I’ve pretty much come to accept that anything I do online – even things that are supposed to be private, such as sending and receiving emails and doing my banking – may be observed by people or agencies who have no legitimate reason or right to be observing me.
Any last naive hopes I had that maybe some corners of my online life might be private were dispelled when I watched Snowdon, a rivetting film which I’d highly recommend. After watching that, you’ll be keeping your webcam covered, if you’re not already.
But even if I’ve given up on online privacy, the law has not.
The privacy paradox
In his thought-provoking piece, Sharing Privately, Max Mills navigates the murky waters of social media, privacy, and the law. He sees a paradox in, on the one hand, the innate human wish to share information about themselves online and, on the other hand, the desire to be protected from the unintended sharing of such information beyond the intended recipients. In other words, we want to share, but to share privately.
I’d long thought that if you posted something on Facebook, you’d essentially placed it in the public domain and relinquished your privacy in relation to that material. But Mills explains that that’s not necessarily how the law sees it.
English law, at least, allows that a person may wish to share something only via a private Facebook page, in which case, the sharer could be said to have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’. In other words, they should be able to expect that the shared material will not be disseminated beyond the group they sent it to.
Twitter is viewed very differently, though. Mills likens using Twitter to sitting in a room with an open door, into which anyone could wander, or outside of which anyone could eavesdrop. Thus, it would be hard to argue that a Twitter user should have any reasonable expectation of privacy. Indeed, many Twitter users are hoping for exactly the opposite – they’re hoping for exposure to a wide audience. Mills refers to this as publicity-seeking behaviour and cites it as a factor in deliberations on some cases.
What’s the public domain, these days?
It’s an important question in relation to complaints of online defamation. How many people saw the allegedly defamatory tweet? Was it 65? Or 65,000? Mills explains that the answer determines to what extent the material could be considered to have been ‘published’ (literally, ‘made public’) and so what damages, if any, will be awarded. It gets really complicated so I won’t go any further into it here (see the references section if you’re keen to know more). All I’ll say is that, although the law is yet to (and may never) fully address every possible digital media scenario, there’s already been a lot of work done on trying to find a balanced approach to the issues. So in answer to my opening question, it seems privacy is still a thing. Certainly the European Union doesn’t intend to give up on it. There’s too much at stake.
What’s Europe doing?
Paul Voight and Axel von dem Bussche (2017, pp. 1-2) explain that the GDPR is a set of requirements with which any business anywhere in the world that holds the personal data of an EU citizen will need to comply. It came into force globally on 25 May 2018 and the fines are staggering – up to 20 million euro or 4% of global turnover – forcing businesses to take data protection seriously.
The time and expense involved in businesses ensuring compliance with the GDPR is considerable. So what’s driving this sudden demand for rigorous management of personal data?
Well, first of all, it’s not sudden. The EU has been looking at this since the mid-90s. An earlier attempt at aligning the EU member states on data protection failed, so in 2016, the EU agreed on the GDPR. Importantly, this is a ‘regulation’, not just a ‘directive’, which means it will apply across all member states (and beyond) without the need for each state to pass it into law, avoiding the inevitable legal uncertainty that would otherwise have resulted (Voight & von dem Bossche 2017, pp. 1-2).
Secondly, the EU has recognised that a population’s uncertainty as to the safety of their personal data has a chilling effect on e-commerce. Voight and von dem Bussche cite Recitals 7 and 9 of the GDPR in stating that:
The EU aims at regaining the people’s trust in the responsible treatment of their personal data in order to boost digital economy across the EU-internal market. (p. 2)
So, it all comes down to money – protecting citizens’ privacy is vital for protecting commerce.
The GDPR is vast in its implications and I’ll write more about this and related topics in the coming weeks.
Mills, M 2017, ‘Sharing privately: the effect publication on social media has on expectations of privacy’, Journal of Media Law, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 45-71, DOI: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17577632.2016.1272235
Voight, P & von dem Bussche, A 2016, The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – A Practical Guide, Springer International Publishing AG, Cham, Switzerland.
I learned recently that there is a word for people whose only involvement with any form of activism is via online means, such as liking a Facebook post, retweeting something, or clicking to sign an online petition. The word is ‘slacktivist’, and its judgemental tone got up my nose from the start.
So I did some reading around online activism, thinking that maybe there was some justification for criticising people for doing something rather than nothing (and even that statement suggests that ‘doing nothing’ is not o.k.). But my reading only confirmed that my initial distaste for this term was valid.
In the video I’ve posted below, I offer some thoughts on how social justice groups can use online activism to their advantage, what some of the drawbacks are, and why slacktivism as a term should probably just fade out.
Making the video
I decided to appear in the video myself, because the more I read, the more strongly I felt about the slacktivist critique. As a seasoned online activist, and as someone who regularly donates money to causes I care about, I felt like my point of view might be worth sharing.
The video features much of my own media (video, graphics, and a photo of my feet – don’t worry, it makes sense in the context), but where I couldn’t adequately depict an idea using my own resources, I’ve drawn on the work of others, references to which you can find listed below this post and in the closing credits of the video.
What the scholars are saying
You’ll hear from a number of scholarly sources and I’ve put brief textual references to them in the body of the video. You can find full details in the credits below this post and at the end of the video, in case anything piques your interest. There were many more scholars who informed my thinking and you’ll have no trouble finding resources if you simply search on ‘digital activism’ or ‘online activism’. The books are a good place to start, as their tables of contents give you an idea of what other terms you could search on (i.e. what the current issues are).
What I learned
I’m still quite new to video editing, so I made a lot of rookie mistakes in creating this one. Fixing them was very time consuming but that’s one of the best ways to learn, right? So I learned a lot:
Put ALL your media elements into the timeline before you start the detailed editing, then work from the beginning to the end (or learn how to select everything to the right of the cursor). Otherwise, you’ll edit the thing a hundred times.
Always save a copy before you make a major change to an almost-finished video file. Adding the music track threw all my painstakingly edited work to hell and blew about 1.5 hours (see point 1, above).
Find a reliable editing tool, not one that hangs, crashes and has to be restarted every hour or so. This was my biggest headache. Once the video got beyond about the 3-minute mark, the tool became highly unstable. So I was holding my breath much of the time, hoping things would just work as they should.
I have a lot to learn about audio editing. Some mysterious ‘pops’ remain on the audio, despite my efforts to remove them.
I have a lot to learn about lighting. If filming with obvious shadows behind you, make sure you can do the whole take before the sun has moved too far and changed the light.
I know nothing yet about colour correction or removing the milky appearance of over-exposed footage.
I hope you enjoy what I’ve created. Do leave a comment if something resonates with you.
Bailard, CS 2014, Democracy’s double-edged sword: how Internet use changes citizens’ views of their government, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development 2017, The State of Broadband 2017: Broadband Catalyzing Sustainable Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D), Geneva.
Carty, V 2015, Social Movements and New Technology, Westview Press, Boulder, CO.
Checker, M 2017, ‘Stop FEMA Now: Social media, activism and the sacrificed citizen’, Geoforum, vol. 79, pp. 124-133.
Dennis, J 2016, ‘“It’s Better to Light a Candle Than to Fantasize About a Sun”: Social Media, Political Participation and Slacktivism in Britain’, PhD Political Science thesis, University of London.
Division for Sustainable Development 2015, Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York.
Dumitrica, D & Achterberg, E 2017, ‘Digital Activism and the Civic Subject Position: A Study of the Ons Geld (Our Money) Citizen Initiative in the Netherlands’, in 2017 Conference for E-Democracy and Open Government, E-Democracy and Open Government (CeDEM), Krems, Austria, pp. 229-242.
McNeill, JL & Thornton, TF 2017, ‘Pipelines, Petitions, and Protests in the Internet Age: Exploring the Human Geographies of Online Petitions Challenging Proposed Transcontinental Alberta Oil Sands Pipelines’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, vol. 107, no. 6, pp. 1279-1298.
Morozov, E 2009, ‘Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy?’, Boston Review, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 19-21.
Olson, M 1965, The logic of collective action: Public goods and the theory of group, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Pirannejad, A 2017, ‘Can the Internet Promote Democracy? A cross-country study based on dynamic panel data models’, Information Technology for Development, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 281-295.
On Saturday just gone, we had to farewell our beautiful dog, Cleo. And there ended the sweetest three years of our lives so far.
Looking for love
It all started in October 2014. We’d had a dog, our Monty boy, for a little over a year and we thought it would be good to give him some company. Besides, he was so much fun that we thought having a second dog would have to be twice the fun. So we started looking for another dog to adopt.
Some dog adoptions go very quickly and smoothly. But because Monty was a large, male Malamute (read: dominant by nature), the rescue organisations were naturally very careful about making sure the dogs we were interested in were going to be acceptable to him. We took him to the RSPCA once so he could meet one of the dogs we were hoping to adopt, but it was a boisterous two-year-old Labrador and kept leaping all over him, so Monty ended up issuing a warning growl. That was enough to disqualify us from adopting that bouncy fellow.
We started applying for dogs online. Of course, each of the shelters had a different application form. There were only a couple that would accept applications on another organisation’s form. This was very tiresome, as most of the forms were about ten pages long, and asked more or less the same questions as all the others. Rescue organisations don’t just throw dogs at you; they’re mindful that the dogs have already been surrendered at least once, so they do their best to make sure they really find forever homes for the animals. Rightly so, too. But it sure makes for a lot of paperwork.
We only ever applied for one dog at a time. It’s a matter of the heart, adopting a dog, and you have to focus your energy on the dog in question. You can’t spread yourself too thin by applying for lots of dogs at once. So inevitably, we got our hearts set on whichever dog was the subject of our application at the time. More than once, we simply didn’t hear back from the group that had advertised the dog. A lot of the rescue organisations are run by volunteers and there simply isn’t the capacity to respond to applicants who are, for whatever reason, not on the shortlist.
One time, we were invited to a meet and greet at a local dog park. The dog was absolutely adorable, and Monty liked her and she liked Monty and us. We spent about half an hour there, talking to the foster carer and enjoying the company of what we hoped would soon be our second dog. We had imagined taking her home that day. At the end of the half hour, the lady said, ‘Well, there are two other couples interested and I’ll be meeting them over the next couple of days. I’ll let you know on Thursday’. How awful! We felt like job applicants, and I guess we kind of were.
Thursday came and brought with it disappointment: we didn’t get the dog. By this time, I’d written and sent out several applications over a couple of months. It takes time to apply, wait, follow up, be ignored or rejected, and start again. And it takes its toll. It made me think of people trying to have (or adopt) a baby. It’s a roller-coaster ride. After this most recent disappointment, I was ready for a break. But my husband kept looking.
Don’t show me any more dogs!
One morning on the train into work, he turned his phone to me and there was a picture of the most beautiful dog.
‘D’oh! DON’T show me any more dog pictures! I can’t do it! If you want her, YOU have to do the application. I’M NOT DOING IT!’
‘But look at that beautiful face’, he said.
‘I KNOW! I’M SOLD! I’d go and get the dog right now, but I’M NOT DOING IT’. I just couldn’t bear another disappointment.
Despite my strenuous protests, I was hoping against hope that my husband would follow through and send in an application. To my eternal gratitude, he did. A couple of days later, the rescue organisation, Bendigo Animal Welfare and Community Services (BAWCS), contacted us for some further detail about our fencing, and then we heard nothing further for about ten days.
‘Well, I guess we haven’t been successful’, I said, after about a week of waiting.
Then on the Friday two weeks after he’d sent in the application, my husband got a call from BAWCS, asking if we could be in Bendigo by 11.00 the next day, with Monty. Sounded very much like we’d been selected as the front-runners in the race for Cleo. We were THRILLED. ‘They surely wouldn’t ask us to drive three hours with Monty if we weren’t in pole position for this dog’, I said to him.
And indeed, out of all the many people whose hearts had also been melted by that adorable photo and who had applied for Cleo, we were the ones lucky enough to be chosen as her carers. The photo you see in the header of this post was taken the day we collected her, by Debbie Edwards, President of BAWCS. It remains my favourite photo of Cleo – so bright and pretty and happy.
It didn’t take long for Cleo to settle in. She was a medium-sized dog, weighing around 27kg, but she didn’t seem to think that was any reason not to climb up into our laps for a snuggle. We eventually worked out that this was an attempt to drive us out of our chairs. She loved curling up in a lounge chair and going to sleep.
She was friendly to every dog and every person, and was every bit as sweet and gentle as her photos suggest. We were utterly smitten with her.
She was 9 years and 3 months old when we adopted her, and she’d just been desexed. We don’t know much about what her life was like before she came to live with us, but we understand she was deeply loved and only surrendered very reluctantly. I often think of the people who had to give her up and how awful that must have been for them. It was awful for us to have to let her go, but at least we knew she would be at peace. They had no guarantee she’d be treated well. They could only hope, I guess.
We did everything we could for both of our dogs, to make sure they were getting everything a dog could want or need in life. And they were two happy dogs, for sure. Monty’s original owner had remained in his life, and is a good friend of ours. So he got to see her often. When Monty died, well ahead of his time, I wrote a book about him. I’m thinking to publish it on this blog before too long. It’s quite a yarn.
In May 2015, we hired a holiday house down at Cape Paterson and took Monty and Cleo down there for a long weekend. They had an absolute blast and that trip is one of our best memories. Monty died later that year, so Cleo was an only dog for 2016. In January of that year, she became seriously ill. We were beside ourselves because we’d just lost Monty. We couldn’t imagine losing Cleo so soon after. There followed a couple of weeks of investigation into her digestive system, and the vets’ best guess was that she was allergic to beef and/or chicken. So we avoided giving her either ever after. She remained well for the rest of that year, although her arthritis worsened. Still, she was chipper and was always up for action.
We often took her up to the old Olinda golf course for some extended off-lead time. She loved it there, and so did we. She would mooch about in the shrubbery, trot along sniffing all the smells, greet other dogs and people, and then, before we could do anything to stop her, she’d drop to the ground and roll in wombat or deer poo, smearing it all over the pure white patch on the right-hand side of her face and down her shoulder! She would always get up, smiling widely, clearly delighted with herself. The first time she did this, the girls at Silhouette Grooming and Pet Supplies very kindly managed to fit her in for an unscheduled bath – on a busy Saturday, too. We’d recently made their acquaintance after someone had recommended them to us.
Until we started going to Silhouette, Cleo was no fan of the bath. Absolutely hated it, actually. But the proprietress of the place, a young woman called Caisha, is what I and others believe to be a dog whisperer, and I’m not kidding. She worked her magic on Cleo the very first time and Cleo’s terror of the bath evaporated. Astonishing.
A new friend
In late January 2017, we adopted Little Lenny, a fluffy white fellow who we think is a cross between a West Highland Terrier and a toy poodle. The picture below was taken just a week after he’d joined our household. He’s a very sweet little man, although quite anxious. Cleo was the very soul of calm, and I like to think she helped him settle in. He had a few issues to begin with, but with some expert help from a veterinary behaviourist, and, I believe, with Cleo’s calm presence, he’s calmed down a lot.
The weekend we adopted Lenny, we took him and Cleo to the beach. Cleo had an episode of weakness in her hind legs and just sagged to the ground after our time on the beach. It scared and saddened us, as we realised she was getting weaker. We later suspected that that episode might have been a side effect of some medicine she’d been started on for something or other, because it didn’t happen again until just a few weeks ago, after her muscles really had been in decline for some time.
The first half of 2017 went smoothly for Cleo, but in July, she was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis, a condition that meant she could no longer protect her airway when she swallowed. So she was at risk of choking and of aspiration pneumonia. About a week after this diagnosis, she came down with the worst-case scenario – aspiration pneumonia. Thankfully we were home the day it struck, because she suddenly went into respiratory distress, having had a perfectly normal day up to about 4.00pm. She spent a total of ten days in hospital down at U-Vet, the University of Melbourne vet school, a facility I can’t recommend highly enough for their incredible skill, caring and compassion, and it was a few rough weeks after that before she was back on anything like an even keel, but the illness had weakened her.
For the five months after her illness, she required hand feeding three or four times a day, as she needed to be fed in meatball-sized pieces of moist food so there was no risk of crumbs breaking off and going down into her lungs as she chewed. She also couldn’t eat very large meals, in case she regurgitated the food and aspirated it. Drinking was a big risk, too. The vets explained that a small amount of water going into the lungs, while uncomfortable, is not dangerous as long as it’s clean. So we changed the water bowls four or five times a day – pretty much every time we saw that they’d been used, we replaced the water. This all makes it sound like she was an invalid at this point, but she wasn’t. She’d recovered enough to be as demanding as ever for pats, walks, treats, and trips in the car. She was bright and well; she just had these very specific dietary requirements.
After she’d recovered from the pneumonia, which was like a miracle given how ill she’d been (literally at death’s door), our local vets did some investigations into her kidney function and found that her kidneys were in the early stages of disease. She couldn’t go onto the usual prescription diet for that because those products contain beef or chicken, so they started her on some medication for it. We cooked and mashed potato and pumpkin for her every second day, putting big dollops of coconut oil in it to help her maintain her weight. She also ate some meat, but I mostly tried to fill her up with carbs and fat so she’d have the protein reduction her kidneys needed while still having enough energy. It was probably about 55% vegies, 5% oil and 40% meat. It wasn’t very scientific but she seemed to remain well on what we were giving her. She eventually went off tinned meat so for the final few weeks of her life, we cooked fresh meatballs for her every second day, as well as the vegies. It was a lot of work, but it was keeping her well and happy. Like many elderly people, she didn’t have much appetite and needed a lot of variety to keep her interested.
So, she had some fairly typical geriatric problems that we were managing, but she was more or less well for the past five months. But then, a few weeks ago, the strength in her legs took a precipitous dive. She was able to get up and move herself around, but she was no longer very stable. Over a very short time, maybe two weeks, she declined to the point where, last Thursday evening, it became clear to us that she could no longer get herself up if she fell, which she’d been doing with increasing frequency in recent weeks. We dreaded the idea that she could go outside during the day while we were at work, fall, and be stuck out there in the blazing heat. For those unfamiliar with Melbourne summers, they’re no joke. We can get days of over 40 degrees. Just deadly heat for a dog.
So with very heavy hearts, we had to prepare ourselves to let her go. It was just awful. Her face was still bright and happy, and her mind was still as good as ever. It’s just that she could no longer rely on her legs. While she was lying in her bed, with a full tummy, nice cool air blowing on her, and her people nearby giving her pats and snuggles, she was as happy as any dog could be. To end her life when she was still capable of enjoying some parts of it was gut-wrenching. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I would have given my life to protect her from harm, so to have to make the decision to end her life just felt grievous. But how could we put her through the painful decline that she was already going through, falling on her poor old bones several times a day and now unable to get up?
A good friend of mine once said of euthanising an incurably ill pet, ‘Better a week too early than a day too late’. That was ringing in my ears all weekend.
Friday, 26 January, was a public holiday in Australia, and we were so grateful that it was. Normally, my husband and I would both have been at work. But this day, we woke up and the first topic of conversation was the inevitable decision about Cleo. We hadn’t spoken of it the night before, when we’d both had to help her get up. So on Friday morning, we resolved to give her the best day we possibly could, given her frail condition, and then take her to the vet on Saturday.
Bittersweet is the word for that Friday. As I said, she was still well: well enough to enjoy a short walk at Olinda, a lounge in the front yard (until it got too warm and muggy), and a day spent with her people right beside her, loving her and feeding her all her favourite things, when she felt like eating anything. Then there was movie night on the couch and a restful sleep in her comfy bed.
On the Saturday, almost as if to reassure us of the rightness of our decision, Cleo seemed a bit off. She seemed more tired than she had been, and didn’t want to eat much. She spent most of the morning in her bed in the loungeroom, being patted and snuggled and gently brushed. She always loved a brush. She ate a small meal at around 10.00, but no more after that. We took her to the vet for the last time in the early afternoon.
I’m not going to go into the grief associated with losing Cleo. I’ve written extensively on that topic in my Monty book, which as I mentioned, I’ll publish here soon.
Meanwhile, I’ve made the following video as a tribute to Cleo. It won’t be the last, as I’ve got maybe a thousand photos and videos of her. She was so beautiful, and we loved her so much, we just filmed or photographed her all the time. I’ve used a very moving piece of music on this one, because it fits how we feel about losing Cleo.
For those who knew her, I hope you enjoy remembering her via this video. For those who didn’t, I hope you enjoy meeting her.
The above was said to me in a tweet a week or so ago in relation to a comment I’d posted about the horrors of factory farming. I sent a short tweet in response to this question but I thought I’d also make a little video to address it.
For those who are as new to video creation and editing as I am, I offer the following appraisal of the process of creating this video:
There were a few things I did wrong, but the main one was to leave it too long between creating my first video (back in November sometime) and creating this one. I had to look up lots of ‘how to’ videos and sites again – very time consuming.
I’m thinking I may need to switch to a different editing tool. There were a couple of things I saw on the how-to vids that weren’t available to me on the free version I was using, e.g. text zooming. Also, I couldn’t work out how to put an opaque overlay over an image and couldn’t find instructions for doing so, either.
Another frustration was finding truly royalty free music. I spent a couple of hours on that, just to find a minute’s worth of suitable music. Even though I started my search at search.creativecommons.org, many of the tracks I wanted to use weren’t actually free at all. Disappointing. Seems like as far as sound files are concerned, Creative Commons has a way to go, yet. Or I was doing something wrong.
I came across some really nice ideas for videos while searching for instructions for this one, so I have lots of ideas for future projects. Just need to learn the techniques, now.
I was raised on horror stories about how ‘the government’ was going to track us (‘us’ being the adherents of the religion I was being raised in), monitor everything we did, use helicopters with heat-sensing devices to flush us out of our mountain hideouts, imprison us, separate us from our parents, and make us answer for our beliefs in a court of law (yes, even the children). And of course, we would be tortured. I recall sitting in a sermon one day as a seven-year-old and taking all this in, blow by blow. This was many years before the internet, home computers, and mobile phones were invented.
Any time there was a news article about the emergence of technology such as plastic bank cards, there’d be a sermon about ‘the cashless society’ and how it would be a device of government control, and that we should be afraid. I was literally having nightmares by this point. Technology was bad news.
Then of course, there was TV, that great scourge against which religious folk have railed since its invention. I heard plenty of things like ‘It’ll soften your brain!’ ‘What morals is it teaching young people?’ this latter being a fair question, I guess. I loved telly and still do, if I’m honest, but it’s always been a guilty pleasure, like I should be doing something better with my time.
Link suspicion and fear of technology with the doctrines of stewardship and frugality, and add to it the latent guilt associated with watching ‘the idiot box’, and it becomes wasteful, sinful and dangerous to spend time and money on technology.
With all those meanings tied into technology, it’s no wonder I’m a digital media late adopter. It’s a wonder I’m an adopter at all. And with digital media being based on ever-advancing technology, consciously developing an online identity was always going to be something I’d need to be forced into, rather than something I’d do willingly.
Some of the predictions came true
When I watch the news, I’m conscious that for some people in some parts of the world, the terrifying predictions of my childhood are their lived reality. Syria and other trouble spots come to mind. The idea of government surveillance has also come true, in some countries more obviously and frighteningly than in others. Governments around the world have used the events of 9/11 to impose ever-increasing levels of scrutiny of their citizens. So, while I hate to admit it, it seems the preachers were at least partly right.
Slideshare by Heather King 2017.
What they didn’t predict was the multitude of ways in which people, not just religious adherents, can be harmed by failing to manage their online activity and identity. These are the modern-day horror stories that have kept me from diving with abandon into the online world. The infographic below lists some of the recurring themes.
Infographic created by Heather King on Canva, 2017.
The Reverend Doctor Michael Fuller, in his 2017 article, Big Data, Ethics and Religion: New Questions from a New Science, says:
[T]he frequent occurrence of news headlines concerning the hacking of computers and publication of confidential material suggests that the possibility of security breaches will always be a problem (p. 11).
This has been my sense, too. Interestingly, Fuller sees a role for religious groups in trying to contain some of the risks of the digital age, by working with government and industry to apply an ethos that would remind data workers that people remain more than just the aggregate of the information that can be harvested about them. He suggests developing a code of ethics to help guide practice. It’s a good idea, but I’m afraid I’m not holding my breath. From what I’ve seen and heard of corporate behaviour, there will always be those who are willing to circumvent ethical safeguards in the pursuit of profit.
Given all the risks highlighted above, my strategy has long been to keep as low an online profile as possible. But in the past year, and especially in recent months, I’ve had to accept that being at least somewhat visible online is a modern-day imperative for on-going employability, as I discuss in my podcast on this topic. So, despite the risks, I’ve raised the profile of my online identity by reviving a five-year-old-and-largely-neglected LinkedIn account; by starting Twitter, SoundCloud and About.me accounts; and by starting to blog.
In addition to the need to maintain my employability, I’ve decided to also use my online identity to help further the cause of animal welfare. I’m mindful that the word ‘activist’ can be polarising, and I’ve avoided using this label on my online profiles. However, activism (or ‘hashtivism’, as Ramirez & Melcalfe (2017) call it) is clearly what I’m primarily using my Twitter account for, as shown in the tweets below.
The profile pictures I’ve used on all my social media accounts (Twitter, SoundCloud, LinkedIn, About.me) are business-like shots that would give an employer an idea of what I’m about – confident, cheerful, capable, and down-to-earth. But I’m hoping these images could also go some way to promoting the understanding that animal-welfare activists come from all walks of life, not just from the alternative community.
Moving forward cautiously
My two main motivations for boosting the profile of my online identity are employment and activism, and I had been thinking that a third motivation might be to create a home for the thousands of digital photographs and videos I’ve taken over the years. However, authors Ted Claypoole and Theresa Payton have given me pause. In their 2012 book, Protecting your Internet Identity: Are you Naked Online? they explain that digital images taken on a mobile phone or digital camera built after 2005 are likely to contain geotags that give the coordinates of where the image was created. I’ve just checked my phone and the location settings are switched off, so the images I’ve taken around home should be safe to post; however, I’m going to give it a little more thought before posting any more.
To conclude, I’ve always taken a very cautious approach to my online activity, and have had a very low-key online identity. I’ve identified the need to be slightly more enterprising and have engaged with just those social-media platforms that I think can bring me value in terms of employment and activism.
As Claypoole and Payton (p. 167) say:
Being on the Internet does not have to be daunting and scary. There are so many ways to constructively participate in our electronic global village, and to do so from the comfort of your own living room, that it would be a shame to miss these opportunities.
So I’ll follow their extensive advice about how to stay safe while maintaining an online identity, so I can make the most of the possibilities and minimise the risks.
Fuller, M 2017, ‘Big Data, Ethics and Religion: New Questions from a New Science’, Religions, Vol. 8, Iss. 5, 88, pp. 1 – 11, retrieved 10 December 2017, DOI:10.3390/rel8050088.
Ramirez, G & Metcalfe, A 2017, ‘Hashtivism as public discourse: Exploring online student activism in response to state violence and forced disappearances in Mexico’, Research in Education, Vol. 97(1) 56–75, retrieved 11 December 2017, DOI: 10.1177/0034523717714067.
In the podcast you can find in the SoundCloud file above, I discuss the question:
Has contemporary digital-media culture fundamentally transformed the ways in which people construct their identities?
Have a listen and let me know what you think by entering a comment in SoundCloud, or at the end of this post. Below is the transcript, references, and music credits.
I’m tempted to say that the answer depends on the age group of the people in question.
Fleur Gabriel, in her 2014 article, Sexting, Selfies and Self-Harm, refers to the ubiquity of digital media in young people’s lives, and says the following (p. 105):
Social media demand that young people actively and deliberately think about and negotiate their own visibility – the image they project, the identity they want to have.
The kind of exposure social media gives used to be reserved for celebrities, but now, even young children are having to negotiate the complexity of a life lived under the scrutiny of strangers.
But is this a fundamental transformation in how people construct their identities, or is digital media just a new tool that people are using, perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the autograph book, which in my day, girls used to carry around and have their friends and classmates write in? A well-filled autograph book was a token of one’s popularity, much like having a large group of friends and followers on social media is today.
Victor Jeleniewski Seidler, in his 2010 book, Embodying Identities, argues that complex historical, cultural and social forces have a powerful influence on our identities, before we’re even self-aware enough to question them.
He gives the Catholic versus Protestant example, but we could also look at factors such as city versus country; rich versus poor; large family versus small family; how much education our parents had; and that’s without even mentioning race, gender, disability, disadvantage – so many factors that are beyond our control, but which have a huge impact on who we become.
We’re all subject to this unconscious conditioning, and we build on that inherited identity throughout our lives – not just in our youth – by making choices that further define our identities. People have always done this, and digital-media culture is a relative new-comer in that long list of forces that shape our identities. It doesn’t negate or minimise any of those formative forces, so I don’t think digital-media culture has fundamentally transformed the ways in which people construct their identities, but I do think it’s having effects in some areas.
Take employment, for example.
In a 2015 survey of 300 Canadian employers (Harris 2015), 63% said they look up candidates online, usually using social media sites, before deciding whether or not to hire them.
What are they looking for?
They’re looking to see how creative and articulate candidates are, and whether they seem likely to be a good fit for the team. They’re also checking for consistency between a candidate’s application and their online profile.
Given this new form of screening, candidates could be tempted to keep a low profile online, but that would be a mistake. Surveyed employers said they’d consider it a red flag if they couldn’t find any trace of a candidate online, as it would indicate that they’re out of touch with the technology that’s in use today.
And here’s where it really gets interesting – almost half the respondents said they’d decided not to hire someone because of something they’d seen in the candidate’s online profile, while just over a third said they’d been swayed towards hiring someone, based on their online profile.
So, I think it’s fair to say that as employees, we have been compelled by digital-media culture to carefully construct and curate our online identities to ensure our ongoing employability.
A well-constructed online identity can also show a prospective employer that a candidate has some sense of the importance of a brand. And it’s not just marketing agencies that want this. Jeremy Goldman and Ali Zagat, authors of Getting to Like, a book about personal and professional branding, say that every company wants to become a ‘brand that’s surrounded by buzz’ (p. 15). So they look for people with a strong personal brand, as shown by their online identity.
Goldman and Zagat say that ‘The idea that hard work alone will get you ahead has been thoroughly discredited. When it comes to your career, perceptions matter’ (p. 14). In managing perceptions, we have to carefully choose what to include in our online profiles:
What kind of profile picture is appropriate?
How much personal information should we share, if any?
Which issues are we happy to be associated with, and which should we avoid?
What multi-media elements could demonstrate our digital competence?
These are things that most employees haven’t had to think about in the past.
So, to summarise, I think that the many forces that shape our identities will continue to outweigh the relative new-comer that is digital media, but that digital media will become increasingly important as a tool we use to present our identities to employers and to others that we want or need to engage with.
Thanks for listening. I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring this question with me.
Gabriel, F 2014, ‘Sexting, Selfies And Self-Harm: Young People, Social Media and The Performance of Self-Development’, Media International Australia, No. 151, pp. 104-112.
Goldman, J & Zagat, A 2016, Getting to Like: how to boost your personal and professional brand to expand opportunities, grow your business, and achieve financial success, Career Press, Wayne, New Jersey.
I took the above photo at the Keukenhof in the Netherlands, on 16 April 2004, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve taken a better photo.
A year earlier, my Mum had come to visit me, soon after I’d moved to Belgium, and my husband suggested I take her up to the Keukenhof for the day. I’d never been there, and had never even heard of the place, so I didn’t quite know what to expect.
Mum and I caught the train from Mechelen, which is in the Flemish part of Belgium, and a couple of hours later, caught a bus from Leiden station, in the Netherlands, to the Keukenhof. From the moment we arrived, our eyes were like saucers. Mum’s a keen photographer, so she took loads of pictures, as did I.
One doesn’t have to be a brilliant photographer to take great photos at the Keukenhof. You just point and shoot and 99 times out of 100, you get a lovely shot. Still, I’ve always been particularly pleased with the one at the top of this post. Earlier this evening, I set out to apply it to my Twitter account, but as the space for the background image in Twitter is a wide rectangle, I wasn’t able to fit all of this picture in. So I thought I’d post it here, too.
I haven’t been able to locate the hundreds of other photos I took of the Keukenhof; I’ll need to wait till my slumbering husband awakes so he can help me search. I had to go trawling through my old emails to find this one (I was sure I must have sent it to someone, around the time it was taken, and sure enough, I had). When I find the rest, I’ll add a slideshare to this post.
The timing of the visit makes a difference
Mum and I visited the gardens on 29 April 2003 and the place was just breath-taking. By the end of the day, we almost felt physically overwhelmed by the amount of beauty we’d taken in. The colours, forms and scents of the different flowers were out of this world.
Fifty weeks later, on 16 April 2004, I took my husband there, and I soon noticed that the pictures we were taking weren’t as pretty as the ones I’d taken the year before. I worked out that the first time I’d been, the large, mature trees of the park had had an extra two weeks in which to put on their Spring leaves, so all my photos were lit by a lovely pale-green background. We still got some lovely shots during the 2004 visit, including the one at the top of this post, but those from the first visit were better, overall.
My third and final visit to the Keukenhof was in early May 2008. That time, the trees were almost in full leaf, which gave yet another feel to the experience and the photos.
If you ever get the chance to visit the Netherlands in the Spring, definitely plan a visit to the Keukenhof.
Part of my studies involves learning how to edit a video. So yesterday, I went out into my garden to see what I could film, then came inside to piece it all together, along with some home-made music, a voice-over, and some still images.
I found a great series of videos on how to use the free video editing tool, VSDC. I’d had a go before watching them but got a bit stuck on how to shorten the length of the song I wanted to use. After watching the how-to videos, I knew that, and much more.
I think I might have found a new hobby. I found editing this video utterly absorbing, and I’m aware that I’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.
The subject matter is nothing exciting, and it doesn’t have much of a script, but I’m really thrilled to have been able to learn how to put this piece together. It feels like a huge technological wall has come down for me. After this, creating a podcast will be easy.
So, here’s my video. I hope it plays alright for you. Please add a comment below if it doesn’t. I’m not sure a 1.5-minute video should be 300MB in size, but this one is, even though I looked for and tried to apply advice on how best to prepare it for upload to the internet. I see that parts of it are not as clear and crisp as they were when I was editing it. I still have lots to learn about this.
Last night on ABC’s 7:30 programme, Pat McGrath reported on a chicken abattoir in Melbourne’s east that had been secretly filmed boiling chickens alive. Many, like my husband, will have declined to watch the report, and many who did watch it were shocked and saddened. If you didn’t see the programme, you can read the report here (but be warned – it’s pretty grim).
Unfortunately, this story was not news to me, and even more unfortunately, I don’t believe the abattoir featured is a rogue operator; rather, I’m afraid this unthinkable cruelty is the norm not only in chicken abattoirs but in large-animal abattoirs as well. I fully support the call for mandatory CCTV in abattoirs Australia wide and I have long since written to my elected representatives to express that view.
I’m grateful that 7:30 regularly brings these stories to light, and I applaud the courage of the activists involved and the personal risks they’ve taken to expose these grotesque industry practices. What worries me about the story is that I suspect it will have left a lot of people feeling like there’s no choice they can make that won’t be putting chickens to a horrible death. They’re right about that, of course, but what will they do?
Some of them will swear off eggs, as I did when I learned about all this stuff a couple of years ago. That’s a choice that’s worked for me but not one that everyone will be prepared to make. For those who are not, there’s the temptation to just say ‘to hell with it – there’s no egg I can buy that doesn’t involve horrendous cruelty so I’ll just revert to buying the cheapest one.’ That will obviously be the cage-laid egg.
Free-range eggs are still the more ethical choice
I’d like to propose that if you’re going to eat eggs, free-range eggs are still the more ethical choice. Here’s why I think that:
Battery hens endure a lifetime of extreme suffering, followed by a horrifying final 24-48 hours.
Free-range hens have a relatively good life, followed by a horrifying final 24-48 hours.
That’s an over-simplification, of course, because not all free-range systems are created equal, but from what I’ve read, any of them are better than battery cages, which in my view, are a form of torture.
Also, if you’re going to eat eggs, consider buying the ones from suppliers that don’t sear the beaks off the hens. Not all free-range-egg farmers avoid this practice.
Keen bakers and those who like a nice fluffy omelette, an egg-and-lettuce sandwich, or a Pavlova, will be hard-pressed to imagine life without eggs. They’ll be pleased to know there are some really good alternatives these days. I know the ABC wouldn’t have been able to promote any of these on their programme, but there’s nothing stopping me, so here goes.
Orgran’s ‘No Egg™ Egg Replacer’ is really good for baking and for binding patty mixtures, and their ‘Vegan Easy Egg™’ makes a really nice omelette, quiche or frittata. Both products are cholesterol free, too. My local independent supermarket has them, but you can probably also buy them online. I find them very reasonably priced, too.
Addressing some of the responses to the story
Most of the people commenting on this story on the ABC News website expressed shock, outrage and sadness, and wanted the government to do something about this abattoir. They also wanted to know which supermarkets were buying the hens that were slaughtered this way so that they could boycott these products and/or the supermarkets themselves.
Sadly, the government is not the chickens’ friend. Unannounced audit visits by government inspectors might put processors on notice, but apparently that’s not what happens. If processors have notice of an impending audit or inspection, they can of course make sure everyone is working by the book while the inspectors go through the site. I’m sorry to be so cynical, but being on one’s best behaviour for auditors and inspectors is not unknown in any regulated industry. Furthermore, any penalties that are handed out for cruelty offences don’t seem to be in line with community expectations, as shown by the fact that this abattoir (and another I can think of in northern Victoria) was allowed to continue operating while it was being investigated. No, the government is not on the chickens’ side.
The hens in last night’s footage were not destined for supermarket shelves, at least, not the meat shelves. As mentioned early in the segment, ‘spent’ layer hens are too bony to be used for meat; they’re the ones that go for pet food and other products not considered suitable for human consumption. Which pet food brands? There’s no way to know.
What about the RSPCA?
Other people were asking why the RSPCA couldn’t do something, and one even suggested that the RSPCA Inspectors were not doing their jobs. I’d recommend reading theIndependent Review of the RSPCA Victoria Inspectorate, commissioned in mid-2016 in response to the infamous ‘Bulla horses’ incident. It explains the very complex relationship between the RSPCA (which is still a charity), government agencies involved in overseeing animal welfare issues, and primary producers, and the fact that various Victorian Acts cover animal welfare in different circumstances (e.g. domestic animals are given much more protection than farmed animals). The RSPCA is not solely responsible for enforcing animal welfare laws, and indeed, with the limited resources the organisation receives and the wide range of other services it offers to animals in need, it would be impossible for it to do so.
In defence of RSPCA Inspectors, the report mentioned above explains that, ‘During the financial year 2014-15, the Inspectorate received 10,740 reports of animal cruelty’. At the time of the report, there were only four Senior Inspectors, 19 Inspectors, a manager and three admin staff employed at RSPCA Victoria. On any given week day, allowing for staff leave and turnover, there were eight-to-ten Inspectors on duty. That equates to four-to-five new cases a day per Inspector. The cases can be anywhere from Warnambool to Wangaratta, so a Melbourne-based Inspector may have to drive for hours to get to a single case. Then there’s the follow-up admin and the often-lengthy legal proceedings to manage. The report says:
As a result of investigation of these [10,740] reports, 953 animals were seized by Inspectors, many of which were then housed for extended periods in RSPCA shelters. A total of 494 charges were laid in relation to 69 successful prosecutions and 40 cases remain to come before the courts.
Only 69 successful prosecutions out of over ten thousand complaints. Can you image how frustrating that is for the Inspectors and Police involved in these cases? And we haven’t yet mentioned the dangerous nature of their work. They often attend cases alone, they can be out of radio or mobile phone range, and they have no way of knowing how the people they’re facing are likely to react to their arrival. Inspectors have been assaulted and even murdered on the job. So, my hat’s off to them. I simply couldn’t do what they do.
A couple of people commented that when you decapitate a chicken, its nervous system will cause its body to go on flapping for a while, the argument in this case being that when the flapping chickens were lowered into the boiling water, they were likely dead. Even if that were so, the birds were fully conscious when they were crammed into those tiny transport crates, trucked to the factory, and hauled out and hung upside down on wire frames by their fragile, bony legs, some having their feet torn off in the process. The suffering just up to that point in the process is immense. What’s more, it’s known that the electric baths don’t always stun the birds fully, and that the slash to the throat often fails to effect instantaneous death (see The Ethics of What We Eat, by Singer and Mason, 2007). I’m afraid there’s no way of excusing or minimising what we saw in this report.
A thought for another post would be: What does this kind of work do to the abattoir staff?
In January this year, I participated in ‘Veganuary‘, a month-long campaign run by the British vegan organisation of the same name. I’d already been a vegan for a year, but I thought I’d participate anyway, just to see what else I might learn and to lend my support to the cause. A few months ago, the folks at Veganuary asked if I’d be willing to describe what led to my decision to become a vegan. Here’s the essence of what I sent them…
I was a meat-eater till I was seven or eight years old. My mum decided to stop eating meat for health reasons and, I think, for religious reasons. So I never learned to cook it and I didn’t eat it again until I was in my early twenties and decided to see what all the fuss was about, and because I had realised that the choice to be vegetarian hadn’t really been mine. I could remember enjoying the meat meals my mum had prepared when I was tiny, but I enjoyed her vegetarian meals just as much. So I tried some steak on a flight to Sydney once – it was as tough as boots and that was the end of my meat-eating experiment, for the time being.
I was thirty-three when I met my husband, who’d been a meat-eater all his life. He was happy to eat whatever vegetarian meals I prepared, and he would prepare meat-based meals when he felt like some meat. I’d partake in what he’d prepared from time to time, but wasn’t really into it. I never liked the texture of meat, particularly red meat. Plus, I’d always been quietly glad that I wasn’t participating in the slaughter of animals (or so I thought – I didn’t know then what I know now about dairy), so I was never what you’d call an enthusiastic meat eater.
Somewhere in my late thirties, I came across some information about the dairy industry – how the cows are bred with udders so large that hip problems and torn ligaments are inevitable; and that they take the calves away and slaughter them. I knew first-hand how strongly bonded cows were to their calves, as we’d had a dairy cow when I was a kid. I used to milk her when I was about eight. We kept her calf until she was a good size and the calf lived in the same paddock as her mother. (I’ve never asked what happened to either cow or calf. I suspect I know the answer.) So we shared the milk with the calf, I guess. Even knowing about that intense maternal bond, when I read about the cruelty inherent in dairy farming, I was somehow able to look away, to distance myself from it. I was too reliant on having dairy products in my life. I guess I also felt a kind of right in that ‘well, at least I’m vegetarian’.
In 2013, a remarkable dog, Monty, came into our lives. The two years he spent with us were life changing for both my husband and me, in so many ways. The story of that time is the substance of a book I’m writing. A few weeks after he died, well before his time at only seven-and-a-half years of age, something changed in me. By this time, which was late December 2015, I’d been a card-carrying member of Animals Australia for about six months, having heard about the organisation via Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, but I was still eating dairy and eggs. Over the Christmas break at the end of 2015, I finally spent some time reading and watching the material in the info pack Animals Australia had sent me when I joined. I guess it was the right time for me to finally drop animal products entirely, because from that time on, I’ve been vegan. I fully credit Monty with this change. Somehow, having loved him as intensely as I had – an intensity of love I’d never experienced before with either human or animal (including my husband, and don’t worry, he feels the same!) – I could no longer ignore what I knew about the cruelty of animal production.
Interestingly, Monty’s previous owner, who had stayed in his life even after we’d adopted him from her (long story), had the same reaction to his death. And she’d been a meat eater her whole life. So for her, it was an even bigger change, but she had some support from her sister and brother-in-law, who’d also made the switch to a vegan lifestyle some time earlier. Again, it was Monty who prompted her choice. Quite astonishing. We both believe that souls never die (neither human nor animal souls), and we believe he’s definitely been influencing our decisions.
It took my husband a while to understand that I wasn’t going to eat dairy or eggs anymore, but he gets it now. He’s still a meat eater but I notice he no longer buys bacon (I showed him an Animals Australia video of a piglet going through the horrors that factory-farmed piglets go through in their first few days of life). He also started buying vegan mince and brewing up a nice big pot of chilli non-carne for our dinners on occasion. I really appreciate that.
I do miss dairy cheese, for sure. The substitutes are getting better but still have a way to go. I’ve tried loads of different ones and I’ve found an almond feta I quite like, and a cheddar-style one based on coconut oil, but none of the ones that claim to melt actually do melt like real cheese, in my experience. But I’ve just decided not to worry about it. I can live without properly melted cheese.
We still have dogs, and of course, they eat meat, which I feel conflicted about. I’ve thought and read about vegan dog food but even the producers of such food say it’s unfair to expect a dog who’s eaten meat-based food all its life to switch to vegan food. So for now, we continue to feed them meat. But at least I’m vegan, and my husband has definitely cut down on his meat intake (even though he’s made no official pronouncement to that effect), so as a household, we’re doing what we can for animals.
So, the summary is that it took me about eight years to switch from vegetarianism to veganism, even knowing what I knew about dairy. It took some kind of event – Monty’s death – to trigger the change.
If you’re thinking about reducing your reliance on animal products but don’t really know how to go about it, visit Veganuary for helpful info, vegan recipes, profiles of vegan celebrities, and more. Animals Australia also has a free vegetarian starter kit to help you find delicious and nutritious alternatives to meat, dairy and even eggs.
When we took our Monty-boy, a large Alaskan Malamute, to be assessed as a therapy dog, we just knew he’d do well. He was gregarious, gentle and well behaved, so of course he passed the various assessments easily and was welcomed into the therapy dog programme. He and I were assigned to a local palliative care ward.
On arriving at the ward for our first visit, the ward clerk showed me where I could put my bag and introduced me to a group of staff who were having their morning tea in the staff room. When Monty saw all the people – and that they all had food – he raised his head and called out with a loud ‘WooWOOOO!’ and stood there with his tail wagging. I was worried that the volume and wolf-like sound of his greeting might have been inappropriate in a hospital (and it probably was!) but the staff were delighted. One of them gave him a piece of her banana and another one gave him a cracker. They asked all about him and told me how much the patients would enjoy seeing him.
Other staff came and said hello and patted Monty. With each new acquaintance, he put on what I called his ‘friendly ears’ – an expression comprised of him folding his ears back against his slightly lowered head and smiling. It was very endearing and it made him look less wolf-like.
We’d been on the ward for maybe ten minutes but hadn’t yet left the nurses’ station. I wasn’t worried. The visits were as much for the staff as the patients, and if the staff needed some doggy interaction, they were very welcome to it. One of the doctors became particularly fond of Monty and always made it her business to come and give him some pats and snuggles.
The ward clerk gave me the room numbers of patients who might enjoy a visit. As Monty and I moved along the hallways, staff and visitors walking towards us smiled and said hello and many of them asked if they could pat him. He was always very happy to stop and be patted and he always put on his friendly ears and wagging tail. There was no question that he lifted the mood just by walking through the place.
We came to one of the room numbers I’d been given. The patient wasn’t there so we moved on to the next room. Some family members were visiting and they turned when Monty and I appeared in the doorway. The patient was barely conscious but the family was keen to say hello to Monty and have a chat about him. They asked all the questions I usually got asked when I went out with him – about his breed, weight, age, how much he eats – but they would also ask additional questions, such as what kind of training he’d had to have for the therapy work, whether he belonged to me, to the hospital or to some other organisation, and how long we’d been doing the visits.
After leaving that room, we went to another of the rooms on the list but it was also empty. We went across the hall to another of the nominated rooms but the folk in there were both asleep. I hadn’t been told to, but I had already decided for myself that if a patient were sleeping I would leave them to it. It’s hard enough to get to sleep when you’re uncomfortable, unwell or in emotional distress, so I could well imagine how frustrating it would be to have finally dozed off, only to be awoken by some well-intentioned soul wanting to offer you a visit with their dog.
So I left the two slumbering patients and was just about to leave the ward. This first visit was only meant to be twenty minutes long, for Monty’s sake, and that time was up. Subsequent visits would be for an hour or so. In the room opposite, the one that had been empty a moment earlier, there was a very frail, very petite lady making her way from the ensuite back to her bed with the help of a walking frame. Although it was time to leave, I stopped in the doorway, as, out of all the room numbers I’d been given, this was the only one in which the patient was both present and awake. It would have seemed a shame not to stop.
The lady slowly turned around so she could sit down on the side of the bed and when she saw me and Monty in the doorway, she gasped and smiled widely. ‘OH, what a BEAUTIFUL dog!’ As she spoke, Monty pulled me into the room and straight towards her, friendly ears on and tail wagging. He never did that again with any patient – he always waited for me to lead him in. But on this occasion, it was like he’d just seen an old friend and reacted spontaneously. He went straight up to the lady and looked up at her, smiling. She plunged her hands into the thick mane around his neck and luxuriated in his soft fur as she told him what a handsome boy he was and told me how much she loved dogs. I introduced myself and took a mental note of her name, Lyn*, which was written on a sign above her bed.
Lyn started talking about dogs she’d known, and dogs she’d had to leave behind when she’d fled her native country many years earlier. She was a bright, articulate, cultured lady and she was about ninety-nine percent at peace with the fact that she was dying. She would have been fully at peace if it weren’t that she still had a cat at home – a very nervous but very much loved elderly cat. She knew her cat would not cope with being rehomed at that age, and was organising with the doctors to be allowed home one last time so she could have the vet come and euthanise it. Tears came to her eyes as she was telling me this. What a decision to have to make. When ‘putting one’s house in order’ before death, how sad to have to think of ending the life of a beloved pet. But maybe it would be a kindness, after all. She knew her cat best.
Lyn had been thinking to go outside for a cigarette when we’d arrived. She asked if we’d like to join her. I was mindful of the time we were spending beyond our advised twenty minutes, but Monty seemed to be enjoying himself, I was too, and Lyn clearly was. So we all headed slowly up the hallway and out into the garden. We sat down on a bench and Lyn lit up her cigarette. ‘I’m dying’, she said, calmly. I nodded. ‘I’m dying, and I’m ready to, you know.’
She told me some more about her life, and said what a wonderful, lucky life it had been, but that since her husband had died some years earlier and her children had families of their own, she’d become lonely. As we sat there, she explained that she’d been suffering from crushing, debilitating headaches and that she currently felt the residue of the one she’d had the day before. Still, she was cheerful, and wanted to talk.
Her candour surprised me. I’d never met her before that day yet she told me some very private things – even some things you wouldn’t normally want known. I guess as death approaches, there’s not really much to lose. The ego loses its hold and the soul is free to relate to others without the usual barriers we spend so much of our lives keeping up. Dogs are great ice breakers at the best of times and, as any therapy dog handler will tell you, they seem to provide VIP admittance into people’s lives at their most private and poignant times.
Lyn spoke glowingly of the staff at the facility, saying ‘They’re angels…They are angels, every last one of them. So caring, and not a single bad experience in the whole time I’ve been here’. She was a very sweet lady, full of kindness and love.
Unusually, Lyn stayed in the ward for about three weeks before she passed away. Most people only stayed for maybe a week. On each of my first three visits with Monty, I always made sure to drop in on her. On the final visit, she was sleeping when I arrived but her daughter, Jo, was there, sitting in a lounge chair between the bed and the window. Lyn had spoken about her on both of our previous visits with great love and concern.
Lyn must have told her about Monty’s visits because as soon as we appeared in the doorway, Jo waved us in. She had tears in her eyes but when Monty put on his friendly ears and wagged his tail at her, she smiled. We came around to where she was sitting and she leaned forward in her chair, wrapped her arms around Monty’s big, bear-like neck, buried her face in his fur and sobbed. She held him like that for maybe a minute and he just stood there calmly. He seemed to know that that’s all that was required. He didn’t try to wriggle free, or do anything at all. My heart was aching for this poor woman, and at the same time, I was touched by Monty’s gentleness and understanding of the situation.
When Jo sat up, she tried to wake Lyn because she knew she’d want to say hello to Monty. Lyn didn’t stir, so Jo took her hand and gently placed it on Monty’s head. ‘Look, Mum, it’s Monty. He’s come to visit.’ Lyn’s eyes didn’t open but she smiled widely and sighed as she feebly moved her fingers through his fur. At that point, Lyn’s sister came into the room. She’d been out to get a coffee.
Jo started asking me about Monty and talking about her own pets. While we were talking, Lyn woke up and started talking to her sister. They were quite animated and at one point, Lyn was waving her arms in the air. Jo smiled at me and shook her head at the sisterly banter.
I guess I was in there for ten or fifteen minutes that day, much longer than most visits last. I knew that Lyn must be near the end, and I didn’t want to rush out of there if Monty was still needed. He had provided a comforting hug for Jo, and several minutes of distraction for both her and her aunt, who had come over to join us after talking with Lyn.
One of the most helpful things the therapy dog teams do is to simply provide light relief by allowing the patients and their families to talk about something other than matters of life and death for a few minutes. This can lift the mood in the room and keep it lifted long after the dog has left. Even when death is imminent, people seem to appreciate and benefit from the levity a dog brings.
That day as I turned to leave Lyn’s room, Jo got up and hugged me. Through the tears that had returned, she thanked me for bringing Monty in and said she was glad she’d got to meet him. I felt honoured to have been able to provide such a service to this lovely family at such a difficult time in their lives.
Lyn died the next day. The day before, you could have taken her out of her bed and placed her in a restaurant or anywhere else where people might have an animated conversation and she wouldn’t have seemed out of place. Fully alive and aware, and facing death with a smile. I guess she was one of the lucky ones.
* Patient and family-member names have been changed to protect privacy.