How we Relate to Animals

So…last month I explored progress with stem cells. I plan to return to the futuristic medicine topic again soon, but this month I decided to talk about animals.

We have three dogs: a golden retriever and two border collies. The border collies are wicked smart. I’m pretty sure that across some narrow bands they are smarter than we are. For example, they can manipulate us into behaving the way they want pretty effectively – they’re herding dogs, after all. Sometimes they’ll get us all gathered together before we even realize it. Other times we know, but they still manipulate us into doing what they want. They have to vary their techniques regularly to keep succeeding. I am a hundred percent confident that smarts, feelings, and sometimes a big chunk of creativity goes into their behaviors.

Not that domestic dogs will take over the world; they’re not apex predators like we are. In fact, I’m pretty sure ours would not survive without us, or someone like us. But more and more, the science is being done to prove that a wide range of animals use tools, intelligence, and even emotional range to solve problems. In short, we are recognizing that that are enough like us that human behavior towards animals is changing.

  • There is more respect for some animal’s rights to a cruelty-free life
  • More laws protect animal’s right to habitat. Endangered species laws, salmon habitat laws and others now affect zoning and land use decisions across the United States and in many other countries.
  • The outrage that surrounds demonstrated acts of animal cruelty is growing. Witness the backlash against quarterback Michael Vick for dogfighting or the world-wide dismay at the mistreatment of the biggest star in “Water for Elephants.”

I acknowledge that there’s still way too much abuse of almost all kinds of animals, and that we’re apparently the primary cause of one of the biggest mass extinctions in history. Humans do evil. We also do good. In addition to being warriors and predators, humans are empathic and most people I know want a fair world. The ways in which people are willing to treat animals/allow others to treat animals are changing to allow some fairness for the animals as well as for us.

Fine – but what’s the point? I read this as a long-term trend in the developed world, a force of change like acceptance of people who look or act differently from us, acceptance of the idea that we need to protect the Earth, etc. It is a change in the way that a preponderance of people frame the topic, and thus it is affecting laws and other related social structures.

It’s hopeful.

We need to change to survive species-threatening population growth, planet-threatening pollution, and climate change. I believe we are becoming more likely to realize that we have to respect the animal population, and thus craft survival strategies which might save more of the global food chain. Opinion only, but I believe that as we respect others (dolphins, whales, dogs), we’ll respect ourselves a bit more. I also believe that if we don’t continue this trend and respect animals more, we are likely to kill ourselves by an accident of stupidity and gluttony. After all, we’re already destroying the ocean food chain and just now realizing how badly overfishing might affect us. Maybe that’s even the first survival-level test of our relationship with the animal world the next few years.

I’ve always believed that the animals in my life could feel and think. Happily, the structure of human law and social acceptance is beginning to support that idea. And I feel and think that that’s a survival strategy for us.

Although this column is partly drawn from years of being interested in this topic, here’s where I found specific recent information:

Acceptance that animals may be more like us than we thought? The following diverse stories are only a small sampling from the Internet this year.


Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!