Google “Valentine’s Day and animals” and you will find a wealth of links to sweet photos and stories about how animals love each other; kiss, hug, and otherwise embrace; and form lifelong bonds. It’s true: there is a lot of love out there in the animal world. A friend was just telling us of his dog’s despondency and death after her elderly dog companion was put down. The same behavior has been documented among songbirds, who mostly mate for life, and may sit by the body of a dead mate for hours or days. Mammals love to snuggle against other warm mammal bodies, as seen in the above photo of two very cuddly pet rabbits I used to have.
Really, the animal world is a mixed bag, and we get into dangerous territory when we start anthropomorphizing, or giving human characteristics to, animals. Songbirds may mate for life and mourn the death of a mate, but male mallards gang rape lone females in a terribly violent way during the mating and nesting season. Guinea pigs, horses, and parrots should never be kept alone as pets because they need the companionship of others of their kind to remain healthy psychologically, but golden hamsters will fight and kill each other if kept in the same cage as adults. Even those sweet bunnies in the photo above only reached that bonded state after several weeks apart as I slowly and carefully introduced them to each other amid a great deal of aggression. Plenty of animals spend their lives in solitude and some are aggressive toward each other when together. You won’t see those photos in an online article on Valentine’s Day!
So why do we need to show animals in love? What are we trying to say about ourselves and them? Perhaps we are acknowledging our own animal nature and hoping that, if bunnies and kitties and squirrels and piglets can love each other, then we can love each other, too. This is why animal examples are so risky; some evolutionary psychologists and biological anthropologists have used the mallard and other examples to suggest that rape is a “natural” behavior among human men. Another possibility: perhaps we want to believe that the animals around us are able to enjoy love and other emotions at the levels we do, that they lead highly satisfying emotional lives, especially as our pets. This is risky as well and leads to a lot of hand wringing when we feel we are causing animals harm or not doing our utmost to care for them. I really don’t have answers to this question, but what I do know is that this view of animals and love is a construction that is highly specific to certain societies in certain places.
Take as a contrasting example what anthropologist James Suzman writes in this New York Times article about his experience with the Ju/’hoansi, hunter-gatherers who live in southern Africa and are more commonly known in the U.S. by the old-fashioned and inapt term “the Bushmen of the Kalahari”. These are people who live very close to animals and know them well because they must know them well to hunt them successfully and survive in their world. Suzman argues that they empathize, rather than sympathize, with animals:
For them animal empathy was not a question of focusing on an animal’s human-like characteristics, but of assuming the whole perspective of the animal. Their animal empathy defied verbalization. To empathize with an animal you couldn’t think like a human and project your mind-set into it; you had to “be” the animal.
But this kind of empathy did not persuade Ju/’hoansi and other hunter-gatherers to feel sympathy for animals or assume a duty of care for them. Rather it made people focus more on the non-human behaviors of animals rather than what they had in common. Among people who considered themselves to be just one of many different kinds of animal-people in a wild environment, hunting, death and pain were parts of everyday life. Human compassion did not extend to other species.
Suzman goes on to suggest that people like those of us reading this blog post or his article are different because we live in a world in which animals have evolved and been bred to please us. Our animal world consists of pets, animals trained to delight us at zoos and aquariums, round-eyed cartoon animals who make us cry and laugh, and even wildlife displayed as entertainment in nature documentaries. We think of animals in terms of what they do for us and then conclude that, doing so much for us, they must love us, and that, loving us, they deserve our love. And there we have a whole bunch of human emotions all wrapped up in our relationships with animals.
Suzman is not saying that the Ju/’hoansi way is better, and neither am I. He describes their behaviors towards the dogs who live among them in ways that, from our perspective, seem abusive or neglectful. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s entirely healthy - or good for animals - that we anthropomorphize them to the extent that we do. What I want to consider is that we interface with animals through a construction that we have formed of them and our relationship to them, a construction that has not been and is not the same in all times and places. We also construct ourselves and our view of our humanity through them, which makes me think that all of those Valentine’s Day articles on the internet may tell us a lot more about ourselves than they tell us about the animals they feature.