Saving Simon


Book Report by Bob Smeets

Title – Saving Simon – How a rescue donkey taught me the meaning of compassion

Author – Jon Katz
Publisher – Random House

Links – –


The book is broken up into 3 parts: Saving Simon, The Call to Life, and The Meaning of Compassion. There are 20 chapters with a prologue at the beginning and an epilogue at the end.

The opening prologue starts with this – “It was McKenzie Barrett, the animal control officer’s daughter who named him Simon. A name from the Bible, she said, and she thought if she named the donkey Simon he would be blessed and never be hurt again.” Simon, the abused donkey, who was nursed back to health, got his name born out of compassion. One of the themes of the book, what is the meaning of compassion, is already being set.

Simon went through Hell!   His pen, which was probably first built for pigs or goats, was about 10 feet by 10 feet, barely big enough for Simon.   The many ailments Simon had included rain rot, lice, bite marks from rats, malnourishment, overgrown hooves (he had to walk on his ankles), infected teeth, and an oozing eye. The man responsible for this neglect just left him out there for years. Struggling to put food on the table for his family and not wanting to ask for help, he simply couldn’t be bothered with Simon. I really think he wanted him to die so he didn’t have to deal with him anymore. So he left Simon out there in a small pen, day after day, his strength fading, until the farmer’s son called the authorities.

That’s when the police, veterinarians, and Jon Katz, the author of the book, took over. Simon was nursed back to health through loving encouragement of Jon and many, many pills and medicine. Slowly but surely Simon regained his strength and his health returned. He started to behave and act like a normal donkey again.

The book raises some critical questions. How can people show compassion to abused animals? And more than that, how can people show compassion to the person responsible for abusing animals?

“I still couldn’t get the neglectful farmer out of my head. What was mercy for him? What was he owed? We could arrest him, trash him on the internet, make him pay a $125 fine, but I was drawn to the murky questions that no one had answered. What is a donkey’s life worth to humans? Is it more than a traffic ticket? Less? Was there any good reason to neglect an animal like this? Any good excuse? If we owed Simon a better life, do we owe the farmer any consideration? Even to the extent of wondering what could have driven a man who lived with animals to such neglect?”

I think compassion is a tricky thing for people. I can be friendly to a cute little bunny, yet I can kill a cockroach in a heartbeat.   Bunnies are cute, cockroaches are gross, therefore I should destroy anything that is gross. Part of me thinks that a donkey is easier to bring back to health than a distraught, unpredictable, human that is suffering.   We can easily manage compassion when it serves us, when the subject is cute, cuddly, non-gross, and doesn’t fight back.

What do we do with the mean people; the evil people… put them in jail, fine them, condemn and hate them. Can we show compassion to them instead? How do we reconcile the evil and wrong that people do? After all some things are plain wrong! Torture is wrong. Neglect is wrong. But when it happens everybody needs healing from it.

After a couple years, Jon finally went to the farmer’s house to get some answers. The farmer told him about the tribulations of his life.   How he was broken down, losing the farm, had barely enough food for the animals, and he couldn’t even buy Christmas presents for his family. He left Simon there because he couldn’t pay for food anymore. What about the farmer? Why doesn’t anybody show him mercy and compassion? Isn’t he suffering like Simon? Jon wrote him a letter some time later, offering help if the farmer needed it – extending a helping hand despite many people saying he shouldn’t.

“If you are really compassionate, than you are compassionate to all beings, even those with dead eyes and cold hearts and souls. Something in this man died awhile back. I don’t know if he was born that way, or if life just beat him black and blue, or if struggling on a farm just killed his spirit. I’ve seen it happen to people. But are you only compassionate to good people, to people you like?   It’s okay to be compassionate to a raccoon with an infected leg, but not to a human being so lost he would leave you starving to death a few yards away and hope that you were dead.”

Saving Simon taught me that we are all connected. We all suffer, feel pain, joy, and compassion. We all need healing, even mean and cruel people. How to go about doing that is the critical question we should try to solve.

A very small, but effective solution could be to show compassion more on the tv and the news, even dedicating a whole tv network to it. If there were more people promoting virtuous modes of being some confused, mean, angry people might change a bit. This isn’t going to change the world, but it will help a tiny bit, and that’s good enough for a start.

I do see some drawbacks in the system of compassion however. You can’t always be compassionate. There are some people that don’t deserve it. What do we do with the Hitlers of the world? What he and the Nazis did was unforgivable and irredeemable. Nobody in their right mind can show compassion to them. If you do you would even be considered Nazi sympathizers. To complicate it more, we know in our hearts they would use our virtues against us, taking advantage of our compassion. So it seems compassion is not the only and final answer. It seems we can only be compassionate to the simple, not so terrible, more or less easily fixable, convenient, occasions that call us to act compassionately.  There are times when compassion is not the correct response to something.  Indeed, insensitive and non-compassionate solutions may be a better approach. There is some justice in giving the evil people what they deserve.

In the end, the effort to show Simon compassion was the best approach imaginable. He did live a beautiful life afterwards and became rather famous. I do believe Jon was correct in trying to help the man responsible for the neglect, however we don’t know to what extent his cruelty lies. How does he not know that the intentional or unintentional suffering of Simon was wrong? Will Jon’s support even make a difference when it seems the man is so messed up mentally? I’d like to think it does.

Some gems that I took away from the book are:

– Compassion is a tricky thing. If you want to be more compassionate you should study it, read about it, and meditate on it. You better have your head screwed on straight.   At the same time compassion is easy.   An email, a conversation, a gift can all promote compassion.

– In some respects, we have the same obligation to help suffering humans as we do to help suffering animals.

– Being compassionate to a suffering person is dangerous, because God knows where you’ll end up.

– We need better government organizations to help suffering people.

– Animals can be friends, and we can learn from them, and they can heal us, but they are still animals and have their own ways of living.

– We can project our own feelings and desires onto animals.

– How far you take virtues is up to you.

– Donkeys are phenomenal!

A great thing about this book is how it reveals what donkeys are like. I learned a lot of interesting facts about donkeys.

Donkeys are hardy, strong, and love working. Nothing gives them more happiness than pulling things or carrying heavy loads, except maybe children, whom they adore. They love how simple and sweet kids are. “They are the most gentle and loving of creatures, and also the hardiest and most determined and willful. In my own life with animals, I have encountered none who embody that contradiction as powerfully as donkeys. There is no end to the amount of work we ask them to do, and their great hearts seem to forgive us the most unimaginable insults and cruelty.”

Donkeys have a lot of character. They are smart, silly, and unique. Jon’s first donkey, Carol, loved music. “I made another surprising discovery. Carol loved music and, more than anything, she loved Willie Nelson… When I played Georgia on my Mind, Carol’s lip quivered – this is how donkeys show contentment – and her eyes closed and she just seemed calm and serene.”

Other facts about donkeys include: Donkeys are extremely good to have around a farm. Other farm animals, like horses, love having them around.   Donkeys greet other donkeys with kicks and bites. Donkeys are obsessively ritualistic. They do the same things in the same way everyday. Donkeys hate loud noises. They have great big hearts. They are stubborn, as everything is their idea. They are agreeable in some ways, but they don’t like being told what to do. They make the rules.

A historical and religious depiction of compassion tied in with donkeys exists in the story of Jesus and his donkey.

The Story of Jesus and his Donkey

A poor farmer outside of the city of Jerusalem owned a sickly donkey too weak and small to do much work at all. Few farmers could afford to keep animals that do not work for them or earn money.   Over time, he grew increasingly angry at his donkey, telling his family he couldn’t afford to feed a worthless animal like this, one that could do him no good whatsoever, so at the supper table he told his family that he was going to kill the donkey.

His children, who loved the little donkey, begged him to sell it rather than harm it. But the farmer said, “It’s wrong to sell an animal that can’t do a good day’s work.”

Then his oldest daughter suggested, “Father, tie the donkey to a tree on the road to town, and say whoever wants it may take it for nothing.” And the next morning, that’s what the farmer did.

Soon, two men approached and asked if they could have the donkey. “It can carry almost nothing,” the farmer warned them.

“Jesus of Nazareth has need of it,” replied one of the men. The farmer couldn’t imagine what a great teacher would want with such a worthless donkey, but he handed it over.

The men took the animal to Jesus, who stroked the grateful donkey’s face and then mounted it and rode away. So it was on the day we call Palm Sunday, Jesus led his followers into the city of Jerusalem riding on the back of a small, common donkey.

The donkey so loved his gentle master, carrying him everywhere; following him everywhere he went, even later following him to Calvary. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, the legend goes, the donkey repeatedly tried to approach him, as if to carry him away to safety. At the sight of his master crying out in agony, the donkey brayed and rushed toward him, but was brutally beaten back by soldiers and people in the cheering crowd. Grief-stricken by the sight of Jesus on the cross, the donkey turned away and hid in a nearby alley but couldn’t leave. It was then, says the legend, that the shadow of the cross fell upon the shoulders and back of the donkey, and there it stayed.   All donkeys have borne the sign of the cross on their backs since that very day.




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