Emotional Animals


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Legislation has recently been proposed in Spain to give monkeys the full legal rights of human beings. The bill calls specifically for, “the immediate inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings.” Somewhere the ghost of William Jennings Bryan is smiling or crying or both. (H.L. Mencken, a steely atheist to the end, doesn’t get to have a ghost.)

I’m fully in favor of the bill, although I admit that it stimulates that tingly feeling in the brain and belly that only comes about when one’s basic assumptions are being tested. The fact is, animals are a problem for us and always have been. We don’t know quite where to put them, how to treat them, or where our ideas apply to them and where they don’t. Perhaps this is because we aren’t so sure about ourselves either.

For a long time we thought being human had something to do, essentially, with souls. More recently we’ve tended to focus on the mind. We’ve talked about consciousness, self-consciousness, language, concepts, intentionality. But we don’t really know what those things are except to say that we’re pretty sure most animals don’t have them.

These questions nag even at the legislation in Spain, which justifies simian rights partly on a claim about similarity in DNA, partly on an ability to use language, partly on the basis of “mental faculties,” and partly on the basis of “emotional life.” That’s a wild and chunky soup from which to pull an argument. The last category, “emotional life,” seems particularly murky. That’s why I like it. It gets away from the impulse to find hard definitions and toward the things we all actually know about. And, I would go further than the bill in Spain. Why not think about all animals as having “emotional life?”

Indeed, I defy anyone who has spent even a small amount of time with an animal, any animal, to deny honestly that it has an “emotional life.” Admittedly, the differences can be significant. The world of reptiles, for instance, is perhaps a bit less accessible. What do lizards care about? But there is a sameness there, a sense that even the doleful lizard, when he gets around to it, approaches the world with some purpose. When he wants something you can feel his wanting and his deciding.

As in many cases where we are dealing with the realm of actual experience it’s best to look into literature. I think, for instance, of a lovely essay by John Muir published in its final form in 1909. Muir, as was his wont, had set off into the wilds of Alaska. Through circumstances beyond his control a little dog had become a companion on the trip. For the most part, the dog kept to himself. He was, we might say, a willful little dog. Muir even implies that he considered the dog something of a jerk. Even when the dog started following Muir on his solitary hiking trips he did so with such a stoic aloofness that Muir refers to him as “a very Diogenes.”

But Muir becomes more and more intrigued by this dog, Stickeen to name him. He is puzzled, even amazed, by the specificity of the dog’s personality, as it were, by the way the dog insists on doing things. Finally, Muir and Stickeen set out on a longer hike that sees them onto a glacier as dusk is approaching. They need to cross a thin ice bridge to the other side. Falling off the thin and slippery bridge would be, without question, a final act. Stickeen is suddenly terrified, palpably terrified. Muir writes,

“His natural composure and courage had vanished utterly in a tumultuous storm of fear. Had the danger been less, his distress would have seemed ridiculous. But in this dismal, merciless abyss lay the shadow of death, and his heartrending cries might well have called Heaven to his help. Perhaps they did. So hidden before, he was now transparent, and one could see the workings of his heart and mind like the movements of a clock out of its case.”

On the face of it, Muir is contrasting the inscrutable character of the dog prior to his moment of fear with his sudden transparency while in terror. But in a larger way, Muir is talking about how we come to know ourselves and others. We do so, primarily, in moments of recognition that come through shared experiences. When those moments are profound, as fear can be, they cut through the clutter. There is no mistaking them. The fact that it is possible to share such an experience with a dog, to look into the mind and heart of a dog, to be one with his fear and its eventual overcoming, is not an argument exactly, but it has the force of one.

At the end of his story Muir writes of Stickeen, “Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.” One suspects that for Muir the category “all my fellow mortals” has become a very wide one indeed. Such is the impact of a shared experience of terror. I have no doubt, either, that if Muir ever had the chance to hang around with some monkeys in Spain, his sympathies would extend in that direction as well. He’d give them their rights. •  6 August 2007