In Memory of Iris

i.

When Iris came to live with me in 2011, I had been vegan for a long time. I was constitutionally against all forms of animal exploitation, including (obviously) dog fighting. On a basic, conceptual level it’s not hard to understand that an animal does not want to be forced to fight–just as they don’t want to be maimed, be abused, or be killed. As a general principle, I think we all can agree that nobody wants to suffer or to be killed.

As Iris and I formed our bond, though, the depth and horror of dog fighting became part of me. The reality of that trauma, though not mine, permeated my flesh and bones. I would think about what Iris must have experienced as a bait dog–deaf, restrained, scared, unable to defend herself–and my fury would escalate until it was almost unbearable. The idea that this brilliant, lovely, joyful, lively person was treated as an expendable nothing seemed beyond comprehension.

Iris re-framed my understanding of dog fighting because she made me see it through her experiences, and she made me understand its violations and violence through her physical and emotional scars.

Despite her horrid beginnings, she was such a happy person. She delighted everyone who knew her, and together we all learned how to interact with the world. She was my first encounter with caregiving for others—prior to her, I had been a hermit with only plants for dependents. It was quite a change when she entered my life…but I’ve grown a lot since then, thanks in part to her.

The same genes that made her deaf, pink, white-furred, and blue-eyed also made her prone to skin allergies and frequent occurrences of dermal hemangiosarcomas, a type of cancer that resulted in skin growths. We believed that the dermal hemangiosarcomas were relatively low risk, unlike the internal versions of the cancer, and surgeries to remove and test the ones that appeared always went well.

The first we knew something wasn’t right was late in the night on 8 June 2019, when she seemed to have an upset tummy and trouble breathing. When the ER vet explained that an ultrasound had revealed two tumors, one on her heart and one on her liver, and that the heart growth had burst and was bleeding out into the sac around her heart, I didn’t believe it. We knew that internal hemangiosarcomas do this…but never had we thought she had them internally.

Iris was an unstoppable force. That night, though, it was clear she was in pain as the tumor bled. She couldn’t even walk ten feet without needing to lie down. It seemed impossible.

We were looking forward to many more years with Iris, and losing her at nine years old feels truly unfair (though not unusual for dogs with her condition, apparently). She’s been a huge part of our lives for many years, and she touched many people during that time with her joy and energy for life.

As I said, Iris was a force.

ii.

It’s been a long time since this one individual opened the door into caregiving for me. Many people will read about her and think that, because she was a dog, our bond and my grief at her passing are normal. Humans and dogs are somehow essentially intertwined. We love them as they love us. They are family.

Over the years, I have formed similar bonds with many individuals: chickens (OBVIOUSLY), ducks, turkeys, pigs, goats, sheep, cats, rabbits. In my experience, these bonds and the day-to-day relationships we all shared are as true, as valid, as deep, and as meaningful for both sides as was my bond with Iris.

Iris loved life and valued companionship. I’ve never met a chicken, pig, sheep, goat, or cow who didn’t feel the same.

We first adopted Iris while living in a middling town in Virginia that had poultry processing plants both downtown and just outside of town. That meant trucks crammed full of hundreds of terrified white birds–Cornish Cross chickens as well as turkeys–barreled down city streets and lined up outside the plant downtown, filled with confused babies unknowingly awaiting their deaths. These juggernauts of misery took babies to their deaths, and human city residents occasionally grumbled but otherwise lived their lives.

Those individuals on those fucking trucks were something else, something other, not within the human circle of consideration nor within the human circle of knowing.

How wrong we humans are, in our nonsense, partitioning the cats and dogs from the chickens and pigs, as if there is some truth, some universality, some ETHIC in our choice to see dogs as family members and chickens as flesh.

iii.

I understand the egg industry through individual hens like Clementine, Coriander, Beatrice, Tansy, Hypatia, Vadelma, Doree, and Bibi, as well as roosters like Philalethes, Hobbes, Zooey, Gandalf, Pantagruel, and Julian.

When I think of those monstrous trucks now, I think of the Cornish Crosses we care for and have cared for, like Cin and Mer, Lyubkin, Lollo, Sabrina, Roquette, Angelica, Myrtille, and Dorrit. Individuals like them are butchered by the billions, but we pass them by unfeelingly–on the highways, in the stores, we pass them even if we grudgingly encounter parts of them.

How can I think about cockfighting now but through the lens of Phoenix, the most glorious rooster, who has lived with us for so many years after being rescued from inside a fighting ring with gaffes taped to his legs, along with many others I never got to meet? Or his beloved Phoebe, and their bond together?

Perhaps these names don’t mean much to you because you didn’t know them. But if you didn’t know Iris, my grief shouldn’t mean much either…except that because she was a dog, you can understand it.

But it’s also important to understand why a chicken or pig is as worthy of our respect, and our grief–is as worthy of justice, as a dog or cat. Why is “dog” more significant than “deer,” or “chicken” less critical than “cat”? I would be failing Iris if I did anything but frame our bond in the context of our sanctuary, where many beings of many species from many situations get the chance to live and be who they are regardless of prior tragedies.

iv.

This is how I see things.

I see Iris, along with Bibi, Phoenix, Jemaine the pig, Nestor the goat, Ivey the sheep. No one of these important and worthy beings in my life desired to live their life any less than another. I have seen individuals fight through layers of trauma I don’t have space to delineate and survive, or others fight valiantly but succumb. They all get names, they all become part of our emotional family, they all are valued.

The only cultural difference in all of this is how we, we humans who treasure ourselves and our valuations so fiercely and so unthinkingly, how we decide which of them matter and which of them don’t.

If you aren’t vegan already…why? Did the cow or chicken or pig in your mouth want to live any less than Iris? Perhaps their pieces wrapped in cellophane or piled on a bun with sauce and condiments did not, for you, immediately refer back to the absent being whose pieces and parts are now in your teeth. Why?

If you are vegan, is there some swelling of emotions for Iris that doesn’t happen for every one of the billions of beings who are born only to be butchered every year, who die as unknown quantities rather than as family members, who are subjected to the worst of human violation? Why?

The insidiousness of speciesism occurs, in part, through its ability to suffuse our deepest beliefs and to influence how we silently (e)valuate the world around us. If as vegans we do not see the loss of a beloved dog within the same ethical framework as the butchering of an unknown chicken, then we are as much subject to the arbitrary violence of speciesism as we are guilty of perpetuating it.

Iris, my dear: you were loved, and you will be forever missed. May you help us all to be better for the beings who need us most.