Dumb Animals

The importance of the story we tell ourselves has in determining our identity is little understood by humanity. Instructive case studies could be made of the relationship between humans and animals which would reveal that how we view animals has not been fixed over time but instead changes relative to the story we tell ourselves and how we project our identity onto our cousins in the animal kingdom. Our refusal to look realistically, unemotionally, unsentimentally at the rest of Creation, including the animals we share the planet with, could mean the end of many species including us.

The more religious among us might take offense at being classified by science as part of the kingdom Animalia. But we will have to admit that we fit the definition of having “the power of locomotion, a fixed structure and limited growth and nonphotosynthetic metabolism.” Don’t get angry, don’t have a reaction and throw this book in the wastebasket. You will only prove our point doing that. Take a deep breath because we can concede that there are distinctions that set us apart including the ability to reason. But as we read the following essay our ability to solve problems, our superior intellect, may not be something we should brag about—not yet anyway.

The lion is the king of beasts, right? That’s our story today but it was not always so. A much more exalted animal in a much different Paleolithic narrative of 30, 000 years ago was—the bear. Michael Pastoureau in his book The Bear: History of a Fallen King, writes “the bear was no longer considered an animal like other animals, … it occupied a special place between the worlds of beasts and men, and that it may have served as a mediator with the beyond.” The bear cults lasted for thousands of years in northern and western Europe.

Just as our relationships and some of our behaviors relating to animals today would have seemed ridiculous and indefensible to our Paleolithic ancestors, the anthropomorphic projections involving the bear in those ancient cultures seems almost inexplicable to us today. As late as 1240 A.D. a Parisian Bishop contained in a Roman Catholic paradigm believed bears could rape women and that it was important that the resulting children be baptized and raised as other children. As we have learned in Simple Reality our beliefs, attitudes and values are determined by the paradigm that contains us.

Sadly, for the bears of Europe, the Paleolithic worldview and the worldview of the “universal” church were to clash. A paradigm shift spelled disaster for the innocent ursines. In the eighth century, Pastoureau writes, “Charlemagne organized great campaigns of bear massacres in Germany.”  This was one of the ways the Christian church employed to stamp out the old, the pagan paradigm. What happened to the bear at the hands of religious zealots foreshadowed a similar fate to human cousins who were unlucky enough to be contained in a narrative unacceptable to the rapidly growing Roman Catholic juggernaut.

We can see that the human story is paramount in determining both human identity and human behavior. The fate of the bear serves as a reminder that stories can have a darker side, that they can separate us from animals as easily as they can connect us, that the elevation of one animal to the sphere of particular human concern is likely to come at the expense of another.

Fast forward to post-modern humanity and we might be dismayed to learn that we have failed to make the all important connection between our story and our behavior. Again, let’s turn to our furry friends to help us illustrate this sad, sad shortcoming. Peter Singer wrote the book Animal Liberation over 35 years ago, a book which laid the groundwork for the animal advocacy groups operating today.

Earlier in this essay we criticized emotionality, sentimentality and subjective unreality in the relationships between humans and animals. Peter Singer largely agrees that our story should avoid these human behaviors vis-à-vis animals. Although animal rights proponents haven’t always embraced Singer’s brand of utilitarianism, they have generally followed his rejection of emotionalism, reserving particular scorn for the sentimentality that allows people to lavish money and attention on pets while happily eating cows and pigs—mammals every bit as intelligent and capable of suffering as dogs and cats—which lead tortured existences before arriving on our plates.

Human intelligence and our much-vaunted ability to “reason,” does not preclude irrational emotionalism when it comes to the animals that we favor. The professor of ethics and women’s studies at DukeUniversity, Kathy Rudy, advocates what we call “emotional reactions” in Simple Reality, in relation to animals, or at least some animals. In her book Loving Animals: Toward a New Animal Advocacy. She uses the term “border crossers” to describe humans who have especially “intense emotional bonds with specific animals.” In her book Rudy reveals that she believes that humans are capable of loving animals and that some animals are capable of returning that love. Here it is critical to make a distinction between “love” as we use the word in our culture and “compassion,” a distinction that Rudy does not make.

Rudy does, however, make a key observation when she says that “affect can only be displayed through narrative.” If we believe that animals are intelligent in the way that humans are and can feel affection in the way that humans do then for all intents and purposes they do for those that believe they do. That is to say—we will experience what we believe we are experiencing because we create our own reality—hence the overriding importance of beliefs, attitudes and values in determining our worldview.

Having emotional attachments or emotional reactions to animals is not in our best interest or theirs. Compassion for animals, on the other hand would result in their being treated very differently than is most often in the world today.

Our failure to recognize Oneness as the only rational worldview has distorted our relationship with the natural world and the animals that inhabit that world. For example, since colonial times in America, because of out fear of the natural world, we have demonized wolves. As a result by the end of the 19th century wolves had been exterminated in the United States. The balance of nature had been disrupted due to our fear and ignorance. Remember, all of creation is interconnected and interrelated and humanity suffers when destruction and imbalance result when we express our unmindful fears.

The elimination of the wolves meant that the elk in YellowstoneNational Park had no predators resulting in larger foraging herds of elk. Dense elk populations prevented the natural growth of stands of aspen, willow and cottonwood. The destruction of this food web further deprived yellow warblers and other songbirds of their habitat and deprived beavers of their food supply which caused the drying up of beaver ponds destroying fish, reptiles and amphibians.

After their reintroduction from Canada to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996 of the 100 wolves that now roam the park have begun to reverse the environmental destruction and the ecosystem, the web, begins to weave its natural life-sustaining tapestry.

The human mind, belatedly realized what our intuition always knew. True human identity is determined by the story of Oneness and our connection to animals, not our alienating fear of them. In a soon to be published article (2012) in the scientific journal Biological Conservation Robert Beschta wrote that wolves are apex predators, on top of the food web. They’re more than just charismatic animals that are nice to have around. We’re finding that their function in nature is very important.     

The challenge for animal rights advocates becomes obvious; they must change the story that defines the relationship between humans and animals. One such relationship is a particularly troubling one, that between humans and the dolphin. Marine mammal researcher Diana Reiss gives us food for thought in her book The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives.

Like the researchers Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall in their work with great apes, Reiss sees her subjects as having distinct personalities and admits “I loved these animals dearly.” Her book contains many stories about the relationship between dolphins and humans which are necessarily very subjective given her own identity in relation to these animals.

Perhaps Reiss and other researchers will come to realize that the stories we tell about animals will determine how we treat them and will reflect our own identity and how we treat each other. Given that we don’t treat our animals or each other very well, perhaps we could benefit from a paradigm shift.


References and notes are available for this essay.
For a much more in-depth discussion on Simple Reality, read  Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival,  by Roy Charles Henry, published in 2011.

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