As a parent, one of the things that made me most anxious about our move to Addis was the animals.
Like most American children, mine have been exposed to a slew of images of animals since they were born. These animals walk on two legs and use their paws as hands. They sometimes wear clothes. They converse with each other in ‘cute’ high pitched voices, live in nuclear families and otherwise mimic some version of human life. The features of these animals are not only humanized but usually depicted with exaggerated masculinity or femininity. They have bulging muscles where lean limbs should be. Whiskers become moustaches. Elongated eyelashes blinked beseechingly. Female animals shake long ears or mains alluringly as if they had flowing locks of hair. In short, our children are socialized from almost the moment they are born to think of animals as sympathetic, friendly, cute and human.
On top of that, most of the pets in our home neighborhood have a pretty nice life. They are treated like members of their family, getting treats and gifts on holidays and special occasions. We develop deep emotional bonds with these animals. We know their “personalities” intimately. We mourn their deaths and go to great lengths and expense to prevent it. Our pets have better health care than the majority of people in Ethiopia.
Here most dogs and cats are strays. In fact, I have heard that in Addis Ababa because of the abundance of stray dogs the government periodically poisons them and collects the bodies. Meanwhile donkeys, mules and oxen are work tools. Sheep, goats chickens and cows are food. Human-animal relations are just different here.
You can see why I was nervous about bringing my animal-loving children here. I’d warned Yona about the abundance of stray dogs. Before arriving, he said many times that what he was most anxious about was the stray dogs. He’s had a lot of questions about the stray dogs since we got here that I couldn’t answer, so I encouraged him to ask people about the dogs and observe them. He’s learned that some dogs are, in fact, people’s pets, but they tend to have a lot more freedom than our dogs and run with the stray pack at times. Similarly, he’s learned that sometimes a stray might attach itself to a pet as its “friend.” He’s also observed that a lot of the stray dogs actually look pretty well fed.
We arrived shortly before the Ethiopian New Year. Along with Christmas and Easter, this is one of the biggest Christian holidays here. Purchasing and slaughtering animals is a key part of how the holiday is celebrated. (In Eritrea, I used to call these major holidays ‘goat/ sheep pulling holidays’ due to the ubiquitous sight of people pulling newly purchased goats and sheep through the streets in preparation for the holiday meal.) In preparation for the holiday, from the moment we arrived, Addis was full of herds of livestock for sale. Addis is a crowded city and it seemed that livestock occupied every bit of spare space. Every round-about and underpass was full of animals. When walking through the city, one often had to dodge around them on the sidewalks.
The children found this fascinating. We had long conversations about why the sheep and goats looked the same and how to tell the difference. We were also very clear that these animals were food for the holiday. Almost in one breath, Yona said, “Aw, they’re so cute. I feel bad for them. How do they kill them? Can I watch? Can I do it?”
Two days before New Years Day, Yona discovered a sheep and two chickens behind the house that we rent in the compound that we share with our landlady and her family. Yona ran off and came back a few minutes later saying, “Mommy, I pet the sheep!” A few moments later, he came back saying “Mommy, I pet the chickens!” He became a frequent visitor of these animals throughout the rest of their short life. He regularly reported to me that they were still alive. When they were no longer there, he announced to me matter-of-factly, “Mommy, the sheep and chicken are gone. I think they got killed.” The next morning, after going to visit the neighbors in our compound, he ran back to me proudly announcing, “I ate sheep and drank tea for breakfast and it was really good!”
In the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, another sheep appeared in our compound, and Yona announced that he was going to watch it slaughtered. With bouncy energy he eagerly awaited the slaughter, but also seemed to enjoy petting the sheep and feeding it bits of grass. Yona kept a vigilant eye on the sheep, eager to be there for the slaughter. He interrupted many activities to rush outside, saying, “I think they are doing it now!” The time for the slaughter seemed to be delayed. The sheep was still alive on New Year’s Eve and on New Year’s Day.
Meanwhile, the adults debated the pros and cons of letting him watch, often with a great deal of emotion. Our landlady had already told us she didn’t want the children to watch and planned to have the sheep slaughtered while the children were sleeping, but as the time stretched on and the children seemed to stalk the sheep, eager for the slaughter, that seemed less and less possible. My attitude was that, if Yona really understood what he was about to observe, he was old enough to make his own choices. (Sami, at 5, on the other hand, I thought was too young, something which made him irate.) My husband, who grew up here, on the other hand, felt strongly that Yona didn’t know what he was getting into and shouldn’t watch. My friend and colleague, who was visiting at time and is a vegetarian, thought it wouldn’t hurt and would be good for him to see where his meat comes from. My mother weighed in by phone and email frequently with some anxiety about the whole thing. She thought he would be scarred for life. My father, who grew up on a farm, stayed fairly silent about the whole thing.
As it turned out, the sheep was slaughtered before the children woke up on the morning the day after New Year’s Day. The children did wake up in time to help with the butchering. Yona watched while the carcass was disassembled. He touched the eyeball and held the skull. He helped hold the meat while they cut it with sharp knives. And then he ate some of the meat once it was cooked. Since then he has been a keen observer of the heads and bits of animals scattered around the streets, even noting that the stray dogs seem to be benefiting from the abundance of leftovers.
What does an animal’s life mean to a child? Was it Yona’s fascination with biology that surpassed his compassion for animal life? Is he simply a realist and a staunch omnivore? Or is it that easy to socialize children to think of sheep as food rather than cuddly creatures who show up in pink and purple and blue around Easter? I like to think that he is able to hold both thoughts in his head—that animals can be loved, enjoyed, cared for and that they are meat.
I still worry though and will admit that part of me is relieved that he didn’t have the chance to witness the slaughter this time around. But what happens when the inevitable culling of the stray dog population occurs? Or when they see a dog hit by a car? Or the beating of a donkey? At some point, witnessing violence seems inevitable and those lessons are much harder than the one about where meat comes from.