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Lessons Learned from Hotel Rwanda


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December, 2004
Only after seeing Hotel Rewanda, I am only more convinced about what living with animals teaches us.

About a week ago, I received a reader email suggesting very strongly that I see the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” The reader went on to say that if I do, I’ll no longer be interested in saving pets because there are so many people worth saving.

So, as I often do, I followed the reader’s advice, and went to see the movie. For one thing, I now certainly understand why film critics say Don Cheadle will be nominated for an Oscar.

This movie is based on a real life hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina (Cheadle), who in 1994 saved at least 1,200 lives of mostly Tutsi being massacred by countless thousands of Hutsi in the Central West African nation.

At least 800,000 Rwandans were killed in this genocide and all because a handful of people yearned political power for their own gain.

The emailer wanted me to pay attention to one scene in particular when a European woman escapes the besieged four-star hotel with her pampered little white dog in her arms, all while people are being killed on the streets.

I suppose the emailer’s point is, how can we care about our precious pets when people are being murdered?

April is another regular reader and a listener to my syndicated radio programs, and she recently wrote me telling me how people are so much smarter than animals, because the animals don’t build computers and go to the moon.

That’s true. Gorillas don’t build computers, and pet ferrets don’t build rocket ships that go into space.

April tells me that for this reason it’s clear human beings are the most successful species on the planet, and far superior to all others.

April is correct if you define success by the ability to build computers or fly to the moon.

However, biological success is another matter all together. Biological success is survival. To date, success stories include the long-lived Galapagos tortoise, the species has remained virtually unchanged for about 200 million years. Going back even further in time is the cockroach. Like it or not, these insects are, if nothing else, are biological success stories.

After seeing “Hotel Rwanda,” I wondered, if the human species aren’t going to be any more than a little blip in time in the earth’s history. There was no logical reason for monstrous carnage in Rwanda.

Americans arrogantly sit at easy chairs and say, ‘Oh, what do you expect from those crazy Africans’ and until 9/11, we used to say, ‘It’ll never happen here.’

But it happens here every day. As you read this, it’s likely an American has been murdered by a fellow American somewhere on our streets. Or consider all the Americans killed in war.

Let me share a portion of an email I received Christmas Day. “This afternoon, we received word Michael (the son of the author of this email) was on his way back to the base when the convoy was hit with massive rockets, etc. The trucks were destroyed and everyone was injured. He’s in the hospital with first and second degree burns on his hands, arms, chest and face. He spoke briefly to his wife, and all she could do was cry. Please keep Michael and the other soldiers injured today in your prayers.”

I’m not taking a political stand on the war in Iraq. I am taking a stand on human beings killing one another. Haven’t we done enough of that? Of course, those who murdered innocents on 9//11 are barbarians. That’s my point.

I mean how advanced are we really?

By the end of 2005 several species will be gone forever for our planet, as a result of our selfishness and violence. The Galapagos tortoise doesn’t massacre others. In fact, it’s not bad enough that we have to kill one another, but we’re working hard to eliminate innocent creatures from the earth – like the Galapagos tortoise. Or the mountain gorillas who live in Rwanda.

For one thing, if efforts could be made to protect and cherish the mountain gorilla, people in Rwanda can all work toward one goal together and maybe just maybe learn a little kindness in the process, not to mention earning tons in tourists’ dollars.

And the same lessons about learning kindness can go for all of us. Walk into inner city Detroit or Los Angeles with a little puppy, and small kids run the other way. Their only exposure to dogs has been as a witness or even participant in the positively brutal activity of dog fighting which is pervasive throughout America – though no one seems to want to talk about. And here’s what we’re doing to an entire generation of kids: Data shows cruelty begets cruelty. If you’re cruel toward animals, you’ll likely be cruel to people.

Whether we’re Muslim, Jewish or Catholic, whether we’re native to Iceland, Iraq or Rwanda – we have to live together. As we’ve just learned when the Tsunamis hit in Asia, as smart as we think we are we’re not in control; and ultimately we need one another. Mother Nature isn’t discerning, and doesn’t care if what religion we are, what our wealth is or where we live.

Interestingly, very few animals perished at Yaka National Park in Sri Lanka, but tourists and workers there were killed by the monster waves. It seems, animals knew to literally head for the hills. Another example that we might not be as smart as we think.

I’m heartened by the overall response to the tragedy, offering some hope that maybe people are inherently good.

Yes – our brains have developed to use language, and then we write it all down. But sadly, so, far, we haven’t been able to learn from our own history.

Truth is after seeing hotel Rwanda, I am only more convinced about what living with animals teaches us. Dogs and cats can teach us about unconditional love. If we don’t begin to understand how to love one another soon, or at least tolerate one another, it is the cockroaches who will be called the most successful on earth.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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