by Sigrid Bjarnason, first published in The Flying Shingle, Monday, April 21, 2014
In 1952, when my cousin Birna was only minutes old, she was declared “Mongoloid” (as children with Down Syndrome were called in those days). As a result, Birna was taken away from her family and handed over to the medical experts at Woodlands Institution in New Westminster. Birna’s distraught parents were assured that she wouldn’t live long.
Although her existence was kept an uncomfortable family secret from my generation, I finally learned about her when she was 25 years old. On the way to her ward during my first visit to meet Birna, I followed the nurse down hallway after hallway as she unlocked heavy security doors along the route. She told me that when we got to Birna’s ward she would be sitting on the floor against a pole, legs splayed out on either side of her. Indeed she was. In fact, Birna spent all day, every day, sitting right there.
The only entertainment in the “day room” where Birna and her cohorts spent their waking hours was a TV way up at the ceiling, playing a soap opera no one was watching. Ward staff members were monitoring things through an office window. The 25 female residents spent their time sitting, wandering, rocking, ripping clothes off, hitting themselves or each other, all unfortunate enough to have been sentenced by the accident of their disability to this awful place.
The outside “play” area was a small empty square of shaded grass; the locked bedrooms contained nothing but beds; the bathroom was a bank of toilets against a wall, with no privacy; no one had personal belongings of any kind; beyond training to use a spoon, Birna had never had any education; she had no front teeth; very few of these residents went anywhere, ever.
It took only that one visit for me to decide that Birna’s life had to be better than this. So with the help of others, I set about changing it.
I’ll spare you the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious details of her move out of Woodlands into a new life in her own home, but Birna lived another 25 eventful years before dying of pneumonia at age 50.
When I went to visit her for the last time, Birna lay peacefully in bed in her favourite pajamas, her bedroom lit with candles, while music played softly. Friends and relatives were dropping in to say goodbye. Her staff – most of whom had known Birna for years – took turns climbing into bed, hugging, kissing, and holding her gently as she floated in and out of consciousness over her last few days. Birna died peacefully, surrounded by people who loved her.
Woodlands Institution is gone now, rejected as a cruel model of care. It closed because societal values shifted. Families refused to place their relatives there. Special interest groups formed and worked to create more compassionate alternatives. Once people saw the harm, they demanded better treatment for those powerless to advocate for themselves.
You might wonder what this tale has to do with animals or food. Well, Birna’s sense of wonder at the richness of the second half of her life after so many years of incarceration is surely being felt right now by our resident hens. They spent the first grim year of their lives crammed into tiny cages in a noisy, stinking, sunless barn, unable to spread their wings, denied veterinary care for wounds, every instinct stifled while laying eggs for humans – as helpless and unhappy in their situation as Birna was in hers.
Now the chickens wander freely around our property on Gabriola with their big buddy, Ernie the turkey. They spend their days scratching, dust bathing, pecking, flapping their wings, breathing clean air, and spreading their wings when the sun comes out to bask in every gorgeous moment of it.
I wonder when the shift in our attitudes toward animals will result in better treatment for the billions who are silently suffering terrible injustices, imprisoned in huge windowless barns, in cages on fur farms, in tiny zoo stalls or behind bars waiting to become research subjects or food.
Like those thoughtful people who forced the rejection of the institutional model that sentenced Birna and her fellow inmates to a lifetime of misery, when will we reject the much greater cruelty that we inflict on animals? When will enough of us demand compassion for all those countless animals now suffering and dying in despair? Have we got it in us to force that change? I think that we do.