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Animals R Us
by Hilary Williamson (May 2011)

'Who can believe that there is no soul behind those luminous eyes?'
(Theophile Gautier)

Even those of us who share our lives with animals and believe that we understand at least some aspects of their capabilities are often stunned by behaviors that make clear that we seriously underestimate them. Some fascinating and thought provoking books have underlined that fact for me.

First, foremost, and most recent is The Moral Lives of Animals, science writer Dale Peterson's thoroughly researched 'attempt to trace evolutionary continuity in the area of moral psychology.' In this seminal, wide-ranging analysis of moral behavior - and our perceptions of it - in the animal kingdom, Peterson reminds us that 'we are left, so often, looking at animals and what they do through a dark glass', with what we do know 'powerfully obscured by long-standing habits of thought'.

Indeed, if Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist Jon Franklin is right, our perception of man's best friend has been very much through a glass, darkly. In Wolf in the Parlor: How the Dog Came to Share Your Brain, he postulates a close, dependent co-evolution involving man and canine, in which each species dropped brain function 12,000 years ago that the other continued to provide (the human doing the scheming and thinking for his canine companion, while emotion remained the dog's specialty).

Do animals really feel emotion you ask (those of you who don't live closely with them, that is)? Read Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's When Elephants Weep and you will glimpse a rich world of feeling fellow creatures who are 'innocent sufferers in a hell of our making.' Sadly he's right in reminding us that 'It has always been comforting to the dominant group to assume that those in subservient positions do not suffer or feel pain as keenly, or at all'. We should all weep.

Like to learn more? Delve into Susan McCarthy's Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild. She looks at the young in a variety of species, noting that 'The shortcut that is culture allows animals to learn things their predecessors have learned without having to take as much time or run as many risks.' Her final chapter on What Learning Tells Us About Intelligence includes chimp Koko's consistent score of 70-90 on age-graded (human) IQ tests. McCarthy talks about repeated failures to find unique rules that differentiate man from other animals, suggesting that perhaps instead 'what's different about us is quantity. We're unusually smart, we're really chatty, and we've taken the tool thing to ridiculous extremes.'

In another recent volume, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the U.S. Humane Society, mourns the betrayal of the bond that 'has been with us through the entire arc of human experience - from our first barefoot steps on the planet through the era of the domestication of animals and into the modern age', through widespread and systematic cruelty to animals. He tells us that 'their cause is also the cause of humanity'.

I've often wondered, if humanity does follow the path of long moral evolution, discussed in Jane Goodall's Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, whether our descendants will look back on our treatment of animals with utter horror, viewing us as genocidal barbarians. Goodall, in Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink, shares some species survival stories, advising us that 'For the sake of our children we must not give up, we must continue to fight to save what is left and restore that which is despoiled.'

Temple Grandin advocates in Animals in Translation for the study of animals 'for their own sake, and on their own terms ... What are they doing? What are they feeling? What are they thinking? What are they saying? Who are they? And: what do we need to do to treat animals fairly, responsibly, and with kindness? Those are the real questions.'

And finally, towards the end of The Moral Lives of Animals, Dale Peterson hopes for humanity 'that, given time, we can achieve a greater wisdom about ourselves and our relationship with the rest of the animal world down here, on this planet.' Let's hope that there is time for all of us.
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