by Amanda Schmit
When I was eight-years-old I loved all animals. Cats, dogs, giant centipedes. I was very inclusive.
My family had moved across the country from Palmdale, California, to Buffalo, New York, so that we could be closer to our family. It was very important to my mother that I get to know my grandparents, and I am grateful that I got to spend time with them and learn where I came from.
My grandfather’s favorite pastime was fishing, a hobby that went against my love of animals. This is a story about my dilemma as a child trying to bond with my family, which meant having to ignore my bond with animals.
Dread. Raw guilt. Do I have to?
I held the writhing wet worm between the thumb and pointer finger of my left hand. Gently, as I had countless times before. What was the difference between this worm, alive and well, that my grandpa had bought at a fishing store, and the free and wild worms I dug up in my mom’s garden?
Hadn’t I rescued so many of these little creatures just the other day after a heavy rainfall? Relocating them from rough pavement onto the least-dampened, soft patches of mulch?
In my right hand I held an iron hook about the same length as the worm. It was smooth, shiny, and barbed at the curved end. We were at a wildlife refuge near Lake Erie called Tifft Farms. My grandpa loved fishing there, and this day he brought along my grandma, my mom, and me.
The sun shone down on the small marsh, outlined with cattails and other tall grasses. Large, lazy elm and maple branches swayed and whispered above us, their leaves protecting us from the bright light and showering us with a cool shade.
The outside world was so quiet and calm, while inside my chest a catastrophic event loomed.
Could they feel pain? My thoughts remained tacit.
“This is how you catch fish,” I was told.
“This is how you make family memories with your grandpa,” I could remember my mom telling me that morning. This is how to experience nature.
I hadn’t even thought about the aftermath of my actions in regards to the unsuspecting fish. I had yet to reconcile the dilemma at hand — in my hands — for my Earth-eating buddy. His fate was literally held in my small fingers.
“You just do it quick like this,” my grandpa said, as he harpooned the barb though a plump portion of the body he was holding.
“It’s just a worm, they can’t feel a thing.”
Yet my grandpa’s worm twitched furiously, as if to tie herself into a knot from the sudden impalement.
And so, palms sweaty, breath held, quick like a Band-Aid, the barb pierced through one side and burst out of the other. Innards like an infection erupted out with the point. Moments before, my lackadaisical had friend lolled up and down the sides of my fingers, but she was now vigorously whipping about, stuck fast to the metal restraint.
Horror. Grief. I couldn’t undo this act that seemed without reason.
“Then you cast it out.”
I’d been stunned stiff, and so grandpa took the fishing pole and launched all evidence of my crime out into the murky brown water. The very substance from which I’d spent so much time saving the likes of this worm a few days before.
He then handed me back the pole, his instructions on what to do next fading into the background with the whistling leaves and laughing gulls.
The only thing I could hear was my heart pounding.
And all I could feel was my heart pounding. My chest pounding. My head pounding. Pounding and pounding. Then I was numb. Empty. Hollow.
I stood solemn, my gaze haunted, staring at the lifeless nylon line that was so still in the dark water. All of this tied to my small hands, once doers of good, now the limbs of execution.
My grandfather died four years later.
Our fishing trips are the only vivid memories I have of him. My grandmother still lives in their house, and in the basement I can still find all of my grandfather’s fishing trinkets. A photo of him on the wall with a beautiful swordfish on his line still hangs. He has a huge smile on his face, and next to the picture hangs the actual taxidermied fish.
As a child I always thought that that fish was beautiful, and somehow I did not put together that my grandfather had killed that fish. When he passed, I never went fishing again.
In fact I advocate for fish these days more than most.
What I learned from my childhood fishing experiences was that I had a love of all creatures.
I knew their inherent value, and appreciated that they were alive, had their own lives, could feel, and could have some form of relationship with me.
It was the trusted adults in my life who made me question and repress that inherent love, and who conditioned me into thinking and acting otherwise.
I believe most children are similar. And if we as adults stopped conditioning them against their love of all animals, much suffering for all involved would be eliminated.
Through the introduction of humane education lessons at the earliest of schooling levels children could have the tools to make their own decisions, and to embrace the many different lives they innately value.
IHE guest blogger Amanda Schmit is an IHE M.Ed. student. She says, “Through IHE I am hopeful that I will get to share my passion for the Earth and all its creatures with future students, and motivate them to live lightly on the Earth, care for other creatures, and share humane lifestyle ideas with others.”