t started when a friend told me about a pet dog he saw in a baby stroller on Broadway and 23rd street in Manhattan. “The dog wasn’t sick or lame,” he told me. “He was feisty and sniffing at the air. The dog was like this lady’s pet person. What’s with people and their animals these days?”
Later, on television, I watched a three-part documentary series titled, “Your Inner Fish,” “Your Inner Reptile,” and “Your Inner Monkey.” The premise was to illustrate how natural selection shaped human bodies. But the program often seemed to be reaching for something more than a visual tutorial on Darwinian evolution.
When it comes to creatures big and small, humans appear to be seeking more than just connection and commonality. They’re trying, once and for all, to make peace with other animals.
As a species, humans have become very successful. They’ve taken forests and turned them into farmland. They’ve mined oceans to make fisheries. They’ve used raging rivers to harness electricity. Amid all this progress, most non-human creatures have been little more than side note.
Oops, sorry about salmon runs and salamanders, dodo birds and passenger pigeons. But please, creatures of the world, don’t take any of it personally — that’s just humans doing their thing.
But now, with an ever-larger number of species on the brink of extinction (and some already gone), guilt has set in. So has overcompensation. Some efforts to make things right can look like folly.
Last Sunday, the New York Times featured a lengthy magazine article by a maverick attorney speculating on the legal status of non-human creatures, including monkeys and dolphins. What were their inalienable rights in a court of law? The attorney’s focus was on animals with high cognition. He argued that creatures with human-liked thinking processes had fundamental rights, one of which was not to be imprisoned.
Some may call the approach noble, but my own response was to wonder why animals had to show intelligence similar to our own before we cared? If they’re smart in anthropomorphic terms, then they deserve our protection? If they’re not, then we’re allowed to eat them?
But where to draw the line: mammals yes, reptiles no? Insects that feed on our crops, outta here, but healthy bacteria that live in our gut, hmm, better to protect them? Does bacteria even count?
It revives the notion of humans having dominion over all creatures, which seems a bygone idea – though picking and choosing which animals are desirable is still made daily.
Cats and dogs have it made in the West. They have spas, can get prosthetic limbs, and are eligible for organ transplants. Humans love African elephants and protecting them is a top priority. Too bad Chinese ivory dealers don’t feel the same way.
But animals with less “knowing” eyes are another story. After all, humans have people to feed and new cities to build. Choices are easily rationalized.
Did I mention that all the cool new electronic stuff that humans love requires mining and flattening mountains? Sorry, creature, if you happen to live there. Humans don’t mean to mess up the rest of the ecosystem. It’s just that they do. The web of life will adapt and hold with a few less strands. It has so far.
And if it really gets bad, well, there’s always stroller ride for a dog or watching a whale rescue video or sending a tax-deductible contribution to the local zoo. Guilt-reducing mechanisms are as thick as a catalogue.
“You’ll all be okay,” goes human thinking. Except that by then it’s suppertime.