By Gary Rabenko
Man’s best friend? My parents taught me compassion. If someone was ill or needed help, I was not to just stand by apathetically, but I was to try to help, get involved, make it better. This was not just limited to people. As a small child, I heard from various relatives that my grandfather’s grandfather in old age was quite frail, with a heart condition. He would bend down and pass out. His doctor warned him that bending down could be fatal. On a cold January day, he saw a starving kitten, bent down to feed it, and passed out permanently.
I read in Sunday’s New York Post, “The city’s weirdest museum will soon be closing . . . Brooklyn Torah Animal World is flat broke and will shut its doors soon if no one helps.” I wonder what a visitor might get from the exhibit, which claims to have taxidermied versions of all the animals in the Chumash, except a pig. It explains the omission of the pig in owner Rabbi Deutsch’s own words: “You know, a bakery sells not what the baker likes, but what the customers want to eat . . . you have to be sensitive to what people want to see or not want to see.”
I am not an “animal lover.” Some stop and fawn over this cute puppy or that baby possum, but I do not just pour my heart out over any animal that I see. But if an animal is in pain, trapped, or lost, then at least I question what might be done to help it. I do not just cross the street, look the other way, or ignore it. Perhaps it is because I am sensitive. Or maybe it is how I would want to be treated if I were cold and hungry.
Recently a religious man asked me why I was not afraid of getting bitten by a squirrel (I am not afraid, though I do take caution). He said I could get rabies from squirrels. He did not know they do not carry rabies. We got into a conversation about his upbringing and how Shoah survivors could easily have a fear of dogs. That is powerful imagery. Yes, I can imagine that such terror has lasting effects.
But is that how it should be? I do not particularly like dogs, and am allergic to them. But each dog is different. Some do wonderful things for people. Sometimes we rely on them for their amazing talents as rescuers, detectives, and guides. Is it fair to them, or good to ourselves to carry such negative feelings, for an innocent animal that we do not even know? Is it fair to the pig that it should suffer more than any other kosher or non-kosher animal because the museum does not even show it? At least keep the stuffed animal in a separate room—isolated but available to those who may want to see it?
An artist’s job is to ask questions, to care, and to raise consciousness and awareness. I think we are better people for thinking about things rather than ignoring them. Certainly, one could argue there are more important things to think about. But, so too, one might say that nothing is beneath consideration. Sometimes a sentence can be taken out of context. So readers should not assume me to be siding with pigs, whatever that means. I have never eaten any part of a pig. And unlike some people—who, I’ve read, have pigs as pets, and boast of their fastidiousness in grooming—I must admit I am prejudiced against them. But does that make me a better person?
I do not think maintaining a fear of dogs is better than learning to appreciate them or to understand them. Some religious people have pets and love those pets. Some don’t relate. And some hate and loathe animals. Because I am a NY State-licensed wildlife rehabber interested in helping injured and orphaned squirrels, I often engage visitors to my studio and website about their feelings toward and their knowledge of squirrels. I get responses in three categories: fear, apathy, and compassion.
The more people know about squirrels, the more fascinated and respectful they are of these interesting creatures. Yet hunters, for example, insist on defending the indefensible. They insist that it is fair and right to hunt for sport. I do not understand how blasting a baby or mother squirrel high in the trees, who is either trying to survive in this terribly cold world or trying to enjoy a beautiful day without hunger, is any type of sport for anyone.
Maybe you would enjoy visiting Torah Animal World. Education could be good. Will children leave knowing that animals have feelings too or only that some are cute, scary, different, dumb, kosher, or nonkosher? Maybe, just like people, there are good and bad individuals in the animal world? Maybe each is a product of its experiences in life? Maybe we could feel better at times knowing that we are helping, rather than not knowing how we are causing pain. Getting over one’s fear is usually suggested if one has a fear of the water, of heights, or even of relationships. Could a museum or program like this possibly provide an immersive experience to get people over their fears of animals?
In speaking to people who visit my studio and ask questions about my squirrel photographs, there is always something in the person’s past to have triggered their fear of squirrels. Discussion reveals a desire to recognize the cause, and the irrationality of continuing to live in that fear.
I used to fear bees. Then I learned stinging is their last resort. It is suicide on their part. They die. Their stinging is usually only done when in fear. So when others go crazy over a bee in in the yard, I calmly stand still. No problem. A person with a deep-seated fear of dogs might wish to get over it and feel better in the process by being a friend too. v
Gary Rabenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabenko Photography & Video Artists is located at 1001 Broadway in Woodmere.