Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way. – John Muir
The moral and cosmological status of animals in the West is largely derived from Genesis, where man is handed natural dominion over the animals on land, in the sea and in the air. Humans have been arguing about the place of animals in the grand scheme ever since, usually in regards to justifying or condemning our treatment of them. Some philosophers have maintained that how we act towards animals ultimately reflects on ourselves. Others have differed – Descartes, for example, said things about animals that would horrify most of us today.
“Animal” comes from a Latin word meaning “something having breath.” Whether or not you believe that humans are a kind of animal, we tend to use the term to denote non-human beings who share the planet with us. But that word does carry some of the implications of its root, where we also derive the words animus, anima, animate, breath and spirit. From their etymology, at least, animals breathe, they move, and they might have souls.
We’ve held many ideas about animals over time, and our thoughts on the subject keep changing. The history of the dog alone bears this out. Each breed originally served a function: to work livestock, to guard people or herds, to find, track or retrieve game, to rout vermin, to pull carts and sleds, to provide sport. With the exception of dogs bred specifically to provide companionship, how many dogs out there do you imagine are still serving their original purpose? We’ve taken the work from most of our “working dogs” in just a generation or two, and perceive them much differently now than our grandparents did.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained. I stand and look at them long and long. – Walt Whitman
We’ve romanticized not only our domestic animals but wild ones as well. Many believe that animals are somehow nobler than people, that they do not war on each other, do not kill for sport, do not force themselves on each other and are not cruel for the sake of being cruel.
For some, it depends on which animal we’re talking about – humans tend to value each type of creature differently, perhaps according to how like us they are, or how cuddly, how beautiful, how rare, endangered or exotic. A relative of mine is convinced that all snakes, including my shy and gentle little royal python, are slimy and inherently evil. But she cannot believe ill of any dog, even the one in her area that killed several neighborhood cats and then turned on its family.
We identify traits in animals that we either admire or reject, or wish that we ourselves possessed. People from all walks of life and religions speak of their “totem animals,” dream of animals, fantasize about animals. Our fellow breathing beings are clearly integral to our ideas about life and about ourselves.
Scientists are still unresolved about the intellectual and emotional lives of animals, tame or otherwise, and only in recent years has any serious scientific study been undertaken on the subject. Many of us who love and work and live with animals have all the anecdotal evidence we need.
Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France
So, what can we say for sure, what do we know about animals? Like us, they breathe and eat, they learn, they have instincts, they have lust. They play. They act on their impulses and they have both innate and learned behaviors. They strive to be free of hunger and thirst, from discomfort and fear and pain.
Unlike us, they do not write novels (though I think some of them might compose poems).
We know that they speak to us, each in their way, often profoundly. They touch on our own species’ noblest and most terrible impulses. They make us think of other worlds and possibilities, other ways of being. And even the most familiar of them can still be alien to us in many ways, as we are sometimes to ourselves.
* How has an animal made you more human?
* What was your first encounter with an animal larger than yourself? Or your first encounter with an animal out in the wild?
* Do you have a totem animal, or animals? Exotic or common? How could a bird you see every day – a robin, finch, blackbird or sparrow – be a guide or a teacher?
* Explore a preconceived idea you have about an animal, one you are attracted to or repulsed by. (For example, if you think dolphins are especially “noble” for being intelligent and playful, you may be in for a shock. If you think hyena are simply smelly random scavengers, read up on their complex social structures and how they care for each other’s young.)
* How are you like an animal? How are you different?
* Have you ever been terrified by an animal?
* Has an animal ever saved your life?
* What about your personal politics? How do you feel about eating them, about keeping them in zoos? What about conservation, preservation, hunting? Purebreed or mixed breed pets?
* Invent an animal and write a poem as if you were a biologist studying it.
* If you dislike or are ambivalent about animals, do you know why?
* Write an ode to your favorite animal. Extra credit for not using a single cliché – does an owl have to be wise? Are cats always graceful, dogs always loyal, ticks always disgusting? (Trick question about the ticks, of course they are.)
* What animals have come to you in your dreams?
* What animals do you wish could speak?
* For a challenge, attempt to inhabit the mind of an animal and speak with its voice, without anthromorphizing. Make your poem an animal mask. Shift not only your skin but your heart, your eyes, your whole blood and being.