Bear in Mind

Exploring the common minds and emotions of people and other animals and their lives together

Now We are One: Living Beyond Species

The nature of the human-animal bond

Reggie Rabbit
Eyes are the windows to the soul.
Jeff Borchers
The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature. -Joseph Campbell

About a year-and-a-half ago after being abandoned at the side of the road outside my home, Reggie came to live with me. People often release companion animals there because it lies at the edge of the National Forest—the assumption being that the act will not be apprehended and that the Abandoned may have a chance to survive in the wild or perhaps find refuge in our home.

The other evening, after a long day, my mind a jumble of emails, deadlines, and worries about another family member's health, I looked into Reggie's very beautiful eyes. She was sitting on my chest, alternating between staring and nuzzling and licking my face. I suddenly realized that we were not only family, but very close friends- comrades and colleagues of common sensibilities. It came as such a surprise because she is much younger than me and we have not known each other very long. Nonetheless, I relate to Reggie as a contemporary and I believe that the feeling is mutual.

See All Stories In

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Our relationship is germane to the topic of the Human-Animal Bond for two reasons: First, it illustrates the deep intimacy that exists between species. It is something that that lives without need of words, something that we know naturally without thinking. Now even science agrees. This profound intuitive connection, our bond with other animals, is more than skin-deep. External appearances may vary, but all animals, including humans, share the same brain structures and processes governing cognition, emotion, and consciousness. The essential elements that define identity transcend form.

Like us, animals are self-aware and have an identity and an understanding of who they are. They also have a finely tuned sense of aesthetics and appreciation for the world in which they live. The animal kingdom is replete with diverse, complex cultures and other and nonhuman species are intelligent with capabilities beyond our own and beyond our ken. Like us, they experience an entire spectrum of emotions and feelings in their relationships with each other and with nature as a whole. In short, science and the heart concur that beauty and difference lie in the eyes of the beholder.

Reggie and my rabbit-human relationship illustrate a second point. Our bond embodies an intrinsic inequality created by living in a society that runs on a two-tiered social, legal, and ethical system. While I care for Reggie as best I can, I retain dominance. Not out of choice, for to be able to care for her, I must function in modern human society whose rules of existence and membership exclude other species as equal participants. Reggie's life is circumscribed by what I can craft within the constraints of modern human society.

Rabbits, cats, parrots, and free-ranging wildlife live with and around us, but their values, knowledge, custom, and language are not integrated with those of humans. Animal lives are conditional. Their very survival depends on human whim whether it is through conservation policy and judgments concerning, for example, how many tigers, cougars or polar bears constitute "enough" on the planet or through decisions relating to companion animal care. No matter how well treated, animals remain vulnerable and hostage to modern humanity. The intrinsic right to self-determination- the authority to make choices about one's life without external compulsion-may be denied by humans at any time.

My use of the word modern is purposeful. It refers to the dominant global culture that has eclipsed all others. The roots of today's socio-ecological crisis lie in the perceptions and values of this modernity. The systematic subjugation of animal kin is not the work of all humans, but derives from a specific socio-political philosophy and agenda.

While pre-contact Indigene tribes may have killed an occasional elephant (and vice versa), these interactions, relationships, and self-identity did not lead to the near epidemic outbreak of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related symptoms now gripping free-ranging Asian and African Elephants. Living in landscapes a mere fraction of their historic range coupled with centuries of mass killing have brought Elephant society to its knees. Young Elephants who have witnessed their families slaughtered during science-approved culls, grow to adulthood beset with dysfunctions of the soul.

Elephant society
Courtesy C. Christo and M. Wilkinson
C. Christo and M. Wilkinson
The once peaceful pachyderm culture is imploding with psychological pain. In Addo National Park, South Africa, 90% of bull elephant mortality results from internecine bull-on-bull fighting. Elsewhere, teen elephants killed over 100 rhinoceroses after sometimes sexually assaulting their victims. The so-called "Human-Elephant Conflict" (HEC) is peculiar to modernity alone. A glance around other continents reveals a similar malaise. Cougars, orcas, dolphins, mountain goats, and other wildlife now show the same symptoms that have haunted human victims of genocide and war.

Indigene humans have not fared better than their neighbors. In 2006, eighteen years after first contact with modern humans, over half of the Columbian Nukak tribe had perished from rampant disease and suicide. The Nukak, Guarani, and others indigenes are committing suicide, says Guarani tribal Elder, Rosalino Ortiz,

because we have no land. We don't have space any more. In the old days, we were free, now we are no longer free. So our young people look around them and think there is nothing left and wonder how they can live. They sit down and think, they forget, they lose themselves and then commit suicide.[1]

Instead of celebrating our shared animal ways, modernity has insisted that Nature conform. Unable to accommodate human demands externally, wildlife is changing inside. As psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl observed, "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

Tiger
Courtesy C. Christo and M. Wilkinson
C. Christo and M. Wilkinson
Consistent with modernity's image of nature as "red in tooth and claw," reports on changes in wildlife focus on the dramatic rise in aggressive behaviour towards humans. However, this characterization does animals a disservice. There is much more to wildlife's somatic communiqués. Reminiscent of India's satyagraha, nonviolent resistance inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, Elephants are staging what many call "protests"—the peaceable occupation of Indian towns and organizing blockades to stop trains that have killed so many of their starving compatriots wandering the landscape in search of food. However, these acts of civil disobedience are denied. Humans remain intransigent and "hungry for worlds they can't share." [2] In response, officials and villagers poison, shoot, or find other ways to deny their erstwhile deity.

Nonetheless, there is a powerful movement countering the "war on wildlife." A powerful profound remembrance is taking place in communities around the world, a ground swell movement to revitalize what the Quechua call ayllua—a common, trans-species identity and way of living that transcends external form. Justo Oxa, a Quechua elementary school teacher, speaks of this alternative reality:

The community, the ayllu, is not only a territory where a group of people live; it is more than that. It is a dynamic space where the whole community of beings that exist in the world lives; this includes humans, plants, animals, the mountains, the rivers, and the rain.[1]

In ayllu, "all are related like family." Ayllu is not where we are from, "it is who we are." For Justo Oxa, humans are not separate from other nature-" I am not from Huantura, I am Huantura."

Transpeace ambassadors
Transpeace ambassadors of Centre Avenue School
Lorraine Donlon
This pulse of ancient blood finds resonance with the vitality of future generations. A continent away, New York school children have started a Transpeace movement to catalyze the radical change in human culture that is necessary to bring us "back to the garden." These Transpeace Ambassadors have proclaimed a Declaration of Love of the United States of Being that honors all animals including humans. It reads that "a decent respect to the opinions of children requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to reject animal cruelty, domination and captivity," so that all of us animals shall have "the freedom to be who we are without fear of being imprisoned or tortured, the freedom to be who we are without fear of being objectified, the freedom to live in peace with our families without fear of separation." Other animals shall have that which we wish for ourselves, self-determination, "the freedom to live in dignity and security." [1]

This call for the return to trans-species feral culture is not a step back but a step forward for the good of the entire planet. Such trans-species cultures "are not poor or primitive." Speaking of his tribe, the Amazon Yanomami, elder Davi Kopenawa maintains, "We Yanomami are very rich. Rich in our culture, our language and our land. We don't need money or possessions. What we need is respect: respect for our culture and respect for our land rights."

Subsequently, when contemplating the essential nature of the Human-Animal Bond, our connection with other animals must be understood to extend beyond form to a common identity. Absent such consideration, the Human-Animal Bond cannot escape from being bondage.

Achieving animal wellbeing is not just about being good to other species. Animal wellbeing relies on the profound transformation of modern human identity where language and meaning are shared, replacing an attitude of authority, domination, and privilege with learning, parity, and humility. It is here within this relational space, ayllu, where humanity may begin anew in partnership with animal kin on a journey of compassion.

 

Gay Bradshaw is executive director of The Kerulos Center and author of Elephants on the Edge. What Animals Teach Us about Humanity (2009, Yale)


REFERENCES

[1] Survival International. 2010. Progress Can Kill. Retrieved December 2, 2010 from http://www.survivalinternational.org/

[2] Mitchell, Joni. Song to a Seagull.

 

FURTHER READING

Bradshaw, G.A. and B. L. Finlay. 2005. Natural symmetry. Nature, 435, 149.

Bradshaw, G.A. 2010 We, Matata: Bicultural Living among Apes. Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture 83, 163-184.

Publications pages from The Kerulos Center

G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us About Humanity.

more...

Subscribe to Bear in Mind

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?