Remembering Cruelty and Choosing Compassion

“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” -Stephen Grellet

I remember when I first witnessed cruelty.

Sure, over the course of my young life I had seen various new stories about this person shooting that person or the 48 Hours Mystery episodes that always freaked my younger self and my mother out, making us extra cautious about going to sleep that same night, checking and rechecking the locks on our doors.

But this cruelty I witnessed was different because it happened right before my young eyes rather than passively through a TV screen.

A Memory I Cannot Forget

I was maybe 7 or 8, or perhaps 9. It is hard to remember now. But I was in Croatia, the country of my heritage where I spent most of my childhood summers with my grandparents at our family’s village home in the region of Zagorje.

I was walk-skipping around our small, new rectangular fish pond — a place my grandfather, a recreational fisherman, had always dreamed of having since he was a young boy. The fish — catfish and trout — were still new residents to the pond so the water was murky-clear, unlike how it is today — mudded from age (but still teeming with life).

Zagorje countryside
Zagorje Countryside / KP

The sun was setting against Zagorje’s rolling green hills, the sky turning a hazy mixture of orange, pink and blackish gray. And I was here at the fish pond with my grandfather. We had just finished throwing dried yellow corn and pieces of stale bread to the fish.

This was a favorite part of my days at our family home — watching the fish come to the surface to gobble up the goodies we gave them, their shiny fins and bodies slapping the water’s surface, creating small ripples.

As I walked along, I moved carefully, quietly, almost on my tip toes, not wanting to scare the frogs. But they were easily scared — jumping into the water from a crevice in the stone walkway as soon as they felt a vibration or heard the drop of my foot as it hit the cement.

I watched with awe as these scenes of life unfolded before me — a life I was only observing from the small spot I occupied in their universe.

As my grandfather worked and I walked, we were greeted by a furry black dog visitor who ran through our open fence doorway and up to us with such boundless joy and energy you couldn’t help but smile and feel instantly at peace. He was happy to see us — and I was happy to see him, as if we were old friends reuniting at last.

This dog — who knew nothing of me or my grandfather — showed us such kindness and gentleness that I will never forget him.

I begged my grandfather, “Can we keep him? Can we keep him?”

My grandfather, a man of few words, replied with a jolly smile and a hearty chuckle, nodding his head.

“Can we keep him?” I asked again.

“Yes, if no one comes for him,” my grandfather said.

I jumped up and down, ecstatic — I had never had a dog before, but I was no stranger to having animal companions. Nearly every summer I spent in Croatia, I had the honor of being surrounded by barn cats and sweet hens and protective roosters from our relatives’ farm next door.

Abi Playing
Abi Playing / KP

Over the years, I also had the pleasure of caring for (with my grandmother’s ample help) many non-human members to our village family — a pair of ducks named Peep Peep and Splash, a rabbit named Curiosity and her many babies ranging in name from Brownie to Bunnicula, a pair of chickens named Blizzard and Blondie, and an amazingly fearless cat named Junior.

To have a dog was the icing on the cake! But alas, his owner, our neighbor, came back for him.

The man stood there speaking with my grandfather, the dog hanging out nearby. I was walking toward them, leaving the fish pond behind, when the man called his dog. He trotted over, tail wagging.

Then the man kicked him, kicked him hard in the ribs. And he kicked him again, harder still.

The dog whimpered and immediately collapsed into himself, skidding away from his owner’s foot. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky dog that greeted us just 15 minutes ago — he became an abuse victim right before our eyes.

It terrified me, having never witnessed something like this before. I froze.

A few moments later I slowly inched closer, but still wanted to keep my distance from this man. I wanted so badly to punch him in the face — I day-dreamed about it right then, hitting him square in the jaw, watching him recoil in pain and surprise.

But of course I didn’t — I was too small and too afraid. I said nothing. And my grandfather said nothing. I don’t blame him for his silence because you didn’t tell people what they do with their business. And perhaps my grandfather was in shock too, and also a little afraid — I will never know (RIP Deda <3).

The scene replayed in my head as I stood there silent: the man kicking his dog, once, twice, and the dog recoiling from his touch with his tail between his legs, his body hunched.

I can’t help but forget this, this moment of cruelty, because it was so senseless and unnecessary. I didn’t know this man very well. All I knew was that he was our neighbor, although I had heard rumblings that perhaps he wasn’t the greatest human being in the world.

But that shouldn’t have mattered.

It shouldn’t matter if you’re a good person or if you’re a little morally off. It shouldn’t matter because we should treat others with respect and compassion.

But we don’t.

Duck walk
Duck Walk / KP

We know all too well the lack of compassion that permeates through our society and the ways in which we treat each other as well as the ways in which we treat our fellow beings on this Earth.

However, this moment painted a very clear picture for me of how random and sudden cruelty can be. This man just reacted and likely didn’t think, “Oh yes, the dog ran away from our house and to our neighbor’s; I am going to kick him.”

Or perhaps he did because he was angry.

But he didn’t seem very angry while talking with my grandfather. He kicked the dog anyway despite his calm demeanor. It was like he wanted to make a spectacle of it, to show us that he could rule, that this was his property, this dog — this kind, loving dog.

Choosing Compassion Over Cruelty

I thought about this memory today as I read an article exposing common cruelties on a mink fur farm in Russia.

I won’t go into any gory details (you can find those through Google) but these are some of many cruelties that people inflict on other beings of this Earth simply because they feel superior to them and because they want what they want and they don’t give a damn what is done to get it.

But this is wrong — is it not?

Waiting Dog / KP

I understand that we all come from different backgrounds and upbringings and that we all don’t live in the same mode of thinking that I live in. I am aware of this and I can appreciate our differences. But it is difficult for me to grasp why we choose cruelty and why we choose to support cruelty though our buying choices when we can make a difference. We can make a change.

We do not have to choose cruelty, we can choose respect and compassion.

I try to have compassion for all living beings. You will never hear me say “I hate that ugly snake,” “I hate that disgusting spider,” or “I hate that pesky groundhog.”

You will not hear me say these things, not because I feel morally superior to my peers, but because I truly believe that hatred and fear can breed untold cruelties in us and acceptance of cruelty if push comes to shove.

Friendly Cricket Neighbor / KP

And so I am always careful because I believe in making the world better. And one way to do that is to show compassion for all — all our fellow humans and all our fellow animals.

I look forward to a day, if it ever does come, when kindness and compassion outweigh the cruelty. I look forward to continuing to fight for these better days, this better model. We can do better, and I expect us to do better.

On Writing This Post

When I was thinking about this post, I didn’t want to hit the wrong notes. I didn’t want to it to sound like a diatribe from the animal protection movement, although I am a part of this movement as well as other social movements.

I wanted the post to be relatable to readers so that you would be open to what I’m saying and not shut me off because you aren’t in the same mental space as I am — which is totally fine.

But I knew I needed to write this and I know I will continue to write about this topic and related issues throughout the course of my life.

While we live sometimes in a cruel world and live surrounded by some people who choose to commit cruel acts, we also live in a world where people are fighters, where people get up in the morning with a fervor in their blood and choose to do the right thing — they choose to be kind and they choose to be compassionate and they choose to think before they act and not react.

Sleepy kitties
Sleepy Neighborhood Cats / KP

They choose love, not hate. They choose to be open rather than afraid. And this is the type of world I hope we are moving closer to.

So much has changed over the past two decades — I am so incredibly impressed — but I also tremble with some fear. There are people trying to push us forward and people trying to push us backward — but that is always the fight, isn’t it?

We must climb a huge hill or a mountain the size of Mount Kilimanjaro to get to the other side. And we may then still need to swim across a dangerous lake the size of Lake Victoria and as choppy and unpredictable as Lake Superior. But we can persevere in the face of these obstacles, especially if we are willing to put our pettiness and egos aside and band together.

And so this is why I wrote this post — it needed to be written because we need to do more and we need to do better.

I sincerely feel in my bones that we all have the capacity for compassion — no matter how much cruelty or unkindness one may inflict on another human or non-human — I know there is more to you than that.

We can all be more and we already are more — if we make the choice to wake up with compassion in our hearts.

With love,


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“I raise up my voice–not so I can shout but so that those without a voice can be heard.” -Malala Yousafzai

“I know you can’t live on hope alone; but without hope, life is not worth living. So you, and you and you: you got to give them hope; you got to give them hope.” -Harvey Milk

Feature photo credit: Brijuni National Park Donkey / KP

Once a Groundhog, Now a Killer Whale

Let me explain.

Today, I attended a staff meeting for work and we began it with this icebreaker: if you had a spirit animal, what animal would be yours and why?

I love this icebreaker not only for its self-reflective nature (I am, after all, writing this blog about life journeys…), but also that it features an animal — and as anyone knows who knows me, I have a deep, profound love for all animals — they make my heart melt with ooey, gooey goodness!

But what I love even more than the icebreaker question itself is the way folks respond to it.

Answering it myself today, I realized something important: my spirit animal had changed.

Leaving the Old, Welcoming the New

I no longer consider my spirit animal the groundhog (more on this in a moment). I now consider the killer whale my spirit animal, amazing myself that I even voiced it out loud today as it served as a public acknowledgment of how much I have grown, and who I have become (even if my colleagues didn’t realize this — I surely did).

For a long while, I was more of a groundhog — adorable (yes, always adorable), silly, people-shy, grass muncher (vegetarian here), boundary-setter, treasurer of down time, fairly laid back, and rather connected to family and community.

While I still house many groundhog characteristics to this day (and likely forever — I mean, who wouldn’t want a groundhog around them in spirit — such adorable fat, furry beings? *squeel*), I have outgrown other groundhog characteristics.

With the journeys I have chosen to undertake throughout my life, I have been bruised, shaped and chiseled with experience. I now find myself looking in the mirror at a very familiar friend rather than someone to poke holes in and hang out to dry on a flimsy clothesline.

Given this, I can now finally see myself as a more powerful and evolved manifestation of the groundhog spirit — a killer whale (natural transition, eh?).  

Rennett Stowe_Flickr
“Killer Whales and a Glacier” by Rennett Stowe is licensed under CC by 4.0

I feel honored — having this big, beautiful, respected and powerful member of the dolphin family as my spirit animal — honored that it has come to me after all I’ve pushed myself to become and all I am still looking forward to becoming.

The killer whale in me has arrived just in time as I embark on this new blog journey and await many others ahead. I send my thanks out into the universe for having it join me.

Amazing Killer Whales

Killer whales are truly stunning feats of nature.

As one of the most widely distributed mammals in the world after humans, they are the fiercest fighters in the ocean.

They also, so very interestingly, have a “complex form of communication with different dialects . . . from one pod to another,” according to Defenders of Wildlife.

Photo credit: NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center

What’s more, some killer whale groups have even been known to be extra silly:

“They wag their tails, slap their pectoral fins and ‘spyhop’—bob into the air to get a better look at the above-water world. They also engage in ‘greeting ceremonies’ in which whales line up in two opposing rows before tumbling together into a jostling killer whale mosh pit. ‘It looks like they’re really having a great time,’ says Ken Balcomb, a biologist with Washington’s Center for Whale Research.”

On a more spiritual level, killer whales are said to protect those who leave home and “lead them back when the time comes.”

Me and Killer Whales

As many may know, killer whales are, by nature, matriarchal. I feel that by my own very nature, I am aiming to be a sort of matriarch — a strong, successful woman leading the way to making the world better around her.

Killer whales are also very relationship-oriented, staying tight with their pods throughout their lives as they grow and change themselves.

In a similar fashion, I have always kept my dear friends and family close throughout the years as I have grown from a preschooler once upon a time ago all the way to the professional adult I am today. I still have a dear girlfriend from preschool and still keep many friend groups from each part of my life. This makes my heart swim with joy!

Moreover, as highly intelligent and creative beings, killer whales are amazingly self-aware and attuned to their surrounding environment.

Thomas Quine_Flickr
“Killer whale carving” by Thomas Quine is licensed under CC BY 4.0

I fancy myself as someone who is like this too — aware and responsible for myself at all times while also easily sensing shifts in mood of those around me. I like to think of this as my sense of compassion, and my ability to feel empathy. I hope my spirit animal would agree.

Killer whale culture is also very much focused on food in addition to family and play. Many killer whales travel long distances to hunt together.

As Eva Saulitis stated in Into Great Silence, “Food is place; food is culture. For us, for whales. The way an animal hunts, the way a human hunts, is culture.”

This resonates greatly with me as I am all about the food. I have grown up surrounded by a culture of food — good, old country Croatian cooking from my grandma and relatives and mother, dishes made of simple yet delectable ingredients that you savor like the taste of butter long after every last bit is spooned up — yum!

The one aspect of killer whales that resonates with me most, however, is this — that a number of killer whale populations are now endangered and facing extinction. Yet — despite the threats they face, they continue to swim on, feed on, play on, and ultimately fight on.

I have always considered myself a fighter. I have always fought against unfairness, inequality and for the protection of our rain forests, environment and the other animals we share this world with in addition to human rights.

I am a fighter to the core — and sometimes I think I was born fighting, fighting against social norms that too often chain us to certain socially and culturally-constructed identities that suck the diversity out of us and repress our individuality.

What’s more, even when I’ve thought I would give up during some of my most tiring times — I didn’t, and I still don’t.

Even after the very worst day, I will get up and face the new day called tomorrow in the eye and quietly sing it awake in my bones, taking one stroke then another until I swim back into the world to fight on. Because I believe, above all else, that there is still more to do — still more to see, more to explore, more to experience, and more to love.

As David Grimes said (as quoted in Into Great Silence), “In the end, we all just want to repay with our lives some measure of the love we feel. Don’t you think?”



P.S. I want to hear from YOU, dear reader! What is your spirit animal? Or, what spirit animal do you aspire to have? Please feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me an email! (And I’d love to hear your personal story if your spirit animal has changed over time as mine has.)

P.P.S. Thinking of getting this type of killer whale design as a tattoo one day — good fit, eh?

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Featured image photo credit: Pod of Killer Whales” by Rennett Stowe is licensed under CC by 4.0