Animals Make Us Human

The Internet loves cats and dogs! That’s no-brainer. Do a quick search on Youtube and you’ll easily spot a clip of a cat chasing a perpetual moving laser pointer! And let me guess. That video has more than a hundred thousand views, right? Silly humans. Well, it shows our fascination over pets. But aside from the fact that they are cute and fluffy, our close social proximity to cats and dogs can be traced to our shared history of co-evolution. Roughly 13,000 to 30,000 years ago, humans started to domesticate animals. In Darwinian evolution, this process is called artificial selection. And it started way before the internet, the smartphones, the Apollo mission, and the Industrial Revolution! And what was the first animal that we domesticated? The dog.

Scientists cannot still identify the exact time when humans started to treat dogs as pets, but it is certain that canine domestication was widespread. In 2008, a 31,700-year-old dog bones were excavated in Belgium. It is considered as our earliest domesticated canine. Prehistoric dog skeletons have also been discovered across Asia, Europe, Western Russia, and Australia. But how did this happen? Well, it is probable that canine domestication started from a purely serendipitous process. Some researchers hypothesized that there were wolves that would go close to early human settlements while looking for food. They were possibly attracted to the garbage and food waste produced by humans. Wolves that were bold enough to approach humans, yet not aggressive enough to rip their hands, got fed. This stage of “self-domestication” by wolves was pivotal for us to breed them for hunting, standing guard, and herding (and later, becoming cute life forms).

This piece talks about how humans figure to the life of animals and vice-versa. The title is based on a work of a popular animal scientist Temple Grandin. In 2009, she published a book titled Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Grandin is currently one of the most celebrated animal advocate and animal behavior expert in the world. Her own experience with autism and knowledge on animal science helped her understand how animals think, act, and feel. The work is an enthralling exploration on how animals ‘see’ their world. Her ultimate goal is to teach people how to give pets the best and happiest life. She argues that physical need is just a part of the total animal welfare. More than food and shelter, animals need a well-conditioned mental health. According to Grandin, the best way to create good living conditions for any animal is “to base animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain.” In doing so, the environment where they live should activate positive emotions and avoid negative emotions any more than necessary. By achieving a balance core emotion system, pets will have lesser behavioral problems. For example, it is almost always better to give animals freedom to act naturally. It is because their normal functions (e.g. walking, running, sniffing the ground) are closely connected to satisfy their emotions (being happy, for instance). If you can’t give them the freedom to act naturally, you should design activities that will trigger their positive emotions. Grandin posits that emotion should be the primary concern, not the behavior.

But what about the value of animals to the life of man? How do they figure to our humanity? Listed here are three examples of human-animal interrelations that show the importance of animals to the worldviews of people.

How Animals Shape Worldviews (Making Us Human)

1. Fighting Cocks in the Balinese Culture — In 1973, anthropologist Clifford Geertz published an ethnography titled Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. This essay is part of his most influential work in the social science titled The Interpretations of Culture. In this study, Geertz explored the symbolic meanings attached to cock and cockfighting among the locals of Bali, Indonesia. He discovered that cocks traditionally signify masculinity and power in the villages of Bali. That is why during cockfight, winningest cocks are associated to successful and prestigious individuals or leaders. Betting process and norms on cockfighting can also be used to examine the social divides and political tensions of the community. There are unspoken but widely understood rules such as “you can’t bet against your relatives” or “village members will automatically group together when playing with outsiders”. These customs simply show the symbolic value of cock and cockfighting among Balinese.

2. Reindeer Hunting Among the Cree – In the thick woodlands of northeastern Canada hunts the Cree people. They are native hunters-gatherers that target different game animals but focus mainly on reindeers. Social anthropologist Tim Ingold observed (see his book The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill) that when Cree hunters pursue reindeer in the woods, there comes a point when reindeer suddenly stops, turns its head and stares at the hunters directly. Instead of running, reindeers usually do this strange thing when aware of others’ presence. Biologists have concluded that this behavior is an adaptive mechanism so that reindeers can escape from their natural predator, wolves. During pack hunt, wolves will stop on their tracks the moment the reindeer stops running. The same thing also happens; the reindeer will stop and look at its pursuer squarely. But this is only a preparation for their next run. Since the reindeer will initiate the breaking of that stalemate, it will have a slight advantage over the wolves. Thus, a healthy adult deer can usually outrun wolf packs. This biological adaption against wolves, however, goes favorable for human hunters. When a reindeer stops, hunters can easily shoot using their projectile weapons.

Cree hunters cognize this phenomenon differently than Western science. That critical point when the deer stares at them during the pursuit is read by Cree hunters as a message of self-sacrifice. They feel that the animal “offers itself up, quite intentionally and in a spirit of good-will or even love towards the hunter.” For Ingold, this is fascinating because killing doesn’t simply appear as “termination of life but as an act that is critical to its regeneration.” Situated within the Cree worldview, the reindeer feeds the community to survive.

3. Honeyguides and the Yao tribesmen. Southeast Africa is widely known for its ecological affluence. One interesting story about this place is the commensal relation of a wild bird species called honeyguides (Indicator indicator) and an indigenous group called the Yao. Despite their obvious biological difference, these two species developed a call-system for communication. Yao people are known gatherers of honey. The problem, however, is that beehives are usually hidden at the top of tall tress, safely camouflaged among branches. This makes the tracking of hives fairly difficult. This is when honeyguides help the Yao tribesmen. Since they can easily scout above high branches, looking for hives is easy for these birds.

To inform the Yao gatherers, honeyguides will make a signature chirp, and will swoop from one tree to another until reaching the hive. Years of close interaction trained the gatherers to discern the said bird sound. They can also ask help from nearby honeyguides by performing a unique birdcall, handed for countless generations. Yao gatherers will be in-charge of getting the hive when they get into the location. After extracting the honey, the birds will then feast on the remaining beeswax and grubs. On their own, honeyguides can’t open beehives. It’s a win-win scenario for all. Hmm, except the bees.

Final Thoughts…

There are moments when people realize that humanity has always been enmeshed to a larger web of life. Our existence is not only of our own but an organ of a greater ecological dynamics. From our ‘everyday cats and dogs’ to ‘our not-so-everyday wild birds like honeyguides,’ the story of human-animal relation has gone a long way. Cross-species camaraderie is not an overnight phenomenon. On the contrary, it will always be a work-in-progress. This may be a reminder that animals make us human.