Howling with my mom put me on a path to living with compassion

A creative approach to saving deer from being culled opened my eyes to feeling empathy for life around us.

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SOURCEIndependent Media Institute
Image Credit: John Oberg

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

My mom raised me to be kind to animals. She told me that they were vulnerable and therefore deserved our protection. Being the good momma’s boy that I was, I listened.

We grew up putting this compassion into action through various means and methods. From feeding stray animals to trapping, neutering and releasing cats in our free time. From making sure every dog we met received all the pets to sweet-talking squirrels as they ran through our yard.

The world, however, didn’t always share our compassion for animals. When I was 10 years old, our ability to build a kinder world for animals was challenged.

My mom, Karen Oberg, was a single mom and I was her only child. We didn’t have a lot of money, so we did what we had to make ends meet. In Michigan, returning empty soda cans to the grocery store would fetch you 10 cents per can. In the mornings, before she would drop me off at school, my mom and I would hop in the car and head to Stony Creek Metropark. There, we’d walk from trash can to trash can collecting empty cans. On a good day, we’d get $15-20 worth of cans. Every little bit helped.

In these early mornings, there usually wouldn’t be a single other person in the park. Just my mom, me and the morning dew. To our delight, however, there were some deer who would make appearances often. When we’d see them on those cold, misty mornings, we’d often stop dead in our tracks and just admire their beauty. We’d even greet them and let them know how beautiful they were to us. In a way, they became our friends.

One morning at Stony Creek, we became devastated. We learned that a cull — the first-ever of its kind there—would be occurring. These deer, who knew nothing but peace and tranquility, would suddenly have their family members and peers picked off one-by-one.

Rest on my mom’s laurels she did not. She stepped up and told me that she wouldn’t let this happen without a fight. So, fight we did.

Every day, we would stand at the entrance or exit of the park holding signs that read things like “Stop the hunt” and “Being cruel isn’t cool.” My mom made every attempt possible to make as much of a fuss as we could. It even led to us getting local news coverage which took our fight to the next level back in 1997. At a Department of Natural Resources meeting, I spoke as an extremely shy boy where I muttered: “Please don’t hurt the deer.” Fight as we did, it wasn’t enough to stop the forces that were in motion. The cull went on.

We were heartbroken, but we did not go quietly. During one of the final hunts of the cull, my mom had a dangerous but risky idea that she felt we needed to do. We stuck around the park into the evening—when the hunts would occur—and we howled like wolves. We wanted to alert the deer to the forthcoming danger. We howled and howled into the night.

The next day, we learned that hunters only killed three deer—far fewer than what they were getting on average. We never knew if our howling actually helped, but we only hoped that it had. For us to repay the favor to them for keeping us company during those many early misty mornings when we ventured from trash can to trash can.

It was this experience with my mom that was my first foray into animal activism. It was the first time I realized that when there is injustice in the world, you stand up and you speak out against it. This primed me perfectly for when, a decade later, I learned how farm animals were treated.

The disconnect that I had felt between the animals on my plates and the animals raised on factory farms somewhere far away was so real and jarring. I learned that farm animals face some of the worst cruelties imaginable, yet almost no one bats an eye because of society’s relationship with meat, dairy, and eggs. I knew that if I wanted to continue treating animals with compassion and respect like my mom raised me to, I needed to make changes.

If I wouldn’t pull the trigger at Stoney Creek Metropark on any one of those deer, why would I pay someone else to confine and slaughter a farm animal just so I can eat their body? It made no sense. I decided to become vegan. That was 10 years ago. It was the best decision of my life.

Shortly after becoming vegan, I handed my mom a pamphlet to read about how animals are treated on factory farms. She immediately began crying and declared that she would no longer eat animals. The sense of compassion that she had instilled in me as a child had now come full circle and she was now inspired by me. Until the end of her life, she never ate another animal.

You don’t need compassion running in your blood to understand that you can make a difference. You can take the very real compassion, consideration, and respect you already have for cats and dogs (and maybe deer) and extend that to farm animals.

The world that we want for animals and the world that exists are two very different things. Creating a kinder world, however, is something that we all strive for. And that starts at the dinner table. 

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