On loving animals, and how it can make you a better person

There are many ways to categorize people. Book lovers, exercise lovers, teachers, helpers, mothers, children, females, males, adults. Sometimes these categories are binding. They push a complex individual into a little box, and stop us from getting to all the complexities that make them really them. But categories can also help us to look more easily at the differences and similarities between people. They can be a tool for more quickly drawing conclusions about the world, and the people in it. With that in mind, I’d like to write a blog post on one specific category of people: animal lovers.

I’ve met many different types of people who fell within the animal loving group, and I’ve also met many people who didn’t love animals–or who had never had the chance to love them. (And by animals, I mean non-human animals. Cause we are animals too. We just like to forget sometimes). I want to use this blog as a place to speak to the benefit of loving animals–what it teaches us, and how it can help put the world in perspective for us.

Just an animal looking for some love...
Just a little animal looking for some love.

1. They teach us respect, for ourselves and for others

I’ve always been an animal lover. From a young age, I tortured all animals too slow to escape with my affection, cuddling them, squeezing them, trying to convince my parents to let me keep them. It took me awhile to learn one of the most important lessons that loving an animal has to teach: that if I truly loved these critters, I would show it by giving them some space. Taking that step back led to some of the most incredible interactions I’ve had with other living creatures. It means that instead of you controlling the interaction, they are an equal and willing participant in it. That’s an incredibly powerful thing to grasp as a kid. I remember working with a pony named Harry Potter who my trainer had picked up from an auction. He was a trembling, skittish creature, and I worked with him for months to get him used to being handled and ridden. I was always careful to let him take his time, and every time he chose to initiate with me was the most incredible feeling–I knew that he was there because he wanted to be. Small interactions like those boosted my confidence. They made me feel like I was worthwhile and worth respecting.

Alice, a critter who has taught me so much about life and love.
Alice, a critter who has taught me so much about how far taking a step back can really go.

This is a powerful notion for dealing with people. Respecting someone enough to back off sometimes (whether it be from a belief you don’t agree on, the pace of a relationship, or from requiring them to fulfill your own needs), will make you into a much better friend and partner. If you’ve ever been in an uneven relationship, you understand how stifling it can be when one person is a lot more pushy. On the flip side, if you aren’t both stepping up to make a relationship work (any sort of relationship–a crush, a friendship, a marriage), it probably means you either need a frank chat, or you need ditch them to find people who also choose to be around you. Those are the sort of people that will make you feel valuable, cared for, and respected in turn. Feeling like the people in your life want to be around you can help erase any number of insecurities, and those will also be the people who are there for you when things get rough. And if you’re having trouble finding humans who make you feel like that, then you should try making more animal friends. They do it easy as breathing.

2. They teach us empathy

It has been amazing watching Jordan get to know Chara. She's the first non-human he's been close to as an adult.
It has been amazing watching Jordan get to know Chara. She’s the first non-human he’s been close to as an adult.

It can be hard to escape from your own head. I mean, who truly knows what another person’s experience is? (This is why I love writing so much–I feel like it gets us closer than anything else). It can feel especially difficult to get out of your own skin when you’re confronted with cultures that are dramatically different from your own. Sometimes, the things that other people do feel bizarre and strange when put into the context of our own comfortable culture. If you often find yourself feeling like this, maybe you should try loving an animal.

Loving an animal, getting close to an individual within a different species, is a life-shifting thing. If you think that people from different cultures do strange things, wait until you bring home that dog from the shelter, or until you put your new horse in her stall for the first time. Every species has evolved to interact with the world differently. In a way, every species has its own distinct culture (and even those can differ from group to group within a species), and getting to know an individual gives you a peek into that world view.

For me, the most recent experience I’ve had with this has been loving our dog Chara. In my time with her, I have come to understand the language of dogs better than I ever have before. I know exactly what she means when she crouches low to the ground and waves her tail long and loose (that she’s excited to meet someone, but sort of nervous too). I know that she does tiny little corn-on-the-cob bites when she is feeling especially affectionate, or a little playful. I know that at night she doesn’t prefer the bed or the ground, but likes to rotate every hour or so. I know her as well or better than I know Jordan–after all, I have watched her grow up. I understand her past and her present. And she knows me too. She knows what I’m going to do when I put on my boots, or when I pick up her training clicker, or grab my camera.

I could go on about this forever, because knowing a member of another species like that, and having her know me, is a truly

We might eat cows, but that doesn't mean they don't have personalities that are just as complex as a horse or dog.
We might eat cows, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have personalities that are just as complex as a horse or dog.

incredible thing. But I guess my point is that before you get to know an individual they can seem like just one of many: a horse is just a horse, a dog is just a dog. You can do the same thing to people (by any method of categorization: race, religion, area they live). Jews are jews, asians are asians, rednecks are rednecks. And then you get to know a dog, or a cat, or a redneck, or a muslim, and you realize that they are an individual, not defined by this box you had initially stuck them in.

You begin to know their quirks–the things that make them unusual. The cat who loves water, or the dog who loves cats, and suddenly their world begins to expand in front of you. You realize that probably all cats are individuals, and so are all dogs. And that while maybe you didn’t like that one dog you met, there might be a dog out there whose personality is quirky in all the ways you love, and there are probably millions of dogs who you’d like just fine. (And trust me, the same goes for less charismatic species too, like cows and birds and lizards. Try getting to know one–you might be surprised).

Loving an animal teaches us that even in an entirely different species we can find things like love and humor and emotion. And I’d hope that we can take those lessons and apply them to the people who might seem strange and different at first by remembering that they too are much more complex than an initial category might imply.

3. They put the causes and effects of our environmental crisis into perspective

We haven’t treated the world nicely, and if that’s news to you, you should probably pick up a newspaper. We live in an age where our wild spaces are quickly dwindling, where pollution colors our sunrises, and where we risk changing the very climate of our planet through the burning of fossil fuels. But I think that we sometimes forget that we aren’t the only species facing these issues (some of us forget this–many don’t, and I don’t want to discredit the many who work tirelessly to make sure we remember). With habitat rapidly dwindling because of development, pollution further choking out living spaces, changes in climate, and a countless number of other environmental issues, the many species we share the world with are coming under fire because of our mistakes.

Chara says that to harm the environment, you'll have to go through her first!
Chara says that to harm the environment, you’ll have to go through her first!

And I believe that the roots of our environmental mistakes are all wrapped up in the way we perceive other animals. The idea that humans are superior over other species is one that has existed for a long time–you can find the idea plainly stated in the Judeo-Christian creation story–that God made Adam in the face of himself, and that the other species of the land were there for the resulting humans to either tend to/rule over (depending on how you translate it). With this idea, the seed of our environmental issues was planted. We have treated the world in a way that does not leave room for any species other than ourselves (and the ones we use for food or companionship). We see resources and other species only in terms of how they benefit us. To sum it up in one word, we have been selfish. We have plundered and tweaked the world so that it fits our liking, tearing down forests in lieu of malls, triggering the greenhouse effect in the name of faster transportation, dumping harmful chemicals into the land in the name of economy. How could we have stopped this? I truly believe that if, instead of using the word “progress” as our mantra, we had developed in ways that worked with the natural system–taking into account how our actions affected all the other species we lived alongside, we would be dramatically better off today.

Back to that empathy thing again…

Now, this might be where I lose you–I understand that these are pretty radical ideas that not everyone is going to agree with, and that the environmental problematic stems from a huge, mixed up ball of things, but I truly think that if we had viewed other species as just as important as our own, it is unlikely we would be in the place we are today.

It’s also too late to talk about that now–at this point, we are so entrenched in a culture that sees life as a pyramid (with us balanced at the tippy-top), that talking about what we should’ve done won’t change much. So what can loving animals do in terms of our future actions? It can make us realize exactly what we’re losing. Take an introductory biology class that gets into some of the wonders of the biological world, and you’ll begin to realize just how complex, and incredibly amazing other species can be. We aren’t the only ones who build, love, play and create. There are whole delicate systems based on the color of a flower, or the shape of a leaf. Learn about a species that has spent millions of years evolving to get a long, super flashy tail, or eyes perfectly suited for night vision, or a voice and ears that can pinpoint location exactly, and you’ll realize exactly what we’re losing every time one of those species is marked extinct. And then also remember that lemurs aren’t just lemurs, and bears aren’t just bears, but that they’re all individuals with quirks and things about them that are lovable or annoying or dangerous or helpless, and you’re one big step closer to understanding the true implications of our environmental problems. And once you understand those implications, it’s my hope you’ll also be willing to fight to prevent them.

I’m sure there are hundreds of other ways that loving animals can make us more aware of the world and ourselves, but those are the ones that stuck out to me. So, if you’re an animal lover, go give your pooch a butt scratch, or your cat a pat (if they don’t mind, of course). And if you’re not, maybe try thinking twice the next time an animal seems strange or scary. Remember that they’re just like your best friend or sister or teacher, and have a whole personality beyond the label of “dog” or “cat,” with quirks that come born of their unique genetics and experiences. If you’re really brave, find an animal to love. You might just come out of it loving yourself and your world a little more too.

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