So I want people to understand that animals really do have personalities and feelings – so that they want to obey laws that protect them.
We slaughter and torture them and treat these living beings as if they were no different than pieces of tin, yet they have families, form friendships, love and yearn every bit as much as we do, in some cases even more. It is high time that humans gave up our sense that we are a unique species, with unique abilities, except in the sense that every animal is unique and does some things that other animals can not do or do not want to do. We have a unique opportunity, and that is to learn to live with other animals in a kind of harmony that has never been possible in the past, but could well be the one and only way we can continue to live on this planet. Since we share so much of our genetic heritage with other animals, it is high time we realised how much we share emotional capacities as well, and once that is realised perhaps we can begin to share the earth, which has been given to all animals, human and otherwise, in common.
~Jeffrey Masson, The Emotional Lives Of Animals~
How often have we heard “what an animal you are!” or “you’re such an animal” from someone teasing another person about his or her animal instincts? While these kinds of comments are meant to be humorous, we seldom reflect on the literal truth in such utterances. We are animals, but our intellectual knowledge of this fact rarely translates into a visceral awareness of our other-than-human origins.
I am particularly sensitive to the suffering of animals; in fact, my heart is utterly shattered by it—so much so that I do not allow myself to thoroughly absorb most of what I hear about it in the media. Frankly, I avoid hearing about it as much as possible. Animal abuse is ubiquitous, and I cannot entirely avoid being touched by it, but of all the forms of abuse that infest and poison our planet, this is the one that is personally the most gut-wrenching for me. Why?
First, animals cannot speak for themselves. And while it is true that very young children cannot speak for themselves either, humans tend to relegate animals to the very lowest link in the chain of being and take pity on young humans before taking pity on animals, minimizing the pain of animals and maximizing the pain of humans. Furthermore, the intelligence of animals often rivals that of both adults and children, and when we allow ourselves to actually grasp the mental capacity of some animals, if we are honest with ourselves, we can only be dumfounded with it and shudder at the thought of such brilliant creatures being massively slaughtered for their body parts or hormones that will fetch a handsome monetary profit. Perhaps in order to shield ourselves from the reality of to our cruelty toward them, over the centuries we adopted the expression “dumb animal.” Yet there is nothing “dumb” in the mind boggling comprehension of a dolphin or elephant or chimpanzee. In fact, if anything is “dumb,” it is humanity’s dismissal of the intelligence and sensitivity of a vast number of other species.
In recent years studies of farm animals suggest a much higher level of intelligence and emotional sensitivity than we have previously assumed. For example, adult sheep actively teach life skills to their young; pigs are proving to be highly intelligent and more trainable than dogs; cows understand cause and effect and mourn the deaths of other cows.
In this article I will not recite the litany of abuses that abound as humans rape and pillage the planet and genocide countless species for profit and ego-gratification. Most readers are aware of the horrific conditions characteristic of factory farming, the slaughter and now near-extinction of elephants and rhinoceros in Africa, the bludgeoning of seals in the Arctic, and of course, the daily murder of millions of cattle worldwide to provide food for the modern meat-eater. I will make no attempt here to convert the reader to a vegan lifestyle or even educate the reader regarding the environmental degradation caused by maintaining a carnivorous diet.
What I will ask of the reader, however, is deep contemplation regarding his or her relationship with the animal kingdom. My request is not a mere sentimental reflection on how dearly one loves the family dog or cat. Rather, I ask you to mindfully reflect on your own animal self. The next time you witness an animal defacating on the street or in the park, imagine your Neanderthal ancestors doing the same. Or imagine yourself doing the same. Perhaps you have done so on camping trips or elsewhere in nature in an emergency. The next time you witness animals copulating, reflect on their shamelessness and raw instinct. They are demonstrating to the world how all of us arrived here and how unequivocally animal our erotic instincts are.
We saturate ourselves with deodorants, lotions, powders, make up, and perfumes to eliminate the animal odors of our bodies, but without these, we smell no better than barnyard creatures, and the truth is that in a collapsing world, without access to these de-animalizing chemicals, we probably will become very smelly beings. How many of us can tolerate even brief moments of body odor—our own or someone else’s? I am making no judgment that we “should,” but belaboring the crude realities of our physiology in order to bring us back to our fundamental, primal, animal nature.
We are capable of robotically slaughtering tens of thousands of other species on this planet because we are also capable of distancing ourselves from our own animal self. When an animal destroys a human in the wild or in a zoo, we shake our heads and say to ourselves, “Well after all, it is an animal,” completely dismissing the reality that we too are animals. When a pit bull mauls a child we react by banning pit bulls from our city or immediately conclude that the dog must be euthanized because it is a public menace. We almost never ask how a member of one of the most loving and protective breeds of dogs on earth momentarily became a monster as a result of abuse or neglect by humans.
As we contemplate a world in decline and its ramifications, we must necessarily consider the plight of animals. As the world continues to unravel, millions of domestic animals will be neglected or killed for food. Many animals starving and dying of thirst will revert to pack behavior and turn on humans in droves. In our preparation we must recognize our limits in caring for our animals in a world unraveling and not burden ourselves with animals that we cannot care for or jeopardize their lives as a result of our finite resources. Loving our fellow creatures isn’t about adopting more of them than we can realistically care for.
Animals can be superb teachers for humans preparing for the future. Carefully observing their capacity for being present in their bodies and therefore living in the moment is critical. Studying an animal’s instinct for survival and self-protection can enhance our own resilience. What is more, I have experienced that animals are extraordinary teachers, not only in life, but in death as well. Every animal with whom I have had to part has profoundly opened my heart and impacted me in ways I could not have imagined. Allow yourself to give your heart to an animal companion, and when you must part with it, allow yourself to grieve your loss thoroughly. You may be surprised at the parts of yourself that will be revealed.
When we bond with an animal, we open to the animal self within us that civilization has forced us to disown. We join with the more-than-human world that has the capacity to deepen our humanity and heighten our own animal instincts. Transcending the divergence of species, we are graced with stunning, bone-marrow loyalty that may surpass that of any human connection, and we have the opportunity to plumb the depths of our own propensity to give and receive love.
Countless humans who have experienced deep bonding with an animal frequently report that the relationship has been life-altering for themselves—Jane Goodall in her extraordinary work with chimpanzees; Damian Aspinall’s remarkable bonding with gorillas in Africa; Martyn Colbeck’s stunning documentary “Unforgettable Elephants” which studies elephants bonding with their own species and with humans. In all of these research experiences and numerous others, we witness humans who report that they will never be the same after these encounters.
But the impact of human relationships with other species extends far beyond experiments conducted by college-educated researchers. Recent studies indicate that the use of dog training programs in prisons significantly reduces recidivism rates and creates a more harmonious inmate population. Inmates overwhelmingly report that being enrolled in a dog-training program has profoundly changed their lives. Many are so deeply impacted by their relationships with animals that they view their incarceration experience and their lives after release from prison from an entirely different perspective. One Ohio inmate stated:
It gives me the feeling that I’m doing something in the world, some good, without just sitting here wasting my time. Just to be able to pet the dog and…I don’t know, you can just loosen up and be a human being. Guys in here are all about looking tough and being tough all the time. You can just get with the dog and just…let all that go.
For some, a relationship with an animal is the first relationship of their lives which they genuinely experience as loving. Love, whether with a member of our own species or with another species, irrevocably alters us. Walt Whitman articulates exquisitely what so many have experienced in opening their hearts to animals and as a result, accessing the depths of their own animal nature:
I think I could turn and live with the animals, they are so placid and self contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied-not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.