Monday, August 10, 2015

In the Company of Animals

In The Company of Animals is a good thing to read when in the company of animals...

Inthe Company of Animals: A Study of Human-Animal Relationships, was first published in 1986 (the same year I scored Van Halen’s 5150 on cassette for my birthday, i.e. a long time ago). Written by James Serpell, this is an examination of companion animal ownership, in an era where the human-animal bond was seen still as a bit of an aberration. When I was growing up (that phrase makes me feel ancient), everyone's pets slept outside, they were referred to as "flea bags" and when I told people I liked cats they would brandish the then popular book "101 Things to do with a Dead Cat" in my face. There was no legislation, aside from prevention of cruelty to animals legislation, to govern the keeping of companion animals. They weren't microchipped, desexing was less common and pets were fed some frankly dodgy foods. Stray dogs would wander through the playground and no one really batted an eyelid. Getting sentimental about pets was something only slightly wacky types did.

As Serpell wrote at the time,
“Instead of questioning our supposedly objective, economic relations with other species, or the morality that governs our ruthless exploitation of animals and nature, we tend to ridicule or denigrate those who take the opposite view. People who display emotional concern for animal suffering, or the destruction of the environment, or the extinction of wild species are often treated as misguided idealists. While those who allow themselves to be emotionally involved with companion animals are considered perverted, pathetic or wasteful. And all of them are damned with the accusation of sentimentality, as if having sentiments or feelings from other species were a sign of weakness, intellectual flabbiness or mental disturbance.”p211.
This book, revised in 1996, presents a fascinating history of relations with companion animals through the ages. Things have changed hugely during my lifetime, but attitudes to animals through history have varied enormously, influenced by social, political, economical and religious trends. 

Serpell highlights our moral conflict in relation to the different way we treat different species and even individual animals from the same species:

“…because we anthropomorphise them and think of them in human terms, we are bound by the same code of morality that governs our interactions with other people. Except in exceptional cases, this has not prevented us from exploiting animals, but it has given rise to a profound moral conflict in our relations with other species. In our efforts to come to terms with this conflict, we have become horribly entangled in an extraordinary web of myths, rituals, fabrications and falsehoods, of which the Christian idea of human moral supremacy is just one of many.”p174.
His insights about the human-companion animal bond remain relevant today. In the following passage he argues pretty convincingly why many people are so enamoured with dogs and cats.
“…dogs and cats have maintained their popularity as animal companions not, primarily, because they are home-loving, active during the day, non-aggressive or easy to house-train. These things are important but they are not, in any sense of the word, companionable. The indomitable success of these two species is chiefly owing to their powers of non-verbal expression. By seeking to be near us and soliciting our caresses, by their exuberant greetings and pain on separation, by their possessiveness and their deferential looks of admiration, these animals persuade us that they love us and regard us highly, despite all our manifest deficiencies and failures.
However much we may regret the fact on occasions, we humans need to feel liked, respected, admired. We enjoy the sensation of being valued and needed by others. These feelings are not trivial, nor are they a sign of weakness. Our confidence, our self-esteem, our ability to cope with the stresses of life and, ultimately, our physical health depend on this state of belonging.
Without it, existence would be hollow and without purpose. Of course, all other things being equal, a positive, affectionate relationship with another person is more rewarding and satisfying than a relationship with a cat or a dog or, indeed, any other kind of pet. It has more depth, more scope, more complexity, and it is altogether more enriching.
But inter-personal relationships can be a source of pain as well as pleasure. We are potentially in conflict and competition with other people in ways that we do not conflict or compete with our pets. Humans are consummate actors, capable of concealing and disguising their true feelings and intentions when it suits their purposes to do so. For this reason we exercise extreme caution when choosing our friends for, otherwise, we would lay ourselves open to the possibility of deceit, manipulation, betrayal and rejection, and all the hazardous medical consequences that arise from these kinds of negative interactions. Our relations with companion animals may be shallow by comparison, but at least their affection for us is reliable and unconditional, and it is patently absurd to argue that this kind of constant emotional support is either inconsequential or unhealthy.”p142
This beautifully written book is good to read if you’re interested in animal studies, companion animals, the ethics of animal use or anthrozoology. 

Professor Serpell will be visiting the University of Sydney as a guest of the Human Animal Research Network (HARN) later this year.

In the Company of Animals is available through CambridgeUniversity Press.