The Language of Compassion in Fieldwork


By Katherine Baxter (Staff Writer)

In many parts of the world people’s livelihoods and daily routines continue to revolve around the animals they rely on for both company and subsistence. Their everyday is intimately connected to the non-human life systems surrounding them. There is no such thing as ‘nature’ as some exotic, remote concept separate from their work activities and lived experiences; instead, these are one, integrated, coexisting and reliant upon each other, and this interdependence is not taken for granted. Though I’m aware that this is not always the case, while conducting my PhD fieldwork in west-central Nepal I found that showing respect, compassion and care for the non-human members of the communities in which I was doing research went a long way to build trust and points of connection between myself as an outside researcher and the people and social worlds that I was trying to get to know.

Nepal is predominantly a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu communities. One of the core principles of Buddhism is to show compassion and love for all sentient beings. Most of the prayers engraved into stones and written on the prayer flags you see hanging from Buddhist households and Stupas across Nepal and Tibet are prayers for precisely this: the wellbeing of all sentient beings.

When I first arrived to conduct fieldwork in west-central Nepal, the number of stray animals I encountered overwhelmed me. It can be difficult to bear witness to the immense suffering of so many creatures, but if you can get past that, animals can be fast friends. With animals there are no language barriers. There is no cultural barrier. We are simply sentient beings sharing the same physical space in time, which might be why the first trust I gained on my fieldwork was that of the stray dog communities living in each of the villages where I was doing research. This might sound a bit strange, or even dangerous, but that’s how it went (I have a good eye for rabies). My parents are both veterinarians, and as a result I grew up on what felt like a zoo in the Rocky Mountains, our home serving as a shelter to a wide array of lost creatures at the mercy of a ‘modern,’ enclosed world. The consequence of this is that I often find myself feeling more at ease among animals--whether dogs, goats, oxes, cats or chickens—than people.

My first field site was Pokhara, about an 8-hour bus ride west of Kathmandu. I was staying in a small apartment near the school where I was conducting my observations, and there were a lot of stray dogs in the neighborhood. One in particular caught my attention. I called him “Babu” because he was just a pup. Babu had a hurt hind leg that appeared to have been run over or else bitten by another dog. He couldn’t put any weight on it, and the wound looked as though it was infected. Still, Babu was very playful and energetic, though obviously in a lot of pain. I got him to start following me around by giving him treats, and eventually lured him a few kilometers away to a small animal hospital someone had told me about. He was resistant at first, but eventually we got him all mended up. After this Babu wouldn’t leave my side. Everyone seemed to notice this and the fact that Babu’s leg was healed, and I suddenly started getting smiles and waves from residents and shopkeepers as I’d walk down the street. Then one day while Babu and I were out wandering the streets, 11-year-old Santosh approached us. He walked right up to me and without hesitation asked, “How did you heal him? Aren’t you afraid of the dogs?” Acutely aware of how it might be problematic for me to encourage kids in the neighborhood to start approaching stray animals I simply said, “Some of them can be scary, yes, and dangerous. But most of them will be your friend if you show them love and kindness.”  Santosh bent down to say hello to Babu, and then the three of us went for a walk around the neighborhood with other stray dogs and friends of Santosh joining us as we went. After this Santosh invited me to come play football with him and his friends, and from that point on Babu and I became part of the gang. Santosh spoke English quite well, which of course facilitated our friendship given my poor Nepali, but I like to think that it wasn’t only because we could speak English together that we became friends. I feel that underpinning our broken English conversations there was another language being spoken that was more powerful than words, and it was this language that created the trust and friendship between us.

When I moved to my next fieldwork site—a very remote, Buddhist village called Tandi about a 12-hour bus ride and 3-hour hike from Kathmandu-- I felt that I was received with a similar initial skepticism, but this time no one could speak English and my Nepali wasn’t at the level where I could use language to break through perceived barriers of difference and reach understanding. So initially I relied on two stray dogs in the community to keep me company. My Nepali was improving, but I still felt quite uncomfortable speaking and people still seemed to be thinking, “who is this crazy blonde woman running around the village?” So, because no one would talk to me, I bonded with the dogs and the goats instead. After several days, I noticed people in the community being intrigued by how affectionate I was to the animals. Even my host family seemed to be amused by the fact that I would wake up and greet the goats, oxes and the rooster each morning. Slowly, I began getting smiles as I wandered around the Himalayan hills with a trail of creatures following me, and I realized that something had happened. Something was different. The children in the village started approaching me wanting to play with the dogs, and similarly to my experience in Pokhara, this was how we first began to communicate and understand each other.

To my shame, I’ve only recently discovered that there’s an extensive sociological literature on the relationships between animals and humans in fieldwork situations. I don’t know very much about that, but I do know that it was through showing kindness and compassion to these non-human living creatures that I was able to gain the trust of the local communities where I was doing fieldwork. Initially, though I never felt unwelcome, I felt that I was perceived with a certain amount of skepticism: another materialistic ‘westerner’ who would arrive, spend money, buy souvenirs, climb a mountain or two, take an excessive amount of photos and go on my way. It wasn’t until I showed this care-- a care that was natural to me given my upbringing and attitude towards the interconnectedness of human and non-human life systems-- that I was able to connect with people in the community in a way that broke through perceived differences to unite around something deeper that we had in common, something deeper even than language: a shared belief in people’s responsibility to respect and look out for the well-being of all sentient beings.