Animals: Friends Who Became Strangers

“Things have changed, so I’ve found:

You can pat a tractor all day, but it won’t look round”

Animals look at us, possibly the same way they look at all other animals. But only men recognise it. We are aware of ourselves returning that look.

Our modern world is different to the past in so many many ways, but one aspect that gets overlooked is our relationship to animals. In the past, horses and bullocks carried our goods, ploughed our fields, provided sport and recreation. When they died their bodies produced shoes, clothes, furniture, mattresses, blankets, food.They formed a circle around us, between us and the outer world. Some cultures saw them as intermediaries with the higher forces. when the Greeks made sacrifices or killed for food, they had rituals to settle their unease at shedding blood.

People cared for them. They even called them friends. But they were also dangerous; runaway beasts could trample or gore people to death. There was a constant dynamic between them. Just as humans had to work, so too did the lower animals. Cats were kept to control vermin, dogs were for security or hunting.

Pets as we understand the term, are a sign that this world has completely changed, as is the visiting of zoos and wildlife parks. We have to pay to see what was once a part of daily life. Well, maybe not the lions and tigers, but you get the drift. Sometimes farmers kept animals and were fond of them and they ate them – note this is ‘and’, not as we would say, ‘but’. An animal  raised as food was always bound for the pot. No sentimentality entered into the story.

Animals don’t generally live as long as humans, so liviing in close proximity to them was a constant reminder of our own mortality, a means of keeping us humble, and of educating children into the facts of life in all their raw, natural energies.Sentiment is a luxury when you have the cycle of life.Fr most of human history, we have been hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists. Our isolation from animals is an in stant only. The original descriptions of animals were as metaphors as in Aesop’s fables and lives of the saints. Metaphors of animals were used to describe human behavior succinctly But they were stories of animals that were known to the listeners, so the stories had a resonance totally lost on most of us.

The relationship between humans and animals was always an exchange, but now it is us in control, us watching animals in the zoo, us feeding our pets, us riding the donkeys on the beach. They are unknown to us. Children scream at the big smelly clumsy scary things. We stereotype them – the brave or cowardly lion, the wise owl, the traitorous snake.

We make them in our image in order to identify aspects of ourselves. We make them cuddly toys, Disney and Pixar colour them and make them sing and dance. Our children curl up with fluffy versions of them. They have no teeth. They do not bleed. Children eat them, but when they realise it, they may cry and refuse to eat any more. Even the source of milk is terrifying to some kids.Paul and Linda McCartney became vegetarians when the family was eating lamb and a lamb came into the kitchen. They knew, and yet they did not know what they had been eating.

John Berger talks of humans and beasts leading parallel lives, sharing a “companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. different because it is companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.” One of the saddest stories I read as a historian was of a farmer who died on the road in one of the coldest winters in history, about 1773. He was dug out of the snow, curled up with his 4 dogs.. They lived as they died.

Animals in the media do not bleed. We no longer understand them. People try to hand feed wild dogs; children dress poisonous toads in baby clothes. When we look at them they do not look back.They are now spectacle, entertaiinment.  They have been replaced by machines, and since neither have souls, they have become innocent. Aristotle, in ‘The History of Animals’ wrote:  “in children we observe the traces and seeds of what will one day be settled psychological habits, though psychologically a child hardly differs for the time being from being an animal.”

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