Saving Simon, by Jon Katz (Ballantine Books, 209 pages)
on Katz was walking his donkey (long story) when a woman pulled up in a minivan and asked if the animal was a mule. “No,” he replied, “This is a donkey.” She looked befuddled, then asked, “What does it do?”
Amused, he answered, “It takes walks with me.” But this particular donkey does much more than that. Simon is a rock star of a donkey who came to live at the New York writer’s farm after suffering a lengthy period of criminal neglect.
Simon had once been a child’s pet, but when the family’s farm failed, he was sold to a horse dealer, who shipped him off with a couple of horses to another hardscrabble farm. That farmer, who did not need or want a donkey, decided the solution to his donkey problem was to shut Simon up, alone, in a small pen and forget he existed. No one knows how long the donkey languished there, but by the time the police and animal-welfare officers descended, Simon was motionless and near death, lying on his side, emaciated, pinned under mud and waste, with hooves grown so long he couldn’t walk or stand.
Enter Katz. Or, more accurately, enter a virtual SWAT team of aid workers, including a vet who used a battery-powered buzz saw to cut down Simon’s hooves and who pulled rotting teeth that had grown into his jaw, causing a raging infection. It was, the vet said, the worst case of animal abuse he’d seen in 20 years of practice. Simon likely would have died if not for the brave child who notified police of his father’s neglect, and the state trooper who insisted on orchestrating the raid. It took more than one man to save Simon. But one man made Simon the most famous donkey since Shrek’s, so Katz gets the credit.
The resulting book, subtitled “How a Rescue Donkey Taught Me the Meaning of Compassion,” seems to promise a milquetoast soliloquy on animal rights and human cruelty, but this is not that book, and Katz is not that writer, as readers of his blog (bedlamfarm.com) well know. Katz is a veteran writer but possesses a startlingly fresh voice that occupies the harsh space between animal-rights activists and people whose bumper stickers say “I love animals; they taste terrific.” Katz does love animals, but he loves them rationally. A zealous defender of the carriage-horse trade, he believes animals ought to work, and that killing them is sometimes a solution to their problems.
In Simon, however, Katz sensed a kindred soul, and he and his wife devoted themselves to nursing the donkey back to health, while pondering the business of compassion. Why is it, he asks, that animal-rights activists have so much empathy for animals, but seemingly little for the human beings who hold different views? (A bumper sticker I saw this week illustrated this beautifully: Save pit bulls. Euthanize humans.) To explore the paradox, and his own feelings on the subject, Katz visits the farmer who owned Simon at the time of the raid, and who was later convicted of animal abuse. (And, incredibly, fined only $125.)
To most of Simon’s fans, who drive from all over the U.S. to visit him, the farmer is a monster who should have been jailed. Katz, however, hopes to find compassion for the human behind Simon’s suffering. More compelling is what happens later, when the now healthy and affectionate Simon turns on an aged, blind pony that Katz and his wife befriend. The incident and its aftermath demonstrate the danger of expecting animals to behave like humans.
Longtime readers of Katz will find a few familiar anecdotes here, and a thunderous echoing of themes, but there is much new material here, and Katz makes a convincing argument for a new way of looking at animals. He believes we are loving animals right out of our lives by insisting that they be coddled and pampered, rather than living the lives nature intended — lives that should include work, like humans’. In addition, he notes how human lives are diminished when farm animals are excluded to the point that most people don’t know what they are. Simon, Katz writes, loves people, but “our culture makes no allowances for animals like donkeys to be a part of our world, even though they would adapt easily to farmers markets, downtown parks, and school playgrounds.”
Katz’s beliefs may be disturbing to the most tender-hearted of readers, and his conclusions about compassion might not mirror yours, but they are intelligent, well-defended and important, because they move society beyond feeling about animals to thinking about them. Saving Simon does not delve deeply into the issues raised here, a disappointment in an otherwise solid book. Katz mentions reading Thomas Merton, Saint Francis of Assisi and Albert Schweitzer, among others, while wrestling with the notion of compassion, but reveals little of what he learned beyond his own anecdotes. Also, he hints of his own sufferings and demons, writing that he instantly related to Simon’s “experience of aloneness and confusion, of fear and discomfort,” but he shares little about this connection.
“Compassion is tricky, dangerous, volatile. It is easy to talk about it, but another thing to practice it. Simon taught me that. But he also taught me not to give up on it,” Katz writes. Simon says a lot, in silent conversation with Katz, who may not always be a reliable interpreter, but is the best we’ve got in the absence of Doctor Dolittle. B — Jennifer Graham