Pets & Anthropomorphism

Still on the animal-consciousness thing today. I was thinking about the way we treat, or don’t treat, animals as deserving of rights/responsibilities, and how this ties in with our anthropomorphic tendencies. Anthropomorphism, being the “attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behaviour to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena”, is often seen as a Bad Thing, inasmuch as it reveals either self-centredness or a patronising attitude. But the tendency that gives rise to anthropomorphism may also spring from the tendency towards empathy: it all depends on how you look at it. I don’t think its such a bad thing, if it encourages empathy, understanding or kindness.

Maybe it’s wrong to anthropomorphise animals; but this is what most people do when they have pets, and if it helps us to empathise with animals, is it such a bad thing? Most people acknowledge that animals have consciousness, even whilst disagreeing over which animals, and what extent of consciousness. Many have pointed out that we may not be able to understand, in human terms, what that consciousness is. Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion could speak we would not be able to understand it. It seems the danger of a solely anthropomorphic viewpoint is not only that we might lose sight of the probability that there are worlds we cannot understand, but that we end up only using animals as a comparison, as a way to understand ourselves. Like the MIT experiments on rats’ dream patterns, most experimentation on animals is done with the express purpose to aid our understanding of ourselves. Surely, though, to try and understand animals is a good aim in itself, whether there are ramifications for the study of humans or not; it may lead to knowledge and – who knows? – more kindness. Historically, a deeper understanding of animals has been necessary to lessen their suffering at the hands of humans; I’m thinking here of the extinction of entire species through Man’s ignorance, like the dodo, or the Baiji Yangtze Dolphin. However this understanding can only be communicated (however partially) via a translation into the human terms, human language, which is why to my mind anthropomorphism is inevitable. I think so long as we remember that we are talking about equivalents, not direct correlations, it is the best we can do.

I’ve also been thinking about the deep attachments between pets and pet owners. Was talking to S, who has always had pets since he was little (I was never allowed) ranging from stick insects, to giant millipedes, to cats, to a parakeet called Higgins. In The Best American Essays 2006 there is an essay called ‘Death of a Fish’ by Adam Gopnik; he discusses the view (expressed by developmental psychologists) that having a pet fish causes children to develop intuitive theories of biology. He also goes further and says it informs a child’s sense of consciousness, or rather it is a symptom of a child’s conception of pan-consciousness:

“They [children] believe in conciousness more than the rest of us; their default conviction is that everything might be able to think, feel and talk…We begin as small children imagining that everything could have consciousness – fish, dolls, toy soldiers, even parents – and spend the rest of our lives paring the list down, until we are left alone in bed, the only mind left.”

Gopnik sees this in his five-year old daughter’s grief for the death of a (to his mind) mindless, zomboid betta fish.

I don’t think it’s just children who feel this way. Nor does it signify, to my mind, a lesser regard for humans (kindness, empathy, love not being a zero-sum game). There are people who would scoff at other’s grief over the death of a pet; there are arguments that pet owners are exercising a terrible luxury to even spend money on vet bills when there are starving humans in the world. It seems to me though that there is something wrong with this argument. I don’t have a biased axe to grind or anything; I don’t have a pet, though I don’t rule out having one. Maybe, centuries from now, the idea of keeping animals in cages at all for our pleasure will seem barbaric and cruel (limiting rats to dreams of cages rather than not interfering in the ‘epic dreams of subway rats’). The arguments that might convince me are all weighted on the side of the animal’s perspective. Yet arguments against pet-owning are often focused on the owners. The argument that loving and caring for a pet is taking up the time that one might spend on loving and caring for humans is surely a false one. I think people can be improved by having pets in various ways. The capacity for feeling, if a person can love without being afraid, seems to increase the more you exercise it. I think there are lots of studies to show that it’s relaxing and so on to own a pet; good for stress etc. Gopnik’s essay also brings up the idea that perhaps it is also an aid to developing empathy for other beings; the crucial ingredient needed for us to be galvanised to action, to help alleviate the sufferings of others, of whatever species.

In the same book is an essay called ‘George’, about a dying dog; it’s a sad story by a man called Sam Pickering who talks about the emotions he experiences after having to have George put to sleep. He says:

“The nineteenth-century English painter Edwin Landseer got relations between dogs and people backward. In “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” Landseer painted a sheepdog grieving for his dead master…The truth is that people grieve for dogs, not dogs for people. Landseer should have painted an ancient shepherd standing at the edge of a field, bent over his crook, a single tear sliding down his left cheek, at his feet a nondescript mound, the dirt brown and fresh, a handful of crow feathers scattered yellow over the clods.”

I remember the one semi-pet I ever had; a cat, Thomas, who belonged to a sprawling family on the estate where I lived once. He was, I think, a little neglected in that family (who seemed to have Shameless-style dramas at least once a week) and decided to practically move in with us – gradually at first, then extending his stays to overnighters, days and nights at a time. Of course one never really owns a cat, it is indeed the cat that owns you, or rather plays you for food etc. Thomas, no doubt, had his providers all over the neighbourhood; he was an old-style tomcat with a playa’s sensibility. Although I in no way felt that I owned Thomas, I remember the fierce fury I felt when one day he came in with petrol on his back fur; where had this petrol come from? To be more specific, who had done this to him and why? It was possible he had accidentally found himself under the wrong car (he was fond of hiding under parked vehicles) and had himself an unwanted bath; possible too that he had narrowly escaped a kitty-burning from some psycho. I remember feeling powerless but imagining that, if I ever saw any person, man, woman or child tormenting Thomas I would rush over to them with abandoned ferocity and commit an act of violence without being able to stop myself. Curious, this is the same emotion I can imagine feeling if my family were physically threatened, except, if possible, even more so: the idea of the animal as so defenceless and innocent was breaking my heart. Thomas wasn’t defenseless and innocent in his own world – he was a predator; the innocence I mean here is the idea that he would not know anything of the reason for his pain. The cruelty of such torture is often predicated on the sadistic knowledge that the person or animal does not understand; bullying is the same impulse. S pointed out this morning in our discussion about the effect owning a pet fish might have on a child that one famous cliche about psychopaths/serial killers that is often luridly described is the adolescent or childhood cruelty to animals, which is usually taken to highlight a lack of ability to empathise.

I don’t exactly know how, but I have a suspicion these things are connected.


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