Monday, April 24, 2006


This morning, an odd thing happened to me that reminded me to write this post that I've had sitting on the back burner of my mind for some time, even long before the last post was written. One of my coworkers showed up at work on her day off today with her dog in tow. Although I'm not the sort of person who likes to own dogs, I am the sort who enjoys a bit of friendly interaction with other people's dogs (or just about any other pet).

Anyway, I got down on my knees in front of this dog, and said to it in a sort of baby-talk voice (yeah, I'm that sort of person as well), "Aw, aren't you a friendly puppy?" To which he turned and gave me a "doggy kiss". Now, I had been expecting and even hoping for one of these, although more of a sort of friendly lick on the cheek. What I got was more like a full-on doggy frenching, and before I fully got the word "puppy" out, this canine was licking my teeth and had his lips firmly planted on my own.

There's an odd conundrum involved with being in such a position with a dog. On the one hand, and usually the most obvious, it's sort of gross. Who knows what said dog had enjoyed in its last five meals or so and was now smearing on the inside of my mouth? On the other hand, as I said, I was (sort of) expecting such a friendly greeting. What strikes me as really interesting about this, though, is that there are some social situations in which many of us wouldn't mind a particular attractive person not formally known to us coming up and planting their lips on ours (think high school crush or the like) and yet we in no way expect that this will happen. Why is this? I have a friend who would be delighted to meet Geena Davis and have her first reaction upon meeting him be to leap into his lap and snuggle up against him, but it's highly unlikely it would happen, or that it would fail to raise an eyebrow on the rare chance that it did occur. Yet upon his visiting my house, my cat did exactly that to him, to nobody's surprise or shock.

Why do we treat animals differently? How much differently should we treat them (if at all)? I find it quite interesting that most people understand that there is a divide between people and the rest of the animal kingdom even if they don't believe so for religious reasons. Of course religiously, from a Judeo-Christian viewpoint, mankind is the crowning creation of all the universe, made last, and made to rule over the rest. Some see this as instilling in us absolute power and moral superiority, allowing us to use animals for labor, food, and even sadistic entertainment of sorts with no moral repercussions. Others see us as having responsibility to treat them like a younger sibling, giving them attention and comforts as one would a small child. Many fall somewhere in between. Is there any clear moral roadmap set out for us by the Bible or any established church institution?

Those who don't believe in the Bible, but probably lean on Darwinian principles to form their opinions on animals (not that these are entirely exclusive viewpoints, nor the only two) likewise comprise a whole spectrum of attitudes. While some may also see evolutionary principles pointing to humans as the pinnacle of evolution, I think those who really understand atheistic evolutionary theory realize that we are in many senses no more than one among many animals that inhabit the planet. Does this mean that we are to be kind and generous because they are our extended family, or does it give us license to do as we wish to them as the outcome is merely the result of their being less "fit" and therefore not worthy to survive? Once again, I see no clear roadmap set for the atheist. (I'm not the sort to assume that "atheistic = amoral".) Still, the most staunch believer in the former philosophy of the brotherhood of all animals probably knows there's something wrong with molesting sheep, and would rather be kissed by (Jessica Simpson/Josh Hartnett/insert human celebrity name of choice) than a spotted owl.

Still, I can't help but think animals deserve a place of respect in our lives, especially ones that we voluntarily have live with us as pets and/or livestock. The cat mentioned above has an annoying habit of being highly territorial when it comes to non-humans. While any person visiting our home will find our cat quite friendly and welcoming, any other animals who come within sight are subject to violent attack. A few weeks ago, she attempted to assault a strange cat who had wandered into our backyard, despite the fact that there was a thick glass plate separating them. The next day, a lump on her shoulder and a marked limp made us wonder if she had dislocated her shoulder in her vain attempt to protect her domain. The vet at the pet hospital told us that it would cost a few hundred dollars just to find out what was wrong, treatment aside.

It's one of those moments when you ponder the nature of the divide between man and beast. On one hand, with my family's current financial situation (I'm working two jobs just to pay the bills) I suspect that I may be squeezing the food budget to pay the vet bill. On the other hand, our cat is like a member of the family. What to do? A little over $600 later, I found out that the lump was essentially a big bruise, and I wished for the power to communicate with my cat the way I would with my children to say, "I understand you feel protective of your personal space, but you're not doing anybody any favors by crashing full-bore into plate glass windows. Think next time!"

Do we live in the conjunction of two worlds, one of animals and one of humans? What sets us apart? Language? Some primates seem to be able to learn sign language, and dolphins appear to have some sort of communication system as well. Usage of tools? Once again, primates can certainly learn to use various tools, and there are many instances of animals in the wild using sticks and rocks in numerous fashions to obtain food. Some have suggested that religion is what sets humans apart from animals, but I suspect from an atheistic point of view, that might be a show of our own inferiority. Besides, might it not be possible that animals have a form of religion that we simply do not understand?

I hate writing a post like this without having a specific end in mind. Not that I feel a need to wrap up every post here in a neat package, but still... Maybe the answer in some ways is not so important as asking the question. In my mind, since there is doubt, I wonder if these sort of questions may be some of the most important questions of all. After all, in weighing the balance between humans and the rest of the animals, we're in a strong minority, aren't we?

1 comment:

Brucker said...

Further note on the language divide between humans and primates:

I remember reading some time ago a Christian apologist who tried to point out the inferiority of primates by telling the story of Koko the Gorilla's reaction to a large earthquake. Apparently, after the quake, her handlers asked her, "What happened?" Koko responded in ASL, "DARN DARN FLOOR BAD BITE. TROUBLE TROUBLE." The apologist tried to make the case that this showed intellectual inferiority. I don't buy it, though.

Yesterday, one of my two-year-old daughters said to me, "My tummy is having a bad dream!" Dinner was running late, and she probably was doing her best with her limited vocabulary to let me know that her stomach didn't feel good. I immediately remembered the story of Koko.

Lack of vocabulary is not a sign of inferior intellect (in and of itself at least). What is telling to me is that in both the case of Koko and my daughter, not having the words to properly express what was going on did not hinder them from trying to express it anyway. To me that's a real sign of intelligence.