For those of you not yet familiar with the inestimable Tai Moses, you’re in for an absolute treat. For those of you who already know Tai Moses (TM), it’s time to celebrate because she’s going to be in our store on June 30th for a reading!!! And, while you’re waiting for that, our bookseller Brandi Bailey (BB) interviewed her for your reading pleasure:
BB: The first question I need to ask you is, as you seem even more empathetic to nature and suffering than I am, how you keep yourself from just curling up in a little ball and crying your heart out?
TM: There are certainly times when I am tempted to curl up in a ball and cry; for instance, when I think about the wretched lives that cows, pigs and chickens endure at factory farms. However, there is something that helps me from feeling overwhelmed—and that is to act, to do something, to fight back in some way.
In Zooburbia I explore the ways in which compassion can be the basis for our actions in the world. The word compassion has Latin roots that translate to action andpassion. Technically, compassion is much more than just feeling sad about some heartbreaking thing you’ve read or seen—it means feeling the passion to act, and actually doing something to make it better.
For example, if you know of a dog who’s chained up in a yard, don’t just feel sorry for the dog: go talk to the dog’s owner, try to intervene, find out if there are anti-chaining laws in your community, politely educate the owner. I’m a big believer in taking matters into our own hands. Don’t wait for someone else to do something. Be that dog’s hero. There is always something we can do. You’ll find you start to feel a lot more powerful and a lot less like curling up and crying. And every time we speak up or take action on behalf of an animal, it helps to amplify and strengthen a larger vision of conscious concern for all animals.
BB: This book brought tears to my eyes every time you spoke about shelter animals but not as often when you talked about the wildlife. I’m sure a lot of people share that disconnect with me, and I’ve been re-evaluating my own outlook on wildlife since reading Zooburbia. Was that your intention when interspersing those topics? How do you handle people who insist that wild animals are not as worthy of their empathy as pets?
TM: In Zooburbia I wanted to tell stories about the lives of animals who are not beloved pets. The animals in Zooburbia are either wild or not wild but unowned and thus unloved, like shelter dogs and feral cats. Perhaps the reason many people feel less empathy for wildlife is because they are wild, we sort of expect their lives to be difficult. Whereas many of us have dogs and cats as family members, and the thought of their suffering is unbearable.
In our society, we’re conditioned to think of responsibility as linked to ownership. We’re responsible for the things and the people and the animals who belong to us. But I think this is an obsolete view. I believe that the wild animals who live around us and among us are a part of our communities, they are our wild neighbors and are deserving of our empathy. While no one owns them, we are still coresponsible for their well-being and safety.
So if your neighbor is putting out rat poison, try to explain to him—gently—that rat poison is going to harm not just rats, but dogs, cats, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, owls, hawks, and any animal who find the dead rat and eats it or carries it back to its nest.
BB: I really appreciated your honesty about loathing spiders. Bugs and insects are very hard for me to let be, and I’m nearly phobic of butterflies and moths. How’s the process of spider acceptance going? Any tricks for learning to accept the ickier creatures with an open heart?
TM: It’s an ongoing process. I still get the shivers from spiders, though I’d never kill one. I use a marvelous tool called a Snapy—a plastic wand with a clear plastic chamber at one end—to safely convey spiders from my house back outdoors. Why kill something when you don’t have to?
Try this, next time you come across a spider or other icky bug in your house or garden: give her a name. Once she has a name, she becomes an individual. That seems to go a long way toward decreasing the ick factor and making us feel more sympathetic. E.B. White was well aware of this when he put a spider at the center of Charlotte’s Web.
It’s easy to think of generic “spiders” as icky, but who wants to kill Charlotte?
BB: Speaking of acceptance: You incorporated quite a lot of Buddhist philosophy in Zooburbia. Are you a practicing Buddhist yourself? If so, did this come as a result of your love of nature or vice versa? Or are they too interwoven to tell?
TM: I am not a practicing Buddhist, but I do believe in a Buddhist principle called ahimsa, which means to cause no injury to any living being. It’s also known as nonviolence. Compassion and nonviolence are values that are shared with many different religious and spiritual traditions. I don’t belong to any of them, but I try to follow the principles of nonviolence in my life. Am I always successful? No. But none of us are perfect; all we can do is try to be kind and do the best that we can in every situation.
Q. My husband, who was raised in Africa, often points out the inherent American problem with nature, and I know you discussed that many European countries already incorporate wildlife underpasses on their freeways. Are there any other notable foreign advancements in regards to the harmony between people and nature that you would love to see instituted in the States?
TM: In terms of animal protection, Costa Rica is one of the most progressive countries in the world: Sport hunting is banned, circuses are prohibited from using performing animals, and last year the Coast Rican government announced its plan to close public zoos, setting wild animals free in nature preserves or sending them to sanctuaries where they will be cared for.
India is another country that is making great strides in animal welfare. The Indian government has put an end to animal testing and has proposed a ban on the import of cosmetics that are tested on animals. India has also enacted a ban on keeping dolphins in captivity and is phasing out the use of battery cages for confining egg-laying chickens.
And in 2008, Ecuador adopted a Constitution that grants inalienable rights to nature, becoming the first country to recognize that nature has rights.
These are all groundbreaking policies, and hopefully they will percolate over to the U.S. Legislation—passing new laws or strengthening existing laws—is one of the most effective ways to protect animals. South Dakota recently became the 50th state to make cruelty to animals a felony. We still have a long way to go, but that’s a milestone worth celebrating.
BB: I really need to know if Papagayo ever knew freedom. Or is he still caged and you’re short a friend?
TM: Sadly, as far as I know, Papagayo is still living a solitary life in his cage in the dining room. But Papagayo is only one of many thousands of parrots and other caged birds who live similarly deprived lives. Parrots are highly intelligent and social birds, and they suffer when they are robbed of the chance to participate in flock life.
Their human guardian has to take the place of their flock and that means giving them abundant amounts of love, attention and stimulation. If you’re not up to that challenge—and it can be very time-consuming to properly care for a parrot—you shouldn’t have one.
That’s why I used the epigraph from Xenophon on that chapter: “Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful.” The nature of bird is to fly and to flock. To cage a bird is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of bird.
“Anything forced or misunderstood can never be beautiful.”
BB: Finally, you love, own, and care for species rather indiscriminately, but what’s your favorite animal? Are you more of a dog person or a cat person?
TM: I love both species and get so much joy from each of them. We love categories, and certainly it can be fun to argue the merits of cats vs. dogs. The truth is, I like some dogs better than some cats and some cats better than some dogs. That way all my bases are covered—in case cats and dogs ever acquire the ability to read English.