May 152008

We have no concept of animals as individuals, which in the human case is indispensable to rights. You might know that your dog or cat is like none other, but this is not a piece of knowledge that gets translated into general norms in treating animals

People who live with animals — whether or not ‘pet owners’, an inaccurate description in any case — must be aware of a strange discrepancy in their lives. I felt it was accurately described in a passage of a book I was reading the other day, Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘The book and the brotherhood’. Murdoch is describing a boy’s attachment to his pet parrot, Grey:

‘The intelligence and presence of Grey was for Gerard a continual source of trembling joy, a feeling he described to himself as “touchment”. The parrot was a world in which the child was graciously allowed to live.”

The child is aware that he is living in the animal’s world, and not vice versa. This world has its own code of conduct: ‘In approaching a wild thing it is necessary to move quietly and predictably, to speak gently and softly, adopt regular routines, behave respectfully, be patient, reliable and truthful.’

The members of his family who do not see it that way and come to resent the parrot’s hold on Gerard (not everyone is able to enter a different world). The animal is no longer just a source of amusement, a pet. It has changed the child’s perception and behaviour. They give the parrot away when the child goes away to school. Adult Gerard is never able to recover. His life is shaped by the loss.

An extreme case, you might think, a fictional case moreover. But it seems to me perfectly possible that those who live with animals come to see slowly that the human world, the world that some say is all there is to live for, is made on such blindness and apperception. What is taken to be a perfectly normal attitude — animals live with people on the people’s terms, that is, if they are trained and domesticated, if they are strictly controlled — begins to seem disturbing.

This is not an unease that can be abolished by asserting a simple equality between animal and human. The problem is to know what animals need, and what they need of humans; then to reflect on whether we can give it, and if not, why not.

Here the idea of a human severance from the animal world, as one aspect of a mythical fall from grace, immediately makes sense. It doesn’t tell us what a perfect coexistence of animal and human was like, but only that it is part of one idea of a perfect existence. In the state of perfection, human and animals would understand each other, be able to have mutually acceptable arrangements — a society. In the world as it is, we fumble long with puppy training videos and manuals.

One of the reasons why the idea of animal rights, while appealing, is weak in comparison with human rights is because animals, unlike people, cannot assert right and wrong. Their needs can be observed and acknowledged — or denied — but they cannot participate in human methods of drawing attention to themselves and establishing claims.

Another is that we have no concept of animals as individuals, which in the human case is indispensable to rights. You might know that your dog or cat is like none other, but this is not a piece of knowledge that gets translated into general norms in treating animals. As an example, take the case of Joesef Fritzl, who imprisoned and raped his daughter in a cellar for 24 years; fathered seven children, three of whom were never allowed to come up. Treated her ‘worse than an animal’, in a telling formulation.

The general instinct was to say, ‘This was an aberration, the action of an individual; it does not say anything about the human race.’ Drawing generalised lessons from Fritzl’s conduct has been resisted, rightly so. But do you see a similar reaction to cases in which animals, say dogs or wolves, attack humans without provocation? Do people tend to say, ‘It’s just that one dog; he had a troubled childhood’?

I’m not saying that that’s what we should say. I only wonder if other people share my unease with the status of animals among people. It’s not something that can be wished away. The problem is not just one of right treatment but of knowing what to do, how to take their differentness into account.

As for simple mistreatment of animals, like others I have heard people justifying it by pointing out that ‘people live in worse conditions’. Admittedly this a contention heard here far more than in the West. It shows, apart from insensitivity, an assumption that the world is a human world, that those who don’t have a voice do not get treated right.

It doesn’t help us much with animals, but it says something about the humans who keep them.

The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds

Surce: Daily Times, 15/5/2008

 Posted by at 9:04 am

  One Response to “A dog’s life —Sarah Humayun”

  1. dear sarah,
    It is refreshing to read another persons opinions when they coincide with your own. I never had a pet all my life and then out of the blue i happened across an ad at the local store and ended up owning a cat. I cannot start to tell you the impact the small animal had on me and my family! Sadly, we had to say goodbye to our special pet. I could possibly write a whole book on the subject.Yes we as humans do not consider our place in this world alongside our fellow inhabitants and surely we don’t even stop to think how our behavior affects other people let alone animals.PS we all missed our pet so much we went to the rescue centre and brought another cat home.And he is absolutely adorable.

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