Author of Suffering Eyes, feels animals' pain, puts words into action

By Desmond Devoy
Perth Courier; January 23, 2014
[Edited and abridged with permission]

Animals cannot speak for themselves, so Franceen Neufeld has.

Rather, she has put her thoughts into words, in a new book entitled Suffering Eyes: A Chronicle of Awakening, published by Purposeful Publishing of Perth.

While she lives in the Sydenham area near Kingston, the publishing company is run by her son, Calvin Neufeld, and the experience proved cathartic, if painful.

She felt the need to put pen to paper "when I felt really alone with all of the painful experiences I was hearing about," said Neufeld during an interview in her son's living room, surrounded by three pugs - two sleeping on Calvin, one snoring - a cat, dog toys scattered everywhere, and a large painting of a hippopotamus on the wall behind her.

She had tried talking about it to people she knew, but found that "the people who didn't care, didn't want to hear, and the people who cared, didn't want to hear more than they already had."

But, "when you see suffering, you want to help," she said. "All I knew to do was to write."

So, she started filing blog postings on a regular basis, with an eye towards collecting them up and making a book out of them: but not before some soulsearching.

"For a very long time, I resisted because I knew I couldn't bear it... but it was eating away at me," she said. "It was destroying me by not doing it."

The straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, was yet another story of animal cruelty, about a chicken decapitated by a machine at a factory farming facility.

"Whenever we see (upsetting) images, we look away," she said. "Everybody turns. The tragedy is that turning away allows it to be perpetuated."

For as bad as she was feeling, the pain abused animals feel, she thought, was much worse. She got to the point where she said, "I don't care what happens to me because I need to save them."

Published last November, the book is only available to order online, by donation. They are not looking to make a profit off of the book, but any funds raised will go towards farmed animal sanctuaries.

"Nobody has the right to profit from the suffering of others," Calvin said.

In December, Calvin visited Kemptville's Big Sky Ranch Animal Sanctuary - the first recipient of the book's proceeds - and was delighted by what he saw. "I was so moved to see the place," he said. "There was so much joy in the animals, the volunteers."

The second half of the book is made up of follow-up reflections on her previous postings in the first half. Franceen drew upon her academic background, studying theology at Montreal's McGill University, in writing the book - without making the book an academic tome. Writing about such an emotional issue, she needed the editorial eye of her son to accompany her in the process.

"We were amazed, in many cases, how deeply we felt," admitted Calvin. "We needed to do some unpacking." In fact, he often advised his mother, "you haven't gone deeply enough yet."

Other times, she did dig a little too deeply.

"There were times when I would literally fall to the floor screaming, especially when I read about a million pigs being buried alive," she said. "I don't know what my neighbours thought!" Sometimes, however, words failed her, such as when looking at a photo of a rhino dying of its injuries after its horns had been cut off.

"That was a big one, a turning point," said Calvin. "There weren't words."

Calvin had to find some words though, for the afterword that his mother asked him to write.

"We wanted to end with hope," he said. "A lot of books are self-indulgent, for leisure. This book exists to do something."

Franceen said she wanted this book to be her legacy, and that she is likely done with writing for the foreseeable future, though she would like to do some work with animal sanctuaries and do some speaking on the subject.

"I don't feel like many writers, that I need to be always writing," she said. "It's such a personal book, but it's not about me. It's about saving animals."

Finding empathy, seeing the world "through the eyes of another" was important for her, but she admits that she was not always a true believer, and came to the cause later in life.

"I always cared about animals," she hastens to add, but she only turned to vegetarianism in 2003, and later became a vegan, after watching a video produced by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

One of the turning points for Franceen was parking at a truck stop on a "sweltering hot day." Nearby, a truck with "layer upon layer" of pigs had parked, and the sound was heart-wrenching. "It sounded like a child crying," she said.

At the time, she was reading a book about Jews being rounded up in Paris and being sent away to concentration camps during the Holocaust, while observers stood by and did nothing. "That's exactly how I felt when I drove away." For her, the parallels between human and animal holocausts are clear.

"It is in there, and I know it is controversial," she said. "I was very careful... It is suffering I see, one reflected in the other. I do understand that there are differences, but there are similarities. I see those parallels."

She strived to make sure that the book did not come across as high-handed lecturing, since she remembers her own meat-eating, pre-activist days.

"Why didn't I see, all those years?" she asks.

She was once asked, rhetorically, "What do you think when you are sitting across the table from a meat eater?" While she steers clear of meat on her own plate, she reminds herself that "kindness has to creep into all of the corners of how you deal with people.

"This book has nothing to do with judging the decisions of others."

While he is talking about his mother, sitting on the sofa across from him, Calvin's words of praise for her work appear genuine, and while subjects like suffering farm animals may not make for a light-hearted, Maeve Binchy-like read, the book is not without its halo of light.

"I get great joy out of this book," said Calvin. "It's like a really good meal. It is nourishing. It will not bring you down. It is empowering."

© Copyright Desmond Devoy / Perth Courier 2014