When You Look at an Animal, What Do You See?

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For most of our existence, we humans have seen ourselves as superior to animals, as “above” the “lower” creatures. Rene Descartes, for example, in the 17th century argued that animals were mere “machines” incapable even of true feeling, let alone “higher” thinking. Cultures throughout antiquity sacrificed animals by the thousands to their gods, so that their value was in the ends they served rather than in their independent lives.

On the other side, there are some traditions of vegetarianism in our history. Examples include the Pythagoreans in Greece, Hindu yogis, Jains and Buddhists, among others. And other societies (such as the Native Americans) ate and used animals but with a reverence and gratefulness for the lives that they were taking. Overall, though, the predominant notion in the human noggin is one of superiority.

But then Darwin knocked us down a notch…at least some of us. Evolution and the descent of humanity from primates still left wiggle room for us to see ourselves as “thinking, rational animals,” and therefore still better than the lesser beasts. Around that same time, though, something started to shift in the cultural mindset. A cultivated, conscious concern for the welfare of animals began in the late 19th century in England and then spread. (For example, the SPCA has its origins from this era, not to mention the idea of a “vegetarian society.” Ethics entered into the discussion of how humans relate to, and treat, animals. There was a recognition that, however higher or lower we might be, we had some responsibility for animals.

Nowadays, going vegetarian or vegan is practically normal. And animal rights are as important a topic of social discussion and ethics as human rights. Many people are vegetarian to some degree, but that does not require any ethical concern for, or love of, the animals; they need not be “our animal friends” for someone not to eat them or abuse them. A person may choose a vegetarian lifestyle simply for the proven health benefits that it brings. Alternatively, an environmentalist might go vegan because of the profound impact that raising animals for food has on the planet–using up vast amounts of land, water, and grain crops that could be used directly (and more efficiently) by humans for survival.

These many centuries of self-created superiority AND the recent counter-trend of ethical consciousness beg the question (at least for me):

When you look at an animal, what do you see?

Do you see a dumb, senseless beast? Do you see a slab of meat on a bun? Do you see something not worth thinking about for too long?

If not…what do you see when you see an animal–be it your beloved family pet or a little bird hopping along the sidewalk…or a snake slithering in the grass…or a spider scuttling across the floor?

Speaking for myself, I see a mystery, a miracle, a manifestation of life. I see the magic of a living being going about its essential task of living, of being what it is by nature. I see something so precious that for me to make it suffer, or even worse to take its life (directly or indirectly), would be the highest act of selfishness. With or without a god to judge, I feel within myself the destructiveness of doing harm and the disrespect of using others for my own welfare.

Surely, animals are not always the highest models of inter- or intra-species kindness. They kill each other, eat each other, fight each other, steal from each other. Nature is indeed often “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson says. But that when it comes to taking life or causing suffering, I have something the animals (almost certainly) do not: a choice. We humans are thinking animals, but we are also ethical animals. We have the power, the gift, and the curse of choice. And that, as Frost might say, makes all the difference.

So what do you see when you look at an animal? Do you see in the way that William Blake did when he saw his “World in a grain of sand / And Heaven in a Wildflower”? What do you see…?

Please share your visions of our animal friends. Perhaps we all can begin to see these friends, and the world we share, in a new way.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” – William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

1. Livestock used by humans for food and other products has an astounding drain on the planet’s resources. Joel K. Bourne, Jr. provides this bit of data on the subject: “It takes up to five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from eating pork as from simply eating grain itself–ten times if we’re talking about grain-fattened U.S. beef” (“The End of Beef,” National Geographic 215.6 [June 2009]: 41).

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