Nothing is more precious than life itself
And no negative act more serious than taking life.
Therefore, among composite forms of the roots of virtue,
None has greater benefit
Than the ransom and release of animals.
If you wish for happiness and good fortune,
Be diligent on this supreme path…”
The first time I heard of the principle of tsethar was almost two decennia ago when I was traveling through Southwestern China, not too far from the Tibetan border. I was admiring a yak, a longhaired domesticated bovid from the Himalaya region, with a bright red ribbon of wool in one of his or her ears.
Although much got lost in translation, it was explained to me that the ribbon signified that this particular animal through a certain ritual was freed from the fate of slaughter and would be cared for, for the rest of his or her life. The owner believed that by saving the animal in this way from a violent end, they them selves would live longer.
Tsethar is a Tibetan word – Phóng Sanh is the Vietnamese equivalent – often translated as ‘life release’. It is the Buddhist practice of saving the lives of animals destined to be killed. For wild animals this can mean releasing them in their native environments, for domesticated animals or for wild animals that cannot be rehabilitated that they live out their lives in sanctuary.
Even for those who consider every life precious it is impossible to not cause suffering at any time. Doing harm is part of living. In Buddhism the consequences of karma – intentional action – are sometimes portrayed as a balance with on one scale the good and on the other a person’s unfortunate deeds. Following this method of reasoning it is possible to counteract the damage all of us inevitably do, by good deeds, like a gift of life.
The Buddha taught that saving the lives of all beings is the most beneficial action of all relative good actions and some of his followers have expanded on this. Buddhist Master Nagarjuna said that ‘Saving Life’ is the highest of all virtuous activity and Buddhist teacher Hungkar Rinpoche believes that meditation on love and compassion means to give up, as much as we can, causing harm to other beings. Ogyen Trinley Dorje further commented that the meaning of tsethar is broad and that people can use their intelligence to expand the practice in other ways. He indicatied for instance that planting one tree may be more beneficial than carrying out tsethar for many beings.
In Buddhism, life release usually involves purchasing an animal directly from a slaughterhouse or fisherman, often on auspicious days in the Buddhist calendar. The animals are normally blessed before being returned to their natural environment, with prayers often dedicated to someone who is ill or has died, in the belief that that person will benefit too from this dedication.
Of course you do not need to be Buddhist to adopt this practice and most westerners will forgo the religious rituals and ignore the self-serving companion of compassion that the original tsethar custom has built in. Knowing the animal is safe and feeling good about doing the right thing is for most of us reward enough. In the animal welfare and rights movement tsethar has become all about animal liberation.
Of course buying an animal’s freedom is controversial; when you buy a lobster free from a restaurant aquarium to release it in the ocean, pay fishermen to release their catch of fish or purchase domesticated animals from the factory farming industry, you will often be paying for the replacement of the animals you are trying to save. A liberationist performing tsethar should always ask him- or herself the question: am I acting as a rescuer, or simply as a customer.
On March 30, six steers escaped from the Star Packing slaughterhouse in St. Louis. Although roughly 30 million cattle are killed each year in the US alone, the media attention around these six escapees inspired calls to save these animals permanently. In the end the farm animal sanctuary Gentle Barn bought the steers by paying the slaughterhouse their market value. This came after Farm Sanctuary pulled out, saying it never pays to liberate animals, even from certain death.
Every individual and every sanctuary has to make his or her or its own choices, compassionately but rationally.
Wildlife Waystation has in her 40+ years of existence taken in more than 77,000 abused, abandoned, orphaned, and injured animals. Often these animals were relinquished by private owners who couldn’t care for them anymore, had become ‘obsolete’ in laboratories or the entertainment industry, had been impounded in raids or were native animals that for various reasons, could not be released back into the wild.
Although Wildlife Waystation is in the first place a wild and exotic animal sanctuary, it has throughout its history taken in domesticated animals in need as well.
Tsethar, although the term itself was never used, is relatively new to the Wildlife Waystation, but recently they have provided a home for some animals whose lives and freedom were bought out of compassion by third parties.
Horses are not raised for food. They are dumped at auction houses by people who no longer can or care to provide for them.
At the auctions rescuers can outbid kill buyers; the auction house and/or former ‘owners’ make money, of course, but there is no automatic replacement of the rescued horse(s), as would be the case with animals bought from the factory farming industry.
Four horses saved from a Texas auction floor by Suzy Taylor, came to Wildlife Waystation to find their forever home after their original foster fell through in May 2016.
According to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), the data from 2012 to 2016, shows that an average of 137,000 American horses are trucked over the US borders to slaughter facilities in Mexico and Canada every year, to be butchered for human consumption. They often spend more than 24 hours in hot, crowded, filthy trucks without food, water or rest.
The last three U.S. slaughterhouses – two in Texas and one in Illinois, all foreign-owned – were closed in 2007. In 2006, these facilities killed and processed more than 104,000 horses for human consumption, shipping the meat overseas. Even when these facilities were in operation, tens of thousands of American horses were still exported to other countries for slaughter.
In January 2017 the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act (H.R. 113) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill would prohibit the slaughter of horses for human consumption in the United States and ban their export abroad for that purpose, but it needs everybody’s help to pass!
Three of the four horses that now call Wildlife Waystation home were unhandled youngsters of approximately 18 months old, one colt (young male horse) and two fillies (young female horses), that were named Orchid, Susan and Flower. They were very skinny and wormy but have gotten round and glossy under the care of the vets and staff of the Waystation!
Orchid received his name from being cryptorchid (only one testicle descended), a condition that has now been remedied.
The fourth horse recued off the slaughter truck was the dark chestnut male Piute, about 2½ to 3 years old. He was just gelded (castrated), is very sweet and got into shape fast.
In January 2017, Screenwriter and Animal Activist Fia Perera, rescued a mother pig and her four babies from a ranch owner who had been breeding pigs as a side business on his horse ranch. The farmer vowed to never raise pigs again for slaughter, but wanted to rent out the stalls that housed these lucky pigs as soon as possible.
Pigs, that have more sophisticated cognitive abilities than dogs or three-year-old children, live, when raised for food, in general short, miserable, mutilated lives in confined spaces, before being transported to a slaughterhouse to be killed.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, more than 115,000,000 ‘hogs’ – the industry name for pigs that have reached the ‘market weight’ of roughly 250 pounds – are slaughtered in the US every year to feed humans and their pets.
Early March 2017, Fia was able to find safe haven for the pig family at Wildlife Waystation where Tallulah (the mom), Sylvester, Bette, Judy & Vivian now lavish together in their large sunny enclosure next to a bemused camel who is impressed with the amount of baths the piggies take in their water trough.
The four horses and five pigs will live out the rest of their lives taken care of by the Wildlife Waystation staff, volunteers and supporters.
Feeding, housing and vet care come with costs. If you would like to donate to this, sponsor an animal or visit the sanctuary, please check the website on how to do this; it is much appreciated!