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Karen Davis: Moral injury in animal advocates and nonhuman animals

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In 'From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights: My Story in an Eggshell' I describe my own moral injury linking the soul wound of vicarious suffering to the actual, physical suffering endured by animals whose own souls are injured by the brutal and bewildering treatment they receive.

KAREN DAVIS: Through the years, people have asked me how I can stand knowing what chickens and other farmed animals go through without going insane. One person, a psychotherapist, wrote to me recently about “living day and night with these horrors.” “When I read about them,” she said, “I am filled with so much grief that I feel suicidal. I would not say anything so tiresome as ‘I can’t read about it,’ because of course I could. I just wish I could find a way not to be so filled with despair when I do. It keeps me from being more active in animal rights, because I can’t imagine living with those feelings of overwhelming, helpless fury.”

What led me to think particularly about what has become known as “moral injury” was an article, On Moral Injury, in the August 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Moral injury involves the guilt and shame one feels in witnessing and facilitating an atrocity – facilitating by actively contributing to it or simply by watching it and doing nothing to stop it, including the frustrated desire to end the atrocity and rescue the victims.

An example cited in Harper’s is photographers, reporters, and humanitarian workers in war zones who develop guilt over merely recording human suffering and not preventing it, even though it is not their job to intervene, and they know that. Even if some do manage to save a few victims, the guilt and vicarious trauma remain, since they can’t save everyone no matter what. Kevin Carter, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a starving child in Sudan, wrote before killing himself in 1994, “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”

Not surprisingly, the Harper’s article says nothing about the guilt of bearing witness or passively contributing to the suffering and death of nonhuman animals that so many of us feel, resulting in chronic depression that can become a kind of mental illness and even lead to suicide in some cases. Added to our vicarious immersion in the human-inflicted suffering and deaths of billions of helpless animals is our despairing sense that most people don’t care. As the psychotherapist quoted above went on to say, “Working with all kinds of people who don’t give a thought to suffering animals, I’m hoping to wake them up to their feelings and consequently to their awareness of the feelings of other creatures, but it is probably delusional that they will get far”…

Cultural conflict, professional and personal, appears in the animal advocacy community, especially where farmed animals and other institutionally abused animals are concerned. At best, only a tiny fraction of these victims can be saved in rescue operations, and one’s personal agony over their unmitigated misery and the blasé attitude of society including the legal system, government, corporations, farmers, experimenters and others, are a source of unappeasable anguish and justified anger, despair, and disgust. In From Hunting Grounds to Chicken Rights: My Story in an Eggshell I describe my own moral injury linking the soul wound of vicarious suffering to the actual, physical suffering endured by animals whose own souls are injured by the brutal and bewildering treatment they receive…

The Harper’s article “On Moral Injury” that prompted this essay ends with a quote by psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein in praise of the “resilience” of the human species, which he says enables us to withstand “the evil and darkness” we project and will continue projecting into the world. “But our souls are scarred,” he says. Since human beings will continue committing atrocities as a matter of course, the issue for him is how to “heal our souls” in the face of this fact. Unlike Feinstein and various others quoted in the article, I do not see how morally, viscerally sensitive people can “heal” or be “healed” in the face of such knowledge including the relentless onslaught of the suffering we inflict on innocent, helpless individuals. Palliated perhaps, but healed?

I wonder whether Feinstein and Janine di Giovanni, the author of the Harper’s article, could empathize with those of us who suffer moral injury over the human-caused suffering of animals; I wonder if they could empathize with the traumatized animals themselves. Those of us who do animal rescue and sanctuary work know that traumatized nonhuman animals share with us a “resilience” that is almost heartbreaking to facilitate and contemplate. The only real way to “heal” ourselves is to help them recover who they truly are, and were meant to be, as best we can, through our advocacy and “managed” care for them and for ourselves. A moral injury can empower us; it doesn’t have to be fatal. SOURCE…

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