Having given up on self-improvement long ago and made peace with the inevitable fallibility of my being, something rather unsettling seems to be happening to me lately. Against my wishes, and indeed, without trying, I am changing.
I’m not referring to the wrinkles around my eyes or the greys in my hair – that too I’ve made peace with – but something more disconcerting. I am going animal friendly. Whilst not wanting to offend anyone who has pets, I have never been in favour of them personally, and for many years my allergy to furry creatures served me well in that I had a perfectly acceptable excuse to stay away from cats, dogs, horses, rabbits and guinea pigs.
Yet, entirely unintentionally, my attitude toward animals started to change sometime last year. Perhaps it was all those vegan propaganda films I watched on Netflix, and which put me off beef and pork; or maybe it was my brother’s gorgeous husky (the first and only dog I ever truly liked – except for the golden retriever my grandparent once had); or the book about elephants that had me hooked from page one.
For whatever reason, I’ve started to look at animals quite differently. That’s not to say I am inclined to give in to my children’s longing for a pet. Not a chance, but I find myself looking at animals with a new set of eyes, and asking myself, what gives us humans the right to lord it over the rest of the animal kingdom? After all, humans are not the measure of all things.
“In our estrangement from nature we have severed our sense of the community of life and lost touch with the experience of other animals,” writes Carl Safina, ecologist and author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.
From Safina, I’ve learned that humans and elephants have a lot more in common than we might assume. Not only do humans and elephants have nearly identical nervous and hormonal systems; humans and elephants both experience fear, aggression, well-being, anxiety and pleasure.
Human understanding of how elephants and other animals communicate with each other is still limited, but that doesn’t mean that animals don’t have ways of communicating that is both contextual and intentional.
Elephants cooperate, and they show empathy. They help each other, and they look after the ailing. And there’s no reason to believe that elephants are the only animal species, apart from humans, capable of empathy, yet empathy is an emotion we often take for distinctly human. If we’re wrong about that, what other false assumptions are we making about animals?
Setting ourselves apart from nature has served our narrow human self-interests well; it’s enabled us to focus on meeting our material and developmental needs without worrying too much about the non-human lives lost in the process. Capitalism’s never-ending demand for economic growth means that animals and nature alike have been sacrificed to make way for industrial-scale farms, factories, shopping centres, not to mention the roads needed to reach these.
“Although wild nature is not necessary for human survival, it is necessary for human dignity,” writes Safina. “As wild animals disappear, what is lost is the world’s beauty. Winning the war against the natural in pursuit of accelerated living, we lose the beauty that makes living worthwhile.”
We don’t need elephants or polar bears or other wild animals to survive, but do we really want to live in a world devoid of the beauty they bring? As Safina notes, “human need is a very poor metric for evaluating the existence of living things.” Ultimately, the argument in favour of the natural world is moral. As a moral species, humans have moral obligations. And it’s about time we stopped assuming that nature should serve us, and start asking ourselves, how can we serve nature?