I identify as an animal empath. That means that I often feel the suffering, joy, pain, exuberance, desperation, and various other states of animals. I have been this way since I was a child. I attune to the energetic and emotional states of animals, whether they are domesticated or wild. I’ve always considered this to be a gift, though at times it can be very hard on my heart.
Not everyone understands this ability and not everyone considers it a gift. In fact, some people are irritated and annoyed by it. I noticed this when I was visiting an old boyfriend in Puerto Rico many years ago. The homeless dog population in Puerto Rico is heartbreaking. Homeless dogs roam the streets and beaches searching for food while being harassed, mistreated, abused, and neglected by humans.
During my visit, we were invited to dinner at a beach house of some friends of my boyfriend’s family. They prepared goat stew and I listened uncomfortably as they spoke of the goat they had raised and slaughtered for our meal. When dinner was served, I couldn’t eat it. I tried. I really did. All I could feel in my body was the suffering of the goat and the fear it had experienced during the end of its life.
As I sat with this feeling, I looked around and noticed a few homeless dogs had gathered outside the gate of the beach house. I waited until dark and took my uneaten plate of goat stew to the dogs. I tried to be discreet; but, my boyfriend noticed my actions and was irate. He told me it was disrespectful for me to take the food that was prepared for humans and give it to the dogs. I felt defensive, shamed, and misunderstood.
This memory from over 25 years ago resurfaced when I went to the Amazon rainforest in 2019. The indigenous people that I visited had brought domesticated dogs to their communities. These precious dogs were in extremely emaciated conditions and severely neglected. I was shocked, confused, saddened, and overwhelmed by their suffering. I cried each day for these dogs.
On a walking tour one day, I asked our Amazon guide about the poor treatment of these dogs. He acknowledged that he did not understand why most people in his community did not feed or care for their dogs. He told me that he shared his food with his own family’s dogs each day and made sure they were healthy. He was clearly in the minority. He too seemed to feel sorry for the countless dogs that were starving in his community.
I asked him if it would be ok for me to feed the dogs from the food that his community prepared for our group. I was desperate to do something to help these hungry animals and I did not want to disrespect his culture or community by offering their lovingly prepared food to the dogs they neglected. He granted me permission to feed the dogs if I wished.
At our next meal, I scraped the leftovers from my plate into a napkin and then I hurriedly fed it to the dogs who lingered near the dining area. At first, I did this secretly as I felt the familiar shame from my Puerto Rico memory. It didn’t take long, however, for my fellow Amazon travelers to notice my actions. Soon, most everyone at the table was contributing their uneaten food to the communal ‘dog’ collection. My fellow travelers witnessed my deep pain and concern for these dogs and they did not judge or shame me. Quite the opposite: they JOINED me. Some even helped me scope out the most needy dogs in the community (i.e., pregnant or nursing mothers, wounded pups) to make sure they got food as well.
The support I received from my fellow travelers in the Amazon was very healing for me. It helped me to transform the shame, guilt, and judgement that I’d felt from that boyfriend so many years ago.
I believe I will always feel the pain and suffering of the precious living beings that share this planet with us. I know I cannot save every homeless animal or suffering being. And yet I also know that I MUST do something when I see an unmet need that I can serve. We all have our own part to play when it comes to healing our precious planet and all the beautiful life upon it. Our small acts of love, care, and kindness ripple out in huge ways that we cannot fully understand. I know that it is my duty to behave with compassion, generosity, kindness, love, respect, and appreciation for all life.