Apropos of what we’ll be discussing for much of next week, this episode of PBS’ Nature series discusses the relationship between humans and our classic domesticated pets – cats and dogs. Through expert interviews, a visit to a Humane Society shelter, and owner-bios reminiscent of the famous couple scenes from When Harry Met Sally, the show seeks to explain – or at least explore – the bonds between pets and their humans.
It’s easy to get indignant about humans domestication of certain animals – we’re asserting our dominance! we’re pretending we rule the globe! we’re stripping them of their natural wild natures! – it’s also important to remember that we evolved alongside our domesticated animals, both pet and pastoral, and through this coevolution we all have become different creatures. Marc Bekoff, a former Guggenheim fellow and Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Boulder who is interviewed extensively in the episode, explains that these bonds of coevolution are strengthened by the presence of mirror neurons in both humans and common pets – that is, dogs and cats. Mirror neurons are what enable us to feel the emotions of another creature, be they of our species or another. As Bekoff puts it, they are “the neural basis for empathy…[required] for the formulation and maintenance of social bonds.” In other words, that prize human emotion – the one that leads to self-awareness, to social structure, to emotional relationships – is, in fact, not human at all.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t point out the often elitist – or at least excessively moral – human paradigm that we, as a species, tend to impose on the rest of the planet’s animals. And it’s important to note that these animals are not human – they are close to us, but they are not, and never will be the same as us. As one of the dog owners interviewed in the opening sequence says, “they’re another tribe…and what I really love about dogs and cats is that they’re not like us.”
So watch the documentary. Though be warned, it might bring you to tears –I know it did me – the kind of hot, messy, gut-wrenching tears that we seem to save for the inevitable goodbyes to our pets.
Tagged adoption, animals, brain, cats, companionship, documentary, dogs, dogs v. cats, empathy, euthanasia, evolution, humane society, humans and animals together, love, mirror neurons, neurology, PBS, pets
I read Matt’s post about the danger of trash to animals and I am definitely looking forward to the discussion we will have in his class on Tuesday. But before that, I will present some initial thoughts regarding Matt’s main topic of discussion, “If we believe in evolution, survival of the fittest, and that extinction is a natural part of life, then why do we feel the need to ‘save’ endangered species.” Firstly, I think there is a dichotomy between those who think that extinction is natural and those who feel the need to save endangered species. Therefore, “we” should be better specified. So from now on, I shall use “we” for those who want to save endangered animals.
Some might consider the people who want to save endangered animals as “good” and people who will not step into action due to the belief in the naturalness of extinction as “bad”. But I shall state otherwise. Those who want to save the animals are the ones who want to transcend nature. Similar to the popular idea of cheating death, these people hope of cheating nature’s principles of evolution and extinction. I found a TV show on Animal Planet called Orangutan Island, in which people are trying to save the endangered Orangutans by protecting them and giving them homes. The title of Season 2’s Episode 1 is “Cheating Extinction,” which pertains quite well to our discussion. The regular viewer would think that the Orangutans are cheating extinction, but actually we are the ones cheating extinction. Not our extinction, but the Orangutan’s extinction. So now, we play a key role in the fate of other animals. Quite a weighty responsibility, isn’t it? Of course. Attempting to invalidate nature’s inherent laws by replacing it with human power is no small deal.
Tagged animals, danger, endanger, evolution, extinction, fittest, island, nature, orangutan, power, species, survival, trash, TV
About a week ago, Oprah featured a woman named Charla Nash (see part 1 of the video here). She came on the show behind a black veil, guided by Oprah into her chair. The story that brought her to national television happened in February, 2009. Nash received a call from her friend, Sandra Herold, asking help to get her 200-lb pet chimpanzee, Travis, back into his cage. Upon Nash’s arrival, the chimp suddenly attacked her and started to rip off her nose, eyes, and upper jaw. By the time the police arrived, Nash’s face and fingers was almost completely gone. Travis went for a police, and was subsequently shot and killed.
Humans have a desire to be in control. Our technology gives us the ability to manipulate our surroundings, which only adds fire to the appeal of conquering nature. The romanticized idea of being in control of a wild animals is present in stories throughout history, real and fictional. Being the proud owner of a vicious animal is looked upon with admiration. But bringing a wild animal to one’s home as a pet will only cause trouble on both sides, and Nash’s story is just another reminder of that fact.
As renowned primatologist Jane Goodall said in this opinion piece, “a chimpanzee can never be totally domesticated”. Wild animals are called wild for a reason: they have primal instincts that can’t be nurtured away. In Travis’ case, the chimp had done commercials as a baby, wore humans clothes, and entertained himself with TV. However, even living a life in captivity couldn’t erase the violent nature of the animal. Because of his captivity, the abilities Travis should have had, like knowing how to interact with other chimps and finding himself food, had been replaced by human traits such as being toilet trained and eating from a table. This results in the chimp losing the life it could’ve had in is natural habitat, and instead, received a life of confinement and forced adaption. No matter how good we are at using nature to our advantage, there are some things that we just can’t change.
Sometimes the wild should remain in the wild.