How Good Can It Get?

by Brian Griffith.

How Good Can It Get?

After all our episodes of war and peace with the animals, the question naturally rises of how good things can get. Are we evolving toward ever greater cooperation between species? Horse trainer Monty Roberts has renounced all means of coercion such as whips, spurs, bits or harnesses, and aims for a natural bareback horsemanship, with communication through a horse-oriented body language called “equus.” How far can that go? Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh listed a bonobo monkey named Kanzi as a co-author of her scientific paper on sign language communication and the needs of captive animals. Was she just being silly? Will our friendships with dogs get even better?

Naturally, we still tend to rate all creatures according to their perceived benefits for us. As anthrozoologist James Serpell puts it, we rank animals on scales running between love and loathing, and between usefulness and harmfulness (or uselessness). These two axes of liking and using form quadrants, in which animals may be loved but not useful, both loved and useful, useful but loathed, or both loathed and useless. For example, the name “anopheles mosquito” means “useless mosquito.” The graph below gives a rough suggestion of how various animals might rate, according to popular opinion among traditional North Americans.


This chart is probably outdated, as popular ratings for these animals have been shifting, some for better and some for worse. Respect for wolves has risen markedly compared to the murderous enmity of the past. But pigeons, which used to be seen as angelic doves, are now widely dissed as avian pollution. Pigs are a bit less reviled than they were in the past, but they are abused far worse in our Satanic mills of industrialized farming. Bats are less demonized and their usefulness better recognized. But probably most people would still run screaming from the room if a bat got in. As for the race of rats, our appreciation for pet and laboratory rats is rising, but our toleration for wild rats is sinking towards zero.

Of course all these trends in animal tastes are different according to which culture we come from. But the question must arise: Is it possible that the human prejudices that place animals in quadrant 4 (both loathed and deemed harmful) can fade away? If we just saw loathed animals in a different light and learned what gifts they bring, would there be any limit on which creatures we move into quadrant 1 (both loved and deemed helpful)? If we looked upon formerly hated beasts in such a kindly way, would they respond in kind? Maybe not. But we have seen a general decline of violence toward wild animals. And various creatures that used to be ultra-wary of humans are now venturing into our towns and suburbs. Cougars, bears, and coyotes are losing their fear and acting accordingly. As zoologist Stephen DeStefano puts it, “It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re in favor of hunting or whether the very thought of it repulses you: the fact is that as we alter our behavior, animals alter theirs too.” How much room for change does that create?

Normally, we assume that the vast majority of creatures have no potential for any emotional relationship with us. And that, of course, would be racism, or speciesism, because there seems to be an exception to almost every rule. Although stories of animal friends are commonly silly anecdotes, they hint at possibilities beyond stereotypes. For example, in caring for orphan animals in Voi, Kenya, Daphne Sheldrick found a surprising friendship with a young rhinoceros: “Rufus loved his stable, his mud wallow, his food, his daily routine. He loved affection … having his tummy scratched, lying down with legs outstretched and eyes tight closed in bliss and contentment. He loved children and allowed them to clamber all over him, or ride him like a horse … who would suspect this side to a rhino’s nature?”

Maybe Sheldrick was just overly sentimental about the animal survivors of poaching raids. And of course baby rhinos, bobcats, and peccary pigs tend to be adorable until they grow up. But maybe friendship for life is possible. For example, the naturalist William Beebe (the first person to explore the deep sea in a bathysphere) found great fun with a coati. The coati is a kind of Latin American raccoon, otherwise known as the Brazilian aardvark, the Mexican tejón, the snookum bear, or the hog-nosed coon. Beebe aimed to study the coati with scientific objectivity, but the beast wanted to play. The naturalist had to note “the soul of him galloping up and down his slanting log, … the little inner ego, which changed from a wild thing to one who would throw himself from any height or distance into a lap, confident we would save his neck, and waste good time playing a game which he invented.”

Of course we hear numerous tales of vast devotion by dogs who give their lives to save people from fires. We hear of incredible journeys by pets who travel for hundreds, even thousands of miles over mountains and deserts to be reunited with their human friends. But birds? Rupert Sheldrake collected a number of rather stunning tales about bird friendships, of which one example is enough. Ken Clark, of Bakersfield, California, reported giving his pet pigeon to a cousin from Connecticut, and the cousin took the bird home. A month later, the pigeon reappeared at Ken’s house, after a flight of about 3,000 miles.

And then there are rats, which many children unfortunately want keep in their rooms. In an Internet discussion of “Keeping Rats as Pets,” somebody called “Choleric Sanguine” wrote that “Rats are more intelligent than dogs. The first rat I had often had the run of my flat. … He learned to come when he was called, not to chew things he wasn’t supposed to, and to tightrope walk. I believe they can even be taught to ‘read.’ Simple symbols only of course.”

Since these tales of inter-species buddyhood seem surprising, they are clearly exceptions to general experience. And that is the point: animals are more than examples of their race, and are often individual enough to amaze us. In caring for 29 elephants, 23 buffaloes, 10 rhinos, and “just about every other bloody thing” at her animal orphanage in Kenya, Daphne Sheldrick reported that “I … know every single one of them, from a tiny tree squirrel to an elephant, were individuals with their own sets of feelings and emotions, just as much as you or I are individuals with our feelings.” Somewhat naturally, animals can show great flexibility in how they relate with other species, as shown in Jennifer Holland’s book Unlikely Friendships. Holland photo-documents 47 wacko animal friendships, such as a cow with leopard, goat with hippopotamus, dog with owl, or a hamster who likes to curl up and sleep with a rat snake. Best of all, it seems that the big, ugly grouper fish likes to go hunting with moray eels. The groupers come and shake their heads vigorously outside the eels dens. The eels come out, and off they go together, looking for prey.

So are relations between humans and other animals generally improving? The rise of animal rights activism suggests so, while the abysmal conditions for most farm animals and the bulldozing of natural habitat suggest not. Certainly abstract sympathy for wild things is growing, and devotion to pets is reaching heights that could be either spiritual or mentally ill. We have cases of “bonding” with all sorts of animals, even turkeys. But has this been good for the animals themselves? Is there any upper limit to how good our relations can get?


From: War and Peace with the Animals: A History of How We’ve Got Along

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