by Chelsea Lincoln
I couldn’t imagine my life without non-human animals in it. Both domestic and wild animals have given my life meaning, provided inspiration, supported me with compassion, and shared knowledge. This connection started from an unlikely source, my childhood guinea pig Kristy, who provided love to a young fat girl. She was a gift for my seventh birthday and already I was teased for being fat. When I was sad, I would lay on my bed and Kristy would purr and kiss my tears away. She became my everything, getting me through a childhood of bullying and a difficult family life. Her unconditional care allowed me to find strength and hope where otherwise there was nothing.
I learned early that companion animals could offer me something that my human family did not- a love without judgment. Besides Kristy, my family welcomed in a dog and a cat, both of which were found lost and we provided them a home, along with a wide assortment of other small mammals. The bonds with them all were so simple and pure and brought me so much happiness. Sometimes they were my only source of happiness. I faced a continuous sea of fat bias, although at that age I had no idea what any of that meant. I just knew I faced a lot of challenges and tried my hardest to keep a positive attitude thinking that could overcome them, and that something was wrong with me.
In sixth grade, I got perfect scores on my spelling tests for months. I kept begging my teacher to be moved up a level to reward all my hard work. I was repeatedly told no. Eventually, I stopped trying and my scores suffered. Studies have shown teachers can stereotype fat students as lazy and stupid, and as an adult, I often wonder if this fat bias is what kept me back. That same year there was a teacher vs. student volleyball game at the end of the school year, a tradition for the graduating class on their way to junior high. Unfortunately, the students who played in the game were chosen based on a student vote- a popularity contest- rather than by earning it or having it open to anyone who wanted to participate. So even though I was the best player, I didn’t get to play.
When I was in high school I did play volleyball for the school team, but by then, my lack of self- confidence affected my skill. The uniforms did not help. I am not sure who would think that “bun huggers” would be appropriate for freshman girls, but even worse is they didn’t have any in my size. I had to basically wear nylon short shorts that were slightly too small. I was incredibly self- conscious wearing them and knew my uniform stood out for being different. By the time softball season began, my favorite sport, I realized that if they didn’t have bun huggers my size, there is no way they’d have an entire softball uniform I could wear. So I didn’t even try out. I decided to be the assistant coach to my younger sister’s team, which was fun, but not the same as playing for myself. Lack of accessibility to a uniform my size made me lose out and I could recognize at that time it was not fair, but didn’t know any other option and didn’t want to bring any further attention to my fat body.
During all these times, Kristy was my only reliable source of support. My parents were busy caring for my older sister with special needs and I didn’t want to be a burden on them. I also didn’t have a good track record of getting appropriate understanding from them. Once when my younger sister and I got into an argument (and it didn’t help that I was also the middle child) my mom tried to reason with me that my sister was going through a difficult time. I explained that I was too and shared about being bullied at school. Her response was that I can start a diet. Obviously, this was not a solution, and even though I was constantly trying to lose weight at that age, I knew I needed a different type of support. When Kristy passed away while I was in high school, I felt very alone in the world.
Now as an adult, my connection to animals is my biggest identity. I have been vegan 23 years because I could connect that Kristy was her own being with feelings and capable of care, and know that animals killed or caged for food are similar. I could not participate in this form of the food chain when I was capable of eating alternatives and had the access to do so. I started by (mostly) not eating meat while I was in high school and then being 100% vegetarian during my freshman year of college. When I started to learn about how chickens are treated for eggs and cows for milk, I went vegan, also in my college years, and got involved in animal rights activism.
In the years between college and now, I have had many companion animals that may not have been as vital to my survival as Kristy, but continued to provide me unconditional love and happiness. I currently have cats, rats, and guinea pigs in my life and they are so unique in personality and characteristics. I love them so deeply, and they reciprocate in their own ways. Besides my companion animals, I also visit farm sanctuaries and meet animals that could have had very different, and very awful fates. Meeting the different individuals brings me so much joy and their survival stories show their strong spirits and inspire me.
Wild animals also bring me happiness and unique perspectives. I volunteer at my local wildlife care center and being able to provide care to animals in need while learning more about their species is incredibly rewarding. Feeding baby birds gives me the ability to see the needs of other lifeforms in such a unique way. Holding a baby brush bunny while they feed on formula is such a delicate job and requires so much patience, something I normally don’t have. But when it comes to caring for these small animals, somehow it is never-ending. The lessons and reminders about life from wildlife interactions are continuous.
I consider my time in nature a form of therapy. A few years ago I was staying at a rustic cabin near Mount Hood. I decided to explore a short trail to a nearby river. I heard some sounds a little ahead on the trail and stopped so I could hear better and hoping to see what was making the sound. Suddenly a vole (a small mouse-like mammal) appeared on the trail and was scurrying along in zigzagging pattern. I tried to stay as still as possible, but my mouth was open in excitement. My stillness was convincing since then the vole crawled over my foot as if it was just a tree root. A vole ran over my foot randomly in the middle of the forest! Wow! Seriously! The world is so big, yet so small. So often I feel like I stand out in crowds and people communicate that they think I take up too much space. Having this encounter made me feel small, in a good way, and that I can fit in. I have a part in the natural world and that feeling is empowering to me.
I have been told that I am like Snow White. I appreciate the comparison, but obviously, it would be concerning if wild animals sang and danced around me. I have noticed, however, that I do experience a lot of great wildlife encounters. Maybe animals do have a sense that they can trust me to some extent and that I try my hardest to be respectful of their space. A special moment I had while I was visiting Florida was swimming with manatees. I kayaked with some friends to an area manatees like to congregate in the winter months for the warmer waters. When we got there we jumped out to join them to swim about. There are clear rules about sharing the space with manatees, and the most important one is to not approach the manatees or touch them. A manatee approached me and we were just hanging out next to each out. It was a wonderful experience of just being in each others’ presence. There is something special about being such different species, yet feeling a familiarity. The fact that manatees are often thought of as a “fat” animal, or used as an insult to fat people, made me feel even more connected. Unfortunately, a tourist then showed up and tried to touch the manatee, and they took off. I was so upset that this person invaded our space and broke our special connection.
My favorite experience with wildlife has been with orcas in the Salish Sea. I’ve visited San Juan Island quite a few times and have been incredibly fortunate with my encounters. One time I was volunteering for Soundwatch, an education program that goes by boat to people on the water to make sure they are aware of the orcas and the regulations to give them proper space. We are supposed to be the most aware when on the water and stopped so we could see where the orcas went to determine the best place to go next. Suddenly, about 5 orcas surrounded the boat and just swam around (and under) us. It was amazing and having them so close felt surreal. My first close encounter with them was kayaking on the west side of San Juan Island and members of Southern Resident Killer Whales swam by- twice! I got to witness one whale breaching, and another one swimming within 10 feet underwater and I could see her bell and she passed between the kayak and land. Feeling connected to these highly social and curious animals felt like a great privilege.
These experiences help offset the ongoing fat bias I encounter and feeds my soul. When I have a bad experience at a medical office, these memories remind me of the larger world and my value in it. When I can’t find chairs that fit me while going out to eat, after writing the establishment, I can take in the love from one of my companion animals. When I feel dismissed at an event because of my size, I can go outside and see my favorite type of bird, bushtits, fly around and find happiness in their cuteness and their adorable chirps. Fat bias is something I will continue to experience regularly, but animals remind me of my worth. They show me unconditional love and give me the strength to fight back so maybe one day we can have fat liberation.
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