An otter is the victim of poor education and Guatemala’s violent “culture”

By: Diana Pastor

This article is an opinion piece.

The first time I could see an otter was nearly 5 years ago, on the coast of Monterey Bay in California. That adorable creature that swam in the sea upon its back, resembled a small dog fond of twirling. That memory has stayed with me for many years, not only because I enjoy seeing animals in their natural habitats, but also because I was impressed with how much the city cared for its flora and fauna. I thought about how much they must have invested (not just in financial resources) to educate people to take such good care of the animals. How far is Guatemala from being like this! – I thought.

A few hours ago, I was dismayed by the news that an otter was tortured and then burned in a town in San Martín Zapotitlán in the Department of Retalhuleu. I use the verb “assassinate” instead of “kill” because as the journalist Alex Grijelmo mentions in an article in the daily El Pais: by definition the verb “to assassinate” and the noun “assassins” personify the animal victims, they bring us psychologically closer to viewing them as living beings like ourselves. Our country’s penal code does not endorse my use of this term, but to kill a living being, as occurred in this case, is for me equivalent to an assassination.

The reasons for the community’s violent and cruel treatment of this otter (who was surely lost) are still unknown, but it is not the first case, nor will it be the only time – unfortunately – that an animal pays the consequences of the ignorance and violence that prevail in Guatemala. In the first place, it is a fact that the education in the country is poor, deficient, and embarrassing, not only in schools, colleges and universities but in what should be the base of our education: families. The case of this otter is almost the same as what happened in January 2017, where residents of San Rafael Pacayá II de Coatepeque took the life of a kinkajou, thinking it was El cadejo.

When I heard on the news about what these people had done in San Rafael Pacayá II, and the reasons they had acted that way, I was surprised and even disbelieving of such an excuse, but months later and by coincidence, I made a visit to this community for work purposes. There I heard the version of some people who knew the man who had started beating the kinkajou and who traveled with me in the same vehicle. They said, “Truly, Miguel* thought it was El cadejo, that evil mythological creature. That’s why he killed it, he swore it to us, and when the police went to find him he was really scared, but he claimed that he did it because he thought it was a supernatural animal.

My thoughts after learning the story from its source were even more frustrating. How could I blame (at least entirely) this group of residents, inhabitants of a town knocked down by absence of services, not only education but also electricity and potable water? How can one ask people to stop believing in myths, when either lack of education or even sometimes religion itself justify doing harm to living and defenseless beings. How, where is the path? Is education for Guatemala at a crossroads? I wondered.

It hurts me deeply to think that there is so little will to change this situation. I think about the great opportunity I had of studying and living in California, which not only broadened by knowledge of marine animals, but opened my mind in many other ways. It hurts me that (as Glenda Xulú, said in an article written for this magazine): “the educational system is designed to keep society poor, fearful and ignorant of its rights and the reality of their country.” And what hurts even more is that as a consequence of the dysfunctional education system, Guatemalans ignore and disrespect the rights of others, especially those who cannot defend themselves, like children, animals and nature in general.

Back to that day when I heard Miguel’s* story. At night before bed, I thought that besides the lack of education, the other large and serious problem causing these kind of acts is the high level of violence which Guatemalans reach as a survival mechanism. The residents of San José Pacayá claimed that days before trapping the kinkajou, dead dogs and chickens appeared in the community. They were scared and didn’t know what to do. And they were also desperate, because being a faraway and forgotten town, they didn’t know who could help them. Ignorance is a powerful weapon that, when combined with fear, frequently triggers violent acts and people who perform those acts don’t measure the consequences that they might provoke.

I think again of the otter, and even though it seems ridiculous, before going to sleep, I ask forgiveness from her, from the earth, from nature and from innocent people, for allowing them to die that way. I ask for forgiveness from life, in the name of those who do harm to it and for allowing us to keep on living this way. Tomorrow will be another day, and I carry on with the hope that my country is less angered by what happens to a flag (although I respect the discomfort of the people) and more concerned about violence done to humans and living beings, at least in our country. I continue with the hope that in the future we won’t be governed by people who waste millions on warplanes, while nature lies forgotten, without asking for help because it has no voice with which to do so.

*Miguel is a fictional name for the resident of San José Pacayá.

Cover photo: Ignacio Ferre’s Flickr.