I love animals and always have. I expect someone watching me play with my lab/hound mix would ascribe all sorts of human characteristics to the relationship, and undoubtedly while playing or petting or observing, I can’t help but see “Morgan” in human terms.
But I won’t buy a cemetery plot for him. I won’t subscribe to PetMeds while monitoring his blood sugar and I’m even adverse to putting gooey tick repellent on him. He isn’t human. He’s a pet.
Throughout my career in Africa I’ve encountered numerous researchers who cross the rational limit of thinking of animals as humans. The most flagrant examples are those ascribed to elephants: how they return to where close relatives have died, how they sacrifice their own well-being for another individual.
Balderdash. These are human behaviors that while I concede we can never scientifically measure in an animal with the clarity that I suppose, I trust my intuition on this one. I even question whether pain as we humans understand it is anywhere similar to what animals experience.
Critics will contend I’m setting up situations that allow for animal cruelty, but that, too, is balderdash. I have a hard time understanding why people swat flies with such vengeance or unload aerosols into gardens or are amused at young boys firing beebee guns at the nearest squirrel. I have serious questions about the morality of hunting animals for sport.
But to think of an animal as a child, or parent, or human friend, is to diminish the radiance of our own place in the biology of the world. It’s a terrible shortcut for trying to understand the complexities of life and does significantly more injustice to that life form than accepting it for what it is.
And it’s so absolutely clear to me whether it’s an old man, doting spinstress, recluse or young career-minded couple that has traded procreation for a more balanced 401K – all of whom embrace their dog with the ridiculousness of human attractions — are doing so entirely, utterly and selfishly to assuage their own inadequacies, and at the horrible expense of the meaning of that dog, the beauty of its form in the biomass in which we also participate.
There are so many negatives to anthropormorphizing animals, but one overriding one is that whatever faux emotion is created in the human master, it probably decreases that person’s empathy to humans in need. It likely distracts the master from the misery of his servants.
And, then, ultimately the price is paid, in an inevitable and ultimate way.
Last month a famous relationship between a hippo and a man came to an end when the hippo killed the man.
The jolly guy, a stellar citizen and former military officer, was a farmer who adopted an estranged baby hippo. (As I once adopted an estranged baby baboon.) He raised it with tender loving care. (As I raised mine.) But when baby turned adult, when the full sense of the creature came to the fore, he couldn’t give way. He claimed again and again, to over a quarter million viewers on YouTube, that everything was just fine.
“Humphrey’s like a son to me,” Marius Els told his local South African newspaper. “He’s just like a human.”
Marius Els, 41, had no son, no viable human relationship with a child. Why doesn’t matter, but nor should he have tried to create that relationship as a shortcut with an animal. The hippo bit him multiple times, then pulled him into the river and drowned him on November 14.