Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
6 Apr

The Human-Animal Connection

I imagine most of us have (or have had) animals in our lives – pets at home, livestock on the farm, and so forth. For me, it’s a yellow lab named Buddha. True to his title, he has some calm, composed moments – mostly in the glory of outdoor adventures, but he’s just as much an example of big, slobbery enthusiasm. (Such is the life of a labrador retriever.) He’s been a faithful pal, eager workout companion, and much-needed comic relief more times than I can recall. When I’m in need of time away from society, he gets a special pass to join me. There’s just something different about hanging out with a dog – or most animals, I’d venture to say. There’s more to the human-animal connection, however, than just playing fetch. Throughout human existence, animals have acted as companions, protectors, and workmates. They’ve herded alongside us in the fields, accompanied us in battle, aided us in rescue missions, comforted us in illness and trauma, acted as service animals, stood by as patient and loyal friends. Experts have long examined this deep, even innate bond. Among the more intriguing theories are those that suggest our relationships with animals contributed to our species’ evolution and helped define our very sense of humanity.

Anyone who’s spent much time around small children has seen first-hand the affinity children have for animals. (Maybe you remember your own fascination from those years.) Experts in the field of child development often cite the rich role animals play in the imaginative lives of children as well as the potent influence animals have when included in psychological or medical care for children.

Fast forward to adulthood, and most of us still seek out that inter-species interaction (labelled anthrozoology, by the way). Some 63% of American households have pets. (An untold number are run for, as they say, the sole comfort and convenience of said pet.) We take up bird-watching and wildlife photography. We go on safaris and visit zoos. And then there are the dog shows. (As little TV as I watch, it’s somehow disturbingly easy to get sucked into those, Best in Show parody notwithstanding.) We benefit from the quiet, nonjudgmental nature of their presence. Research has repeatedly shown that humans respond in a unique way to animals in a wide variety of therapy and care settings.

Lest we forget (or go too far down the sentimental path), animals have of course also served as a critical food source. In hunter-gatherer days, hunting represented a fulcrum of human evolutionary progress. Our species certainly benefited from the calorie, nutrient-intense sustenance that game, particularly larger game, provided. It freed us up to do other things besides forage, and it substantially influenced subsequent brain development.

Yet, hunting also served (and still serves, in respectful, responsible hunters today) a life-affirming, reverent purpose. As Ortega y Gasset, Shepard, and others suggest, hunting developed as a uniquely transcendent act in which the animal was honored as fellow participant in the sacred “game” of life and death. As inevitable prey themselves, humans recognized the innate reciprocity, their double-sided participation in the hunter-hunted framework. Hunter-gatherers first developed their skills from observing the techniques of non-human predators. They honored as well as appropriated those skills. The hunt in tribal societies served as a communal, even spiritual ritual that was celebrated in tribal culture through mythic narrative, cave art depictions, and animal figures in ceremonial dance.

Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman has recently offered another view of how animals contributed to human progress, including evolutionary milestones such as tool-making and language. The first tools, she notes, were designed to dismember the prey we caught – a strategy that meant more meat for the tribe and less for the larger predators that had a way of showing up just in time to enjoy the kill. Cave art and later language developments, she suggests, were developed to record and pass along the knowledge gained regarding animal behavior and characteristics as well as hunting strategies that proved successful.

Our natural affinity for animals, Shipman suggests, took a decidedly significant turn in the domestication process. Our interest in animals and the vast knowledge we had amassed allowed us to build relationships with animals and in turn use that relationship to train them (and later breed them) for our needs. We first domesticated dogs, who undoubtedly helped herd animals for our purposes. We domesticated other species to raise as livestock or help carry or move things we couldn’t with any ease. Domestication allowed us to free up our energy for other purposes.

Shipman theorizes that domestication was the next step in our species’ tool-making progress. In her words, animals became “living tools” for our use. With the advent of domestication, human potential grew exponentially. We were no longer limited to what our own strength and physical ability could accomplish.

For the record, not every thinker is starry-eyed over our leap to domestication. The large-scale domestication of animals, critics like Paul Shepard suggest, may have put us in closer contact with various species (as well as their deadly parasites and disease), but it fundamentally changed the human-animal bond. Quoting ethnoarcheologist Susan Kent, Shepard notes that in “‘groups without domestic animals, both human and non-human animals are viewed as having an intellect – that is, sentience, sociability, and intelligence.” Obviously, it’s a sentiment that dwindled past the Agricultural Revolution, although several recent publications take up the issue through the lens of contemporary research. Even our relationship to modern day pets, critics like Shepard suggest, bare little resemblance to the early domesticated dog-human relationships in pre-agricultural groups. We have infantilized our pets and bred them in such as way that supports a more dependent relationship. (He’s got me there.) Our hunter-gathering days with minimal domestication, Shepard maintains, offered a healthier means (physically and psychically) of simultaneously relating to animal life and gaining the best sustenance from it. Take from the debate what you will, I say.

Thanks for reading today. It’s always fun to take a different course now and then. Let me know what you think – comments, questions, pet pics, what have you. Have a great rest of the week, everyone. For my part, I’m off to play with Buddha.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. My college roommate had a pet dog that was fiercely loyal to him. She often slept with him, and if you opened the door while he was sleeping she would growl, no matter how much she liked you at any other time. You were NOT to enter that room.

    One time, when my roommate had been spending lots of time away, because he just had a new girlfriend, I came home, and the dog was pissed off with me. She was doing the thing then the sides of her mouth curl up and more teeth show – the things dogs do when they are REALLY pissed/scared.

    I acted very calm, and I think I had a few stern words with her, just to let her know what she was doing was not OK. A minute later, she relented, and walked very slowly towards me, with her head hung very low. It seemed as if she was extremely ashamed for lashing out. Her owner was spending too much time away, and she missed him terribly.

    For some reason that experience made me like that dog much more. I haven’t seen her in years and she’s getting very old. I hope I get to see her again before she dies.

    Brad wrote on April 9th, 2011
  2. Interesting discussion – funny to me how in a group of animal eaters the talk centers mostly around dog and cats.
    I’ve got a nine year old (human child) and eleven year old (same) who are learning about animals as food. My daughter has her first 4h steer ( yes, we’re feeding this one grain. We’ve done the grass fat thing – this is … well – a story for another time.) My son raises chickens for eggs to sell as another 4h project. It’s been transforming (and difficult!) to watch and help my kids understand that we can indeed love animals… and eat them. I think it’s a vibe (concept?.. strength, maybe) that used to be commonplace among humans, but is nearly lost.

    Cristy wrote on April 13th, 2011
  3. Wow, awesome blog format! How lengthy have you ever been running a blog for? you make blogging look easy. The entire glance of your site is great, as well as the content!

    Sarasota Pet Sitting wrote on November 29th, 2011
  4. I was walking along a river recently and startled a blue heron and pair of ducks into flight from the side of it. They’d been sitting together and flew off together.

    Animanarchy wrote on March 26th, 2013
  5. I had a couple more interesting animal encounters recently.
    First I saw a family of stray cats in a little junkyard: a mother and three kittens, all black and white with blue eyes. I got my hand close to one kitten but it hissed and tried to scratch me so I went back to what I’d been doing, searching for empty beer cans.
    There was a young raccoon at night climbing on my bike, which was leaning against a tree. Maybe it thought by sitting on the bike it could ride it. When I approached it climbed around to the other side of the tree and I held my hand to it so it was more of a threat to me than I to it. It didn’t do anything and I left.
    Then there was a raccoon that came to my campsite, noticed me, but didn’t look too worried as I was sitting relaxed so I threw it some pork meatloaf. It looked appreciative. I’ve seen it since and it keeps its safe distance but doesn’t head away from me.
    Same with some rabbits that I often pass by on bike or foot. At first they would run away and hide but since I’ve gone by them so many times they stay still and just watch me.
    I saw a turtle above a bank beside a stream that I was traveling along. I gave it a wide berth and it didn’t seem overly concerned. I ate what I think was a reptile egg (spherical, soft shell) from that stream last year so I think it was probably one of that turtle’s eggs.
    In a forest I saw two small brown animals quickly running through the undergrowth and grunting in what sounded to be a happy way. I assume they were porcupines, since
    While I was biking I saw a young small porcupine just outside a forest and got off my bike and got really close it. It seemed to portray intelligence. It bristled its spikes but stayed where it was, even though it could have withdrawn into the dense foliage on the edge of the forest just behind it. I held out my hand to it and it snarled and lunged so I got back on my bike and left.

    Animanarchy wrote on June 19th, 2013

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