“I was falling down a rabbit hole, and it seemed the rabbits were being harmed.” The Dogs Were Rescued (and So Was I) (Sourcebooks, 2014). Teresa Rhyne shares how personal heartbreak led her to animal rights activism. Kevin Schneider reviews.
The Dogs Were Rescued (and So Was I) is a brutally honest story of one woman’s personal loss, her struggle with a deadly disease, and her quest to make sense of it all. Teresa Rhyne tells a story that many can relate to, and sets an example that so many more could learn from. By countering pain and loss with effective animal activism, Rhyne gained the strength to navigate her own troubled waters. The Dogs Were Rescued is something of an animal-friendly how-to guide for beating negativity and becoming a force for animals, all while maintaining some semblance of sanity and domestic bliss.
Rhyne’s path to animal rights activism begins with a sick beagle and a brain cancer diagnosis. Having recently beat cancer and looking for ways to cope with the experience, Rhyne embarked on a trip to India with a group of fellow cancer survivors. The trip was meant to build solidarity among the survivors and encourage them to build lasting bonds while they volunteered together for the poor in a shelter community for women. Though she tried to keep her head up, her heart was weighted down with thoughts of her sick beagle back home in California, thousands of miles away. Rhyne did not fare well in India, to the point where she exploded at the group of cancer survivors in a fit of screaming, alienating herself. This traumatic trip sets the tone for the book: a soul search on a rollercoaster.
Some of the most insightful passages of The Dogs Were Rescued are where Rhyne describes her initial ambivalence about getting involved in animal rights. She tells stories of being up late at night, fighting the urge to watch undercover slaughterhouse videos, safeguarding her love affair with dairy, wrestling with her internal moral compass. But, like so many of us, she ultimately gives in to the temptation and “jumps into the abyss.” Once in, the depth and breadth of the global animal-killing machine now apparent, it was too late: Rhyne became a vegan evangelist, telling anyone who would listen about factory farming, cosmetic testing, and the sundry other evils we perpetrate against animals. But this sudden and extreme personality change, while it energized her at first, soon took its toll on Rhyne’s personal and professional life, and even her health. She knew she had to find another way.
The Dogs Were Rescued is not fuzzy about the transition to animal rights activism; it’s real. Rhyne is frank throughout, sarcastic at times, and as a fellow lawyer I really appreciated her blunt candor. I can also identify with Rhyne’s lawyerly need to incessantly analyze every last thing, which can be an asset in practice, but, as Rhyne relates, when shined inwards towards personal illness and the realities of animal brutality can be a path to emotional disaster. Like the MRI pictures that she obsessed over when she was diagnosed with brain cancer for a second time, images of animal cruelty became a sick addiction to Rhyne, a twisted coping mechanism for the pain of loss and the uncertainty of her own health. Rhyne’s newfound obsession with animal rights almost cost her relationship with her partner, who is decidedly not vegan, as well as her sanity. The Dogs Were Rescued is the story of how Rhyne finds a way to reconcile her need to save animals with her need to be a “normal” human being.
Activism is tough stuff. And there’s no instruction manual for balancing the competing – and seemingly mutually exclusive – ends of being both an effective activist and a functioning human being. Rhyne does an excellent job of charting the rocky path from tepid curiosity (Do I even like tofu? Can I really imagine a life without cheese?) to full-blown activism, with plenty of educational and entertaining detours along the way. The Dogs Were Rescued reminds us that a huge part of effective advocacy is taking care of the advocate. Much like the (now) proverbial Neo awakening from the Matrix, once you’re switched onto the truth there’s no turning back. Still, Rhyne makes the case that, in order to keep sane and remain effective advocates, we sometimes have to take a step back and give ourselves time to heal and regroup. Once the rage, the pain, the deaf thunder have passed, we simply must pick up the pieces and move on, and find ways to do more good with the tools we’ve got (see Nick Cooney’s new book, How to Be Great at Doing Good, for an example of this philosophy).
As the Hens say, approach your activism with indefatigable positivity, even when it isn’t always easy to do. Especially when it isn’t easy to do.
Kevin Schneider is an animal advocate/attorney based in New York City. He has worked with several leading animal rights nonprofits including Mercy For Animals, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the Nonhuman Rights Project. Kevin is currently practicing consumer protection law, with a focus on environmental and animal welfare product claims, as well as working with a number of startups.