I was fine until they hauled the two live roosters up the hill by their wings.
Two men, one bird each, pushed through our small crowd crushed on a steep hill of a remote beach on the Cuban coast, outside of Santiago. It was late afternoon, and several houses of devotees congregated in separate ceremonies on the beach. Cantos. Tambors. Songs, drumming from our hill down to ceremonies at the far end of the beach. Below us, three men waded into the sea with a massive goat overhead, climbing onto a large, table-like boulder with the live animal.
Oh fuck. I contemplated dashing down the hill away from the rum, the plastic multi-colored bowls of diced melon, squash and yams, arinas, dried beans, the large cast-iron cauldron circled in cut sticks of sugar cane. Away from the whole dried fish and the small, gold statue of Jesus Crucified in front of the black pot. Away from the sharp kitchen knife tucked between a watermelon and the ground.
But I didn’t. I stayed for the tying of the roosters’ feet. I stayed for the ceremonial blessing of the bird on each attendee. I felt the soft, warm feathers touch my forehead, my wrists, my feet. I stayed while the babalawo produced the knife, invoked its sacred purpose, crossed us each on the forehead with the flat side of the blade.
I forced myself to watch the blade slip through the rooster’s throat. He did not thrash. His red eye moved, that was all. The goat on the rock below thrashed, though. Rooster blood anointed our altar. Red stripes across the melons. Blood dripped from the gold statue’s hands and head. I stayed for the second rooster, too. When it was done, the baba gently arranged their bodies in a ceremonial basket and took them with the other offerings to the sea. We honored the Mother of All Water with our songs, our holy sacrifices.
I don’t remember what happened to the body of the goat.
I arrived late in the evening to Jungle Friends in September 2015, around 9:30 p.m, traveling from a Member Day event at Save the Chimps, a chimpanzee sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, about four hours southeast from Jungle Friends, a monkey sanctuary in Gainesville. That week, on September 14, the United States Fish and Wildlife Commission’s ruling to place wild and captive chimpanzees on the endangered species list went into effect. The classification is a move forward for protecting chimpanzees from human use. Humans share roughly 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. They are, along with bonobos, our closest living relatives on Earth. Most of the residents at Save the Chimps arrived from biomedical labs and entertainment companies, many in dire psychological conditions and one, an old female, couldn’t allow herself to go outside for a year. In time, she made bonds with some other chimps who taught her it was okay to leave her room. But still, she relies on holding onto a railing for fear, as far as her caregivers observe, of being locked out of her safe place.
Well, get here safely, Kari, the owner of Jungle Friends, emailed me after I sent her a note that I was heading her way. And all I have to say is CHIMPS DROOL, MONKEYS RULE!!!! 🙂
Kari met me at the Jungle Friends gate in her golf cart, leading me to my quarters–a trailer they referred to as The Shire. She handed me take away containers full of leftovers from their vegan communal dinner.
“TVP sloppy joe, sauteed vegetables, marinated portobello, some salad. And here’s breakfast.” She placed a container of soy yogurt in the fridge and a few granola bars on the counter.
Later, my husband, a former vegetarian, had to tell me TVP meant “textured vegetable protein.” Why non-meat eaters don’t concoct more delectable names for their food baffles me. It’s not hard. Look at sweetbreads: they’re actually glands and offal, but who, if given a choice, would pick “TVP” over something called “sweetbreads”?
I sat on the plush, second-hand couch and imagined having to live the rest of my life in that trailer without ever being able to go outside. It had everything that, on paper, by scientific standards, a human being could want. A bathroom, full fridge, bed with pillows and blankets, climate control, clean running water, laundry room, and even enrichment activities like wi-fi, TV, puzzles and windows. What if I had to live with Randi, the sanctuary worker who lived in The Shire full time, for the rest of my life because we were two humans so why wouldn’t we be happy together? Humans are social creatures and need the company of their own kind.
I can barely stand confinement to an office cubicle two and a half days a week. My guess is I’d be self-mutilating in that trailer within two years.
Unless people came to take me out of the trailer so they could inject me full of diseases and observe my reactions so humans could live longer. Then maybe I would never want to leave it.
I didn’t find out until the next day that ChiChi, one of the elderly capuchins, died in Kari’s arms while I was touring Save the Chimps. ChiChi was one of the first monkeys brought into sanctuary with Kari, acknowledged as a great teacher and friend. Kari posted pictures of ChiChi’s death on Facebook along with a deeply personal eulogy. “She was one of my best friends,” Kari told me later, over lunch in her trailer in a section of the Wizard of Oz-themed sanctuary called Kansas. “We’d been together since 1995. That’s a long time to know somebody.” She’d wrapped ChiChi in a blanket and laid beside her until she died.
Most Jungle Friends supporters are aware that it’s a hospice sanctuary. In that framework, death is not hidden or decorated in euphemism. Death happens openly, with compassionate acceptance, as a final chance for the living to honor the dignity of a life. But one Facebook reader, a nurse, blasted Kari for sharing images of ChiChi’s death on the grounds that death was awful. “But it’s the reality,” Kari said. “It’s the most natural part of life. It’s something we need to know about and share.” She gave me a sad smile. “If it’s at all possible, monkeys die here surrounded by their friends and the people who loved them.”
That Tuesday, we drove to the Orlando airport to pick up Cuzco, a capuchin retired to Jungle Friends by a zoo out west, when Kari’s phone rang.
“They’re doing what?” she said. “To the United Kingdom? Did you tell them you have room? Uh huh. Hm. Yes. Uh huh. No, I hadn’t heard that.”
The caller turned out to be a well-known chimpanzee expert and sanctuary founder.. She and Kari are on the steering committee of NAPSA, North American Primate Alliance, to create a unified voice for the welfare of captive primates. The caller phoned Kari to disclose that a prestigious primate research center in the south, as a result of the September 14th ruling, was retiring its chimpanzees. Instead of placing them in a sanctuary, the university administration decided to place the chimpanzees in a wildlife park in the United Kingdom.
“Not a good placement,” Kari said. “Sunny Florida is much nicer.”
But some labs don’t want to front money to sanctuaries for lifetime care of these valuable contributions to research who happen to be our genetic family. And sanctuaries must tread a tricky political path to get biomedical research animals to sanctuary, which is still a relatively new idea in a field that previously tended to kill or sell of animals at the end of the project or the animal’s usefulness, whichever came first.
“We had an animal rights activist once stage an extreme protest at a lab that had a capuchin we really wanted to get out of there and into Jungle Friends. I had almost negotiated his release to us when she went to the media, called in all kinds of threats about what she was going to do if they didn’t free him, like fire bomb the lab and the students. In the end, her actions were ruled domestic terrorism, so the lab couldn’t comply with her demands. The lab didn’t release the monkey to me–that monkey is dead,” Kari said to me. “It’s very delicate and serious what we’re trying to do because most people, even animal lovers, never question the assumption of their own beliefs in human superiority.”
Farm animals taught me how to speak.
What does the cow say?
What does the duck say?
What does the rooster say.
The Man in the Yellow Hat stole Curious George from his family in the jungle by luring him into a bag because he wanted a little monkey for a pet. Then he put George in a zoo, explaining he will like it better there, in the big city. Then George goes through a series of plots that involve him getting punished for not following rules he doesn’t understand and never having the ability to speak on behalf of his own innocence.
Curious George remains one of the best selling children’s books of all time.
Cuba wasn’t my first ceremony that involved ritual animal sacrifice, just the first time I ever forced myself to witness it. I’d been in a ceremony once before in Brazil, but the goat–much smaller there–was killed in a private, more sacred ritual before the ceremony I was allowed to attend.
And there were the combined 76 Thanksgivings and Christmases of my life so far, tallying roughly 450 turkeys and pigs (two sides of the family plus our family) slaughtered for a sort of second-hand sacred observance. Of those roughly 450 animals, I witnessed zero of them being killed for our table. We did not pray over their sacrifice for our holidays, although we did pray. For ourselves, our family, people going through hard times.
I had seen rooster business once before, in Brazil, when a friend of mine got a particularly challenging reading from a priestess of candomble, and her path had to be cleared by a sacrifice.
I tagged along out of anthropological curiosity, playing checkers in the TV room with the 10-year-old daughter while my friend and the grandmother-priestess dressed in their whites and disappeared into the kitchen.
I saw them one other time, when they came out of the kitchen, rooster dangling upside down but still alive in the old woman’s hand, knife in the other. My friend looked at me bug-eyed, some mixture of terror and humility on her face, before they disappeared again into the kitchen.
“I can’t talk about it,” she said to me when I asked what happened. “Maybe not ever. I’m just saying rooster business went down in there and now there’s blood on my life. You don’t go back from that. I owe it to that bird to make something happen now.”
You don’t go back to the person you were when you witness the sacrifice. That’s something I learned on the hill in Cuba. A year later, working at Jungle Friends monkey sanctuary and contemplating Curious George, I understood what bothered me most was not bearing witness to the slaying of the rooster, which was terrifying for a few reasons. What bothered me most was knowing we rendered him incapable of choosing for himself in that moment.
“So, nobody knows what happens when you die. Everybody’s just made something up, right, so you might as well make up something really good. When I think about the places that some people describe as where you go when you die, depending on how “good” or how “bad” you were, I’m like, I’m not sure that’s my kind of afterlife.” Kari pushed her empty plate of lemon pie across the placemat. With her mother’s blessing, she moved into an ashram in Arizona at 17 years old but got kicked out after passing out drunk in the prayer room. Despite that seeming failure, the experience set Kari on her spiritual path and towards veganism. Today she counts among the regular attendees of Michael Singer‘s Temple of the Universe ashram about seven miles from Jungle Friends.
“I totally know what’s going to happen to me when I die,” I said.
“Yeah, I so know.”
“Let me tell you mine first. Then you go.”
“Okay,” I said.
In Kari’s afterlife, you can choose to go into a time machine and be whatever you want whenever you want. With this version, Kari knows her mother, and ChiChi, will come back to her in some other form. “We get all these stray dogs, you know? I’m always like, Mom…? Mom? But, nothing yet.”
In my version, the moment my body crashes and its lights go out, I explode into my true form: a giant dragon made of glitter. I exist in multiple dimensions at once, and I can see everything, I understand everything, which is nothing but my righteous belonging to the Universe. To the human eye, I look a lot like the pictures from the Hubble telescope.
“Not bad,” Kari said. “I like it. I think I’d be green, green with maroon. What color are you?”
“White. Silvery-white. With turquoise and red accents.”
“Then what happens, do you stay that way forever?”
“No, when you’re done you blow up and glitter rains everywhere,” I said.
“Duh. Of course.”
Kari drove me back to The Shire along The Yellow Brick Road, passing the sleeping cotton top tamarins and marmosets. I’d agreed to go to Temple with her on Sunday morning–again, mostly out of anthropological curiosity.
We ran a bit late and arrived at the tail end of the chanting in time for Michael’s talk about letting go of fear of death and embracing each moment of right now as a passing flow of life that we can uplift–this, he would tell us, is the simple key to enjoying every moment of our lives.
“Because nobody,” he said. “And I mean NOBODY knows what’s gonna happen when we die.”
Beside me, Kari leans over to whisper “glitter dragons” before closing her eyes to meditate for the rest of the hour.
I think about chimpanzees heading for the United Kingdom and how they will explode into glitter dragons one day. All the monkeys isolated in pet shops, elephants chained and living alone or giving tourists rides in Thailand and in Florida roadside flea markets. The tigers penned up in junkyards in Ohio, the crates of chickens crapping on each other in warehouses in countless factory farms. Lions bred for canned hunts in Texas and children trafficked all over the world because no one ever stopped The Man in the Yellow Hat from taking exactly what he wanted for no other reason than he wanted it, and we never stop reinforcing this goddamned miserable perversion into very tiny, very formidable human minds.
I imagine the flight of the glitter dragons because it’s a better ending than most.
The veterinarian who oversees medical care at Save the Chimps told us how the chimpanzees grieve when one of their loved ones dies, how they scream to alert everyone of the news, then congregate, touch the body, and, one by one, walk away when they have made their peace with the moment. Once, she said, a female stayed with the body of her friend for one hour, and the staff there never interrupted, never tried to control the natural process of communal grief in the chimp culture, of forcing the female to leave the body of her friend before she was ready. It reminded me, in some way, of Kari.
Sometimes it is quite easy to uplift the moment as it comes our way. By doing nothing but leaving animals to their own business.
night night beloveds.