Where the Wild Things Aren’t

At an aquarium in California a fish swims indolently along the
glass. A man and two children watch. He waves his hand next to the
pane, taps it. The fish does not respond. At first it seems to be
looking, pauses, but then swims on, clearly oblivious of the man
and children.

At the crocodile sanctuary south of Madras, India, boys watch
the immobile reptiles in the sun. Finally one boy, then others
throw pebbles at the animals.

I tell a famous ornithologist at Crater Lake National Park where
we both work as seasonal ranger-naturalists about my experience on
a high slope, where two hawks played overhead with a wad of lichen
— the kind that hangs in festoons from conifer branches in wet
forests. One hawk, higher up, would drop the lichen, to be caught
in its talons by the other, which would then climb above and drop
the lichen to the first. After several rounds of this, the lower
bird, having caught the lichen, sailed over my head ‘and,’ I say to
the scientist, ‘dropped the lichen to me.‘ At this he
snorts, turns abruptly, and leaves.

All of the foregoing scenes are glimpses of a widespread
yearning for a sign from Others — those creatures with whom we
share the planet — and of skepticism that it is possible. Usually
we wait in vain and in frustration. We seem frantic to contact
intelligences more assured than ourselves, to be blessed in their
witness of our mutual presence, to be given their surety that life
is real and purposeful, even if the purposes lie beyond our grasp.
As human numbers increase and the Others recede, it becomes our
last passionate desire and we feel like calling, as the birds fly
away, ‘Come back!… Hear me!… Look!’

To pet is to touch. The desire to hold the wild as we do our
pets is acute. In the past quarter-century of television, Marlin
Perkins, Jacques Cousteau, and others, in the name of science, have
captured manatees, lassoed gazelles, grappled with crocodiles, and
anesthetized lions — ostensibly to treat a disease, restock an
area, mark for further study, or rescue from rising waters or
industrial development. In every sequence men clutched, held, or
reached out and touched the animals. They fostered our yearning to
recover a lost world, to be once again the trusted friend of all
beings. They put the animals vicariously into our hands, and we
wait for them to tell us something.

At home Rover is told to sit up and speak. Polly is asked if she
wants a cracker. The news is full of the language of apes and
dolphins, who, it is speculated, may be smarter than people. The
scientists claim to be doing studies in communication, but the rest
of us know what’s afoot. We just want the whales and chimps to talk
— not just about hunting shrimp or fruit but to speak to our
mutual situation, claim our shared purposes, mend what LZvi-Strauss
calls ‘the ultimate discontinuity of reality.’

Against the indifference of the wild animals, the impetuous
affection of our pets seems like an enormous boon. In a world so
full of problems and suffering, only the worst curmudgeonly cynic
would sneer at our indulgence, their simple pleasure in us and our
joy in them. Something, however, is profoundly wrong with the
human/animal pet relationship at its most basic level. Given the
obvious benefits of that affiliation, one has to poke very
carefully into its psychology and ecology before its fragile core
can be exposed.

We believed ourselves until recent centuries to be continually
in the proximity of a multitude of wise animal elders. These
animals filled human life with excitement and strange associations
for so long that our species continues to anticipate their
reassurance. Wild animal life was a major focus of human attention,
establishing the expectation of a rich, surprising, meaningful, and
beautiful diversity of life around us. Some animals were sacred.
All were conscious, unique, and different in spiritual power.
During most of human history, people had easy access to livestock
and wild animals. Even after industrialization, towns and their
margins were occupied by an abundance of small wild animals: birds,
insects, fish, and amphibians. People were seldom more than walking
distance from a still richer fauna in nearby streams, fields, and
forests. Even in cities, until the 20th century, rabbits, chickens,
ducks, and geese were still kept in backyards, local fairs and
markets had large livestock sections, draft animals were still
abundant, farmers drove pigs and cattle to market down the streets,
and knackers butchered them in alleys. There were few laws against
keeping birds and other wild captives. Dogs and cats ran freely in
the streets. But now even the shambling domestic forms that pulled
wagons, laid eggs, or turned our garbage into sausage have been
removed from sight. The artifacts of industry and media, all the
human mob and its distractions and therapies, do not make up for
the loss. Only pets remain, a glimmer of that animal ambience,
sacredness, otherness.

In 70 centuries of human cohabitation with animals, the sources
of manure, milk, meat, and skins, as well as sacrificial offerings
and symbolic and aesthetic objects, have not always been separated
from their pet function. In the past a tiny bullock might be cared
for with familial warmth and attachment in the household, exchanged
as currency, kept as a fertilizer machine, admired for its strength
and beauty, or sacrificed on an altar and then eaten, all the while
talked to, touched, and loved as a member of the family. Domestic
animals have gradually become surrogate companions, siblings,
lovers, victims, workers, parents, competitors, deities, oracles,
enemies, kinfolk, caretaker-guards, and so on.

Now pets have become part of the pharmacology of medicine, ten
thousand years after people first took in the dog, sheep, and goat.
Indeed, pets have recently taken a new leap into institutional
respectability, becoming ‘companion animals’ as part of an
integrated treatment. In the presence of pets, those who suffer
from Alzheimer’s disease and autism are inclined to speak.
Incarcerated incompetents, handicapped outpatients, plain folks who
are just getting old, impoverished or stressed executives and their
lonely children — all are happier and live longer in the regular
presence of friendly animals. There is also less suicide and
aggression among the criminally insane, greater calming among the
bereaved, quicker rehabilitation among alcoholics, improved
self-esteem among the elderly, increased longevity among cardiac
patients and cancer victims, improved emotional states among
disturbed children, better morale among the blind and deaf, more
cheer among the mentally and physically handicapped, faster
learning among the retarded, solace for the terminally ill — and
general facilitation of social relationships. Hearing dogs
accompany the deaf, guide dogs lead the blind, hospice pets give
unqualified cheer, animals help retarded children, monkeys have
‘hands’ for the handicapped.

Professor Leo Bustad of Western Washington University’s
Department of Veterinary Medicine wants aquariums in all dental and
medical offices and in waiting rooms, conference rooms, classrooms,
lunchrooms. He thinks there should be wards in all hospitals where
patients may keep pets, animal refuges from which the terminally
ill may get animals on loan, professional referral systems, animal
visitors in nursing homes, and provision for them in government
housing, penal institutions, and community service agencies. ‘We
believe,’ Bustad says, ‘that the health of our society is dependent
on the nature and the extent of the association between people and
other animals and their environment.’

This view would no doubt be endorsed (for other reasons) by
Eskimos with their dog teams, by 18th-century furriers and fur
trappers, the butchers and meatpackers of the world, all the
pastoralists since the horse was domesticated, circus personnel,
the guilds of leatherworkers and shoemakers, and so on. Of course
that is not what Bustad means, but underneath there remains the
shadow of utility: the animal commodity dressed out as medical
treatment instead of pulling sleds or growing furs. In return for
the work of a well-kept slave the animals in this bond get

‘Pet-facilitated therapy,’ casual or institutionalized, reduces
human suffering. It is truly an astonishing solace. The ‘companion
animal’ is a medical miracle to which we should be kind and
grateful. It cheers, modulates pain, and helps the patient to cope.
But like all psychotherapy, it is not a true healing. We falsify
our relationship to wild animals with our husbandman’s eye, social
worker’s agendas, veterinary tools, and breeder’s books. Animals
were present at the center of human life for thousands of centuries
before anyone thought of taking them captive, making them
companions, forming the ‘friendship loops’ of which
animal-facilitation therapists and ethicists speak.

However, the domestication of animals has never ensured their
tender care. In recent Anglo-American tradition the dog is ‘man’s
best friend,’ but it is abhorred in the Bible. In Muslim tradition
the dog’s saliva is noxious, and contact between people and dogs
requires ritual cleansing. Over most of the planet the dog is a cur
and a mongrel scavenger, feral, half-starved, the target of the
kick and thrown rock, often cruelly exploited as a slave. Although
they’re looked upon with affection, even modern pets are property
that is bought, sold, ‘put down,’ and neutered. Pets are
deliberately abandoned by the millions and necessitate city-run
slaughterhouses, shelters, and ‘placement’ services. This paradox
of frenetic emotion and casual dismissal reveals our deep
disappointment in the pet’s ability to do something, be something,
that we cannot quite identify.

Domestic animals were ‘created’ by humans by empirical genetic
engineering over the past ten thousand years. They are vestiges and
fragments from a time of deep human respect for animals, whose
abundance dazzled us in their many renditions of life, helping us
to know ourselves by showing all that we had not become. The pet
cannot restore us to that wholeness any more than an artificial
limb renews the original; nor can it do more than simulate the
Others among whom our ancestors lived for so long, the Others that
constituted for them a cosmos.

What is wrong at the heart of the keeping of pets is that they
are deficient animals in whom we have invested the momentum of 2
million years of love of the Others. They are monsters of the order
invented by Frankenstein except that they are engineered to conform
to our wishes, biological slaves who cringe and fawn or perform or
whatever we wish. As embodiments of trust, dependence,
companionship, aesthetic beauty, vicarious power, innocence, or
action by command, they are wholly unlike the wild world. In
effect, they are organic machines conforming to our needs.

No one now doubts that pets can be therapeutic. But they are not
a glorious bonus on life; rather, they are compensations for
something desperately missing, minimal replacements for friendship
in all of its meanings. Mass society isolates us in ways and
degrees that seem to contradict our population density. Pets occupy
by default an equally great human need for others who are not part
of our personal lives. Pets are unacknowledged surrogates for human
companionship or substitutes for the resolution of interpersonal
social problems, and therefore impair normal human sociality by
enabling people to avoid mending, maturing, or otherwise dealing
with their personal relationships. Pets, being our own creations,
do not replace that wild universe. But as living animals they
confuse our perception and hide the lack of a wild, nonhuman comity
of players on a grand scale — a spectacular drama of life to which
our human natures commit our need and expectation.

Excerpted with permission from The
Others: How Animals Made Us Human,
by Paul Shepard (Island
Press/Shearwater Books, 1995). Paul Shepard is a leading thinker in
human evolution and ecology. Sierra Club Books will publish an
anthology of his work in the spring of 1996.

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