Many, many abusive groups torture, use sexually, or kill animals. Sometimes it‘s out of sadistic pleasure, sometimes to teach children some principle, like obedience, and sometimes it serves a ritual purpose. Often it‘s all three at once.
The vast majority of survivors have witnessed animals being abused and many of us have been forced to abuse animals ourselves. The range of animals that are mistreated is very wide. Cats, dogs, chickens, and rabbits are cheap and easy to obtain. Certain animals have symbolic meaning: black cats, for example, are witches’ familiars, goats stand for the horned god or the devil, and white doves for purity. Children are sewn inside dead cows or deer for rebirthing rituals. Snakes, spiders, and worms are enclosed with children in coffins to terrify them. In some cults, piglets are sacrificed in certain rituals instead of human babies. The list goes on.
Things used in abusive situations have great emotional charge. Survivors are either terrified of them or fascinated: there seldom seems to be a middle ground, at least early in healing. One expects people to be afraid of spiders, insects, snakes, and worms in our culture, but some survivors are so super-afraid of them that they cannot tolerate seeing an image or hearing their names. I have also seen survivors shrink away in fear on seeing a dog or a cat. Some of us had pets that were abused or killed, and we soon learned not to get attached to them or to avoid them to shield ourselves from such acute pain.
On the other hand, many survivors are crazy about animals. How many of us wanted to become vets when we were children? Or breed dogs? All those little puppies to cuddle and train! It‘s like we want to make up for the suffering of animals in the cult by nurturing and protecting as many animals as possible, now that we can. As adults, we are involved with shelters, whether as volunteers, fund-raisers, or adopters. We bird-watch, carefully carry insects outdoors, and collect pictures of pandas.
Most wonderful of all is to have a pet. A pet which won’t get hurt by the cult and which will be loved and cherished throughout its life. It doesn’t undo what was done, but certainly nurturing an animal in the present is defiance: it goes against all they tried to teach us. And that is sweet.
I’ve had both dogs and cats. One dog was a German Shepard mix that was born on the street. When I got her, she was too young to stand up, but she chewed gum and drank Coke. I named her Hairy, since she was. She must have been hurt as a puppy because for seventeen long years she flinched every time I held out my hand. As soon as I touched her fur, she was fine. She was a real kooky dog, and I can tell hundreds of stories about her. Like the time she permanently traumatized the postman by climbing out on the roof and barking at him. Guess he expected her to leap down on him. Weird as she was, she was my Hairy, and after she died I cried every time I found another clump of her hair behind a piece of furniture.
That‘s the downside of loving a pet. You will probably out-live them and then there will always be a hole in your heart.
One of my current cats is a purebred, a Cornish Rex. He came from the breeder with filthy ears, a parasite that affected his (ahem) digestion, and a bad case of ringworm. Now he is sleek and healthy and has forgiven me for all the atrocious things I had to do to him to make him well. He sleeps under the covers with me and warms me with his purrs.
Both these pets had a bad start in life. Both had wonderful lives afterwards. As I said, it is sweet.
Survivorship Notes, Vol. 9 No 7/8 July/August 2007