Have you ever thought about your relationship to animals? I’m not talking about how close you are to your beloved dog or cat, but about the place of all wildlife in your worldview. How important are they in the big picture of life on Earth? Do you consider humans part of the animal population, or separate and superior?
I think about these things a lot. The idea that we are better than all other creatures has always bothered me. Mankind has a very big ego. And because of that, we’ve used our language ability (and skills stemming from it) to take control of all other species on this marvelous planet. We keep some of them in cages for our amusement. We shoot some of them and hang their beautiful heads on our walls as trophies. Even the ones we allow to run free are “managed” so they don’t inconvenience us too much. We keep millions of them in horrifying conditions in barns so we can eat their flesh cheaply. But what gives us the right to do that? I argue that we don’t have any such right.
Before I go further, I need to say that I do have pets, I do eat meat (but try to minimize it), and I do wear clothing made from leather and wool. Life is complicated. But I just want to make clear that I’m not trying to make the claim that I’m morally superior to anyone else. My life is full of hypocrisy, just as yours might be. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to explore the idea that humans — as a species — need to rethink many of the ways in which we relate to other animals.
Henry Beston wrote something in his classic “The Outermost House” (1926) that really rang true to me:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. …. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.
Yes, “other nations.” That’s exactly how I think of our place in the world now, as fellow citizens with all the other life forms. In terms of planetary health, we’re no more important than they are. In fact, we’ve caused more destruction to this planet than all the other life forms combined.
I’ve had occasional fantasies about what this planet would be like if all traces of the human race disappeared. Wouldn’t it be lush and beautiful? All the animals would live in relative peace (except for predators who need to eat others to survive, of course). But nobody would be shooting rockets at their neighbors. There would be no air pollution, no water pollution, no noise pollution. No buildings of concrete and steel. No dams on the rivers. It’s almost too perfect to imagine.
But we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. I just wish we’d behave like the “superior” beings we claim to be, and show more stewardship for the amazing planet that gives us all life, and more respect for the other species who share it with us.
As I step down off my soapbox, I’ll leave you with some wise words from Cleveland Amory in his book “Mankind?“:
Bull giraffes can smash a skull of a lion with one blow of their forefeet. When they fight with other giraffes, however, they use only their forehorns, which are covered by a padding of thick skin. Rattlesnakes, fighting with each other, do not use their venom. They do not even bite; instead they settle their contests seemingly on points. As for skunks, they too squirt their secretions only at other predators — not at other skunks.
Now take man, and all his marvelous weaponry. Perhaps some day, when he has finally renounced biological and nuclear warfare and, for that matter, thrown away his guns, then it will be time to compare him with his betters. Then at last one may be able to say that he has the brains of a giraffe, the sense of a rattlesnake, and the decency of a skunk.