The other nations among us
As a child I remember being told various things that “separate us from the animals”: we were thinking, learning, playful, tool-using, language-using, social, compassionate, loyal, forward-looking creatures. They don’t really have emotions like we do; we have souls. But over the years I have seen all these things to one degree or another in animals. Including every indication of a soul, defined as a sense of self.
A couple days ago we came upon a squirrel that had just been hit by a car. That isn’t rare, but his companion was venturing out onto the road. I stopped our car as she walked around him, nudged him. Then she looked at us, stopped thirty feet away, and made her way to the safety of the curb.
You read about elephants mourning their dead, and you think; “Oh, well elephants are a special case.” But when our girl cat died last year, her brother became visibly depressed. This year, he is showing signs of senility, and going around the house looking for her in all her old places, making the sounds he used to make to entice her to come out and play.
You read about crow intelligence and octopus intelligence and people’s dogs and how pigs can solve problems, pigeons can count, and that scientists have at long last concluded we need much greater restrictions on primate research, and it dismantles all the old assurances that we are somehow not part of the animal world. For some reason this really upsets religious people who want to think Man is special. I suppose it fits the pattern that they think our world is special, our country is special; why wouldn’t our species be cosmically favored?
But, we aren’t that special. We are different in matters of degree, not in substance. I’m not a vegetarian or an animal-rights activist – my calendar is full enough already. But when I have a choice I often find myself looking for the reduced cruelty option. Cage-free organic eggs cost a bit more for example, but if they succeed in the marketplace it can carve out a better niche. If I have a choice between a tested-on-animals product and one that isn’t, I can choose the one not tested on animals. It isn’t much, but it’s a start. I don’t know where the finish line is; it may be an ethical consensus that follows my generation.
- Illusion-busting: from a cruelty perspective cage-free eggs are only slightly better than the regular kind. Organic, again a little bit better for the chicken (no antibiotics requires more space). Not ideal; not the idyllic country life of farmer Brown and his horse and tractor. I’ll reward even small improvements, and look for brands that promise more.
- I don’t know either squirrel’s gender; the narrative above is simply a guess.