We are thrilled to welcome Karen S. Emmerman, PhD. to Our Hen House to tell us all about What the Animals Taught Me: Stories of Love and Healing from a Farm Animal Sanctuary by Stephanie Marohn.
Book Review: What the Animals Taught Me: Stories of Love and Healing from a Farm Animal Sanctuary by Stephanie Marohn
Review by Karen S. Emmerman
I do not gravitate toward memoirs written by people who work with rescued animals. No, that is an understatement. I in fact avoid such books with every fiber of my being. Having spent so much of my life educating myself about animals’ suffering and working to end it, I find myself overwhelmed by the notion of reading more about their suffering than I already have to for my job as a feminist animal ethicist. Thus, I opened the pages of Stephanie Marohn’s What the Animals Taught Me [Hampton Roads Publishing, 2012] with considerable trepidation and a weary soul. I am very glad I did; my soul feels a bit better for having done so.
As her title suggests, Marohn’s book is a narrative of the rich lessons she learned about the nature of unconditional love from the various animals she rescued and with whom she created the Animal Messenger Sanctuary. Each chapter contains a different story about her group of animals and ends with an “Unconditional Love Lesson.” The lessons themselves are nothing new to those who have spent time trying to find their way to living more compassionately. Marohn’s list includes “Letting Go of Control,” “Letting Go of Judgment,” and “Respect for All Beings,” among others (there are ten lessons). The true gift of What the Animals Taught Me is twofold. First, Marohn’s ability to attend to other animals and understand their needs is awe-inspiring. Second, her commitment to taking these interspecies lessons and applying them to her interactions with humans is impressive.
All of us who live mindfully with non-human animals know that this kind of partnership is made challenging because, while we live in relationships of love and care with these animals, neither party can escape the reality that the humans are making most of the decisions. We decide when a trip to the vet is necessary, what kinds of food our companions will eat, where they get to sleep, whether they can reproduce … the list is unending. Marohn uses her innate connection to animals to understand more fully where they are coming from and what might work better for them. Her description of how she ultimately changed her approach to getting a halter on Gabriel the donkey in order to better enable him to deal with his fear encouraged me to reconsider the yearly ugliness my partner and I confront as we attempt to wrangle our two cats into their carriers for their well-cat checkups and vaccinations. Maybe we should just get a vet to come to the house!
Living and working in relationships with animals is a dodgy affair not only because we ultimately control their destiny, but because it can be exceptionally difficult to know what the right thing to do is from their perspective. Sometimes we try to do the right thing by them and fail because we have misunderstood what it is like to be them. Marohn’s narrative moves from her days as a sanctuary novice, often unsure of the animals’ perspectives, to her days as a more confident and capable care provider. Her willingness to share her missteps enables readers to learn about animals they may not know much about (who knew donkeys are drawn to cows more than to horses?). It also allows her readers to reflect upon and grow from their own mistakes in animal caregiving. Marohn provides a lovely example of what it means to learn from those mistakes and move on, rather than become mired in them. She also helpfully reminds us that good intentions are not enough. We have to learn about the animals with whom we share space in order to engage with them properly.
Marohn clearly has a rich spiritual life. As a somewhat spiritually impaired person, I occasionally found her worldview to be something of a distraction. Still, maybe because I am getting older and I have replaced my rabid spiritual skepticism with interest and curiosity, I find myself ruminating on some of her insights. For example, Marohn’s claim that “we can create sanctuary wherever we go” struck a chord with me. I am sorting through what that means for my day-to-day interactions with others, as well as with myself. Just this morning, I tried to create sanctuary for my son and me as we struggled to contain our anxiety about his new school. Doing so enabled us to turn our attention from fear to caring for ourselves.
What the Animals Taught Me will be of interest to those who enjoy reading animals’ stories and learning the viewpoint of those who provide sanctuary for the sick, suffering, and friendless animals surrounding us all. Readers will get so much more out of this book than just the usual narratives, however. With a gentle hand, Marohn’s insights lead readers to question whether euthanasia really is the gift we think it is at the end of an animal’s life. She encourages us to think carefully about what it truly means to show respect for other living creatures and for the natural world. Perhaps most importantly, if you are like me, Marohn will remind you that we can direct the same compassion and respect we have for animals toward their human oppressors. After reading her book, I found myself more inspired than ever to find compassion for those with whom I radically disagree. I will think much more carefully about my response to someone who leaves her dog in a car on a blazing summer day now that I have read What the Animals Taught Me. Perhaps I can approach her with the same openheartedness and respect I have for my cats when I gently remove them (and their cat-litter-dusted feet) from my dining room table.
Karen S. Emmerman recently earned her PhD in philosophy from the University of Washington (UW). Her dissertation is titled “Beyond the Basic/Nonbasic Interests Distinction: A Feminist Approach to Inter-Species Moral Conflict and Moral Repair.” She is particularly interested in how to account for the importance of humans’ personal relationships and significant projects without allowing that importance to trump animals’ interests when there are conflicts. A vegan for twenty-two years, Karen started her life as an animal activist when she was nine years old. As a young adult, she served as the secretary of the Jersey Animal Coalition, wrote a column on teen activism for New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance, and led the charge against dissection in her public schools. Karen is currently co-organizer of the Animal Studies Working Group at UW and is thinking hard about how to integrate her academic life with her activist roots.