“I Thought We Had a Chance.”

My thanks to each and every one of you who donated to my birthday fundraising page this year.  As a result of your incredible gifts, you exceeded well over my initial fundraising goal and $619 was raised and donated to Mercy for Animals! Thank you very, very much.

On the weekend I finally watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011.  As in the first film, the visual effects alone were worth the viewing and with the incredible cinematic realism of movies that are pretty much standard these days, I think I sometimes take for granted just how much work and skill goes into these projects.  The best part is, with a franchise like this and actors like Andy Serkis leading the way, it is also proving just how needless it is to use real animals in films and how the story can be just as absorbing and powerful in the right hands and with the right technology (though I did note they still used real horses in this one which always takes me out of a scene. It’s a blog post for another day but there was a great/disturbing article published two years ago by The Hollywood Reporter and the myth around the message, “No Animals Were Harmed,” that they tack onto the end of movies and TV shows). 

There were two particular scenes in this movie that made my heart clench a little tighter in my chest. One was early on in the film, in a scene between Caesar, leader of the much-evolved apes and Koba, his lieutenant.   Caesar freed Koba years earlier from a lab and Koba is scarred not only physically from the experiments humans preformed on him but he is bitter and hardened by his trauma.

After the human race is all but wiped out due to a virus, the apes have built a peaceful home for themselves but soon discover that some humans remain. Caesar, though suspicious of humans and certainly aware of their capacity to harm his species, had the advantage of knowing kind humans when he was younger (illustrated in the first film) and knows not all people are out to abuse and destroy apes and their homes.

After a tense first meeting between the surviving apes and humans, the apes tell the humans in no uncertain terms to stay in their territory and the apes will stay in theirs; they don’t want a war but will fight if they see the humans on their land again.  Unfortunately, there is a dam located in ape territory that the humans want access to in order to try and restore power to their area.  It is then that Malcolm, one of the humans who has no wish to interfere with the apes but agrees that his people need power in order to survive, returns to the apes and asks Caesar if he and his team can stay for a few days to see if they can harness any power from the dam.  Caesar reluctantly gives permission for them to enter but only on one condition: no guns are allowed.  Malcolm agrees.

It was after this arrangement that Koba questions Caesar’s judgement to his face:

“Why help them?!” Koba asks.

“They seem desperate…” Caesar replies.  Caesar wants a chance for peace – if they attack the humans now, he risks a war and more apes will die.

“Let them do their human work,” Caesar tells Koba.  “Then they’ll go.”

Koba’s eyes turn to fire.

“Human work?”  Koba says.  He points to the long, white scar behind his ear.  Touching it, he says again:

“Human work?” 

He looks directly at Caesar, pointing to another scar on his arm.

“Human work?” 

Koba points to the huge scar across his left eye and raises his voice to Caesar: “HUMAN WORK?!”

My heart.  If you know what are done to animals in labs, that scene is all the more powerful.  I found my mind thinking of Ron, the chimpanzee on the cover of Jo-Anne McArthur’s incredible book of photographs, We Animals.  She dedicated the book to him, in fact. Ron was kept in a lab and experimented on by humans for 30 years.  Caged in a 5′ x 5′ x 7′ cell that was suspended above the ground, he only knew freedom and the kindness of humans briefly before he passed away in 2011.

The other scene that remains with me and will probably stay with me for a long time was almost at the very end of the movie.  Despite the best efforts of a handful of people and apes, all hell breaks loose anyway and a battle between the animals and humans is imminent.  It is with the realization that they are on opposing sides once more that Caesar and Malcolm meet again.  Malcolm urges Caesar to go since he is not safe – soldiers are coming and they are going to declare war on the apes if they see them.  Caesar already knows this and tells Malcolm,

“War has already begun.”

Caesar advises Malcolm to go before the fighting begins.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” he says to Malcolm.

Then Malcolm utters these words to Caesar that sum up not just their bond, their connection as ape and human, but what they had each hoped for and what had once more slipped from their grasp:

“I thought we had a chance.”

My god.  For all my attempts at writing to try to capture what it feels like to be a human on this journey of discovering the case for animal rights, the line in that scene pared it all down to its essence: I thought we had a chance. 

That scene made me realize: finally opening my eyes to how animals are treated on this planet was more than just seeing animals as they truly are for the first time.  In some ways, I also saw humans – and myself – for who we really are. When it comes to animal rights or animal welfare or animal treatment, many people mean well, most are well-intentioned but only a handful will actually give a shit enough to do anything about it. Change for the better is like replacing the empty toilet paper roll: everyone wants it done but they’d really prefer if someone else took care of it. Meanwhile, billions of animals toil away in suffering worldwide every year so we don’t have to give up our precious chicken nuggets and barbequed steaks.

The situation is not hopeless but it is critical: we are at war with animals, for reasons I’m sure they would like to understand and frankly, I would to.  When I first became a vegan, I thought everyone would be interested in hearing about how food really gets to our plates, how clothes get on our backs, and products get on our skin – after all, I had grown up in the same world they had and wished someone had shown me the truth a lot sooner.  But no.  No one wanted to hear. No one wanted to ask. No one wanted to learn.  Yet those same people would tell me how much they loved animals and insist on showing me cute photos of their dogs and make that “Awwww!” sound while doing so.  I couldn’t understand it.  I still don’t.  I thought we had a chance. To talk, to inform, to really show we care. Nope.

In that final scene of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes between Malcolm and Caesar, I was transported.  I felt all of their conflict, their confusion, their hope and their defeat.  I felt helpless, sad.  I felt guilt, and the insurmountable weight of getting people to see animals differently.  I had images of undercover footage flash across my mind, of slaughterhouses, of dairy cows, of fur farms, of blood and pain and misery.  I felt grief for animals and for my own species, too blind and stubborn to see what we are doing. And all the while that line went through my head, over and over on a loop: I thought we had a chance.

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