Friends For Life
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Friends For Life

You can do this standing on one foot.

The Golden Rule applies across all boundaries — including species.

Religious scholar and former nun Karen Armstrong had a brilliant yet simple idea on how to heal the world. She shared it on the TED stage and invited the world to sign a charter, agreeing to live their lives in a way that abides by it. The people who signed the charter range from Queen Noor and Deepak Chopra to people you probably know personally.

If someone told you that there was one formula, a single credo that would span faiths, national boundaries and even species to sow peace, could you imagine it?

You already know it: The Golden Rule.

A portrait photo of Karen Armstrong looking away from the camera

“Look into your own heart; discover what it is that gives you pain. And then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” — Karen Armstrong

The rest is commentary.

Five centuries before Christ, Confucius taught his pupils this principle — the foundation for every other teaching:

Never treat another being in a way you yourself would not want to be treated.

Fast forward, and the great Rabbi Hillel was approached by someone who offered to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the Torah standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel stood on one foot and said,

That which is hateful to you, do not do unto another. That is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Now, go study.

This simple idea, infinitely complex to put into action, is Armstrong’s offering of a beacon. She sees it as a unifying idea running through the three great Abrahamic faiths and the key to running a kind of constant “self-test” of how we are dealing with each other. She doesn’t pretend it is easy. We are flawed.

Should our compassion extend to members of other species?

“Concern for others is such an ancient theme that scholars have identified it with the very beginning of religion.” — Karen Armstrong

In her 2006 book, The Great Transformation, Armstrong observed how care about all living beings became a hallmark of ‘the axial age’ (900 BCE-200 BCE). During this time, ancient religious sages in China, India, Israel, and Greece taught that compassion must somehow extend to the entire world.

Each tradition developed its own formulations of The Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not have done to you. As far as the axial sages were concerned, respect for the sacred rights of all beings was not orthodox belief — it was religion.

Compassion must, to come to full realization, be something that starts with a kindness we extend to ourselves and that we then offer to all beings. It is not enough to practice compassion toward those like us. We must love and strive to connect outside our tribe, with those not our familiars.

If you will come with me on the premise that compassion must not stop at the boundaries of our family, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or nation, then perhaps you will add to that list one more: species.

We share the planet with other sentient beings.

Beings who, like us, experience the bonds of family, the grief of loss, the joy of play, and the deep desire to protect their young. They feel terror, pain, and longing. They have memory.

And maybe most like us, they strive to live. Given the choice, they will almost always choose to live.

We are just now beginning to unlock the complexities of how non-human animals relate to each other and to us. Their inner lives are richer than we ever imagined.

“Cry.”

Animals speak in languages too ancient and strange for us to comprehend, so sometimes we teach them some of ours. When we do, we find they are capable of tremendous empathy and deep compassion.

Washoe was a female chimpanzee who was the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language (ASL).

One of Washoe’s caretakers, Kat, was pregnant. Washoe, who had lost two babies, was very interested in Kat’s swelling abdomen and would ask about “baby.”

When Kat miscarried and returned to the lab after an absence of several days, she signed to Washoe that she had lost her baby. Washoe looked down to the ground. Then she looked into Kat’s eyes and signed ‘cry,’ touching her cheek just below her eye.

3,570 times.

Even animals not so genetically like us are shining examples of faithfulness to which most of us can only aspire.

Hachikō (c. 1934)

Hachikō was an Akita, now enshrined in a national monument in Japan. At the end of every day, Hachikō greeted his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno, (a professor at the University of Toyko) as he got off the train. One day, the professor died of a cerebral hemorrhage and never returned home.

For the next 9 years, 9 months, and 15 days until his own death, Hachikō awaited Ueno’s return, appearing each day at the precise time the train was due at the station and waiting until it pulled out again.

You are responsible for it.

We have made lives with domestic animals we have tamed. In The Little Prince (the wonderful children’s book that’s really not a children’s book at all) is the idea that

“Once you tame a thing, you are responsible for it forever.”

And yet, we created a system to “shelter” animals that became the most massive and efficient killing machine in history. We have exterminated them for being too old, too sick, too frightened. We killed them for being young enough to need to nurse their mother, or for being a mother who has babies to nurse. We have killed them for the random chance of being born a certain breed.

Hachikō would be killed in many shelters that label Akitas “unadoptable, dangerous” dogs.

A new model of sheltering.

As a no kill shelter, we do not have a corner on compassion for animals. Thankfully, it happens all over the country.

But we do have a unique way of perceiving what a shelter owes the animals that they’re charged with, the larger community, and how we express that compassion through our actions.

Our shelter model has always differed radically from traditional Houston shelter. More than 75% of the animals that we take on, rehabilitate, and send to homes would be found “unadoptable” at other shelters. In a city of 4 million, we were the only shelter to step up with direct-support services at the beginning of the pandemic.

We’ve always understood that fully actualized compassion is only possible when we act in a way that acknowledges each individual life — tail or no tail — as uniquely sacredly and valuable. That is the cultural imperative.

Every Animal Matters. Full stop.

After that, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel, the rest is commentary.

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We are the Unsheltered. The rebellious. Seeks of hard truths. Believers in second chances. We are the open-minded. We are the loud. We are Friends For Life. Let’s rally the humans. #BeUnsheltered

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Friends For Life

Friends For Life

We’re talking hard truths and life-changing methods. It’s time for the UNshelter. A new kind of shelter that’s not somewhere you go — it’s something you do.

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