure she has an airway and to deliver oxygen should she need it. I make a cut in her belly, as small as I can, and remove her ovaries and uterus after tying off the blood vessels that feed them. I close her up, and she is taken to the recovery area where she will be watched as she slowly comes awake. An injection of pain medication is given to keep her comfortable for the next 24 hours, after which she will take this medicine in her food. Her puppies, the last of the children she will raise, were napping blissfully while she went through her transformation. As soon as she is able to get up, she is reunited with them, and her relief is obvious. She stands while they nurse, then watches over them as they eat solid food with ravenous gusto. All four settle into a siesta, the pups to sleep off their lunch and Darla to sleep off her anesthetic. Her remarkably loud snoring is her only unladylike quality.

Late in the afternoon Darla and her pups are taken to the home where she will recover and continue to raise them in warmth of every kind. The first part of her life was spent caring for her children and trusting people to do right by her. People have come through for her, and it is her turn to be loved.