Are We Humanising Animals? An Animal Lover's Perspective


I often hear people complain that some animal lovers are "humanising animals". I agree to some extent. Some people don't let their dogs be dogs. They don't let them run and roll on the grass or socialise with other dogs, or they treat them like a human baby rather than a member of their own species with their own particular needs. In the case of wild animals, they assign the wrong meaning to their expressions, like when they think dolphins or monkeys are smiling (they don't smile like we do). But I've come to realise these people's definition of humanisation differs from mine most of the time. What they call humanising, I call treating animals with the care and respect they deserve.

And so they will get offended at the suggestion that members of other species have emotions as if emotions were exclusively human. They will get offended at the sight of a sick dog enjoying walks inside a pram as if being sick meant life is over for them. They will get offended that animal sanctuaries exist because, in their eyes, cows and pigs and chickens and all those other animals we treat as resources should remain resources.

Yesterday, I met a woman who feeds a cat colony. She wakes up at 5 a.m. to take care of this group of cats who live in the street. She's sterilised them. She takes them to the vet when they get sick. And like many others who do this selfless task, she gets verbal abuse from the people who live in the area.

"I feel like a criminal when I go feed them", she said. I understood what she meant. Lately, I have been feeding someone's hens because their caretaker left them without food for several days. Every time I went to give them food, I did it on the sly, as if I wasn't supposed to be doing it. This is a strange world where you get frowned upon for caring.

Those who complain about this idea of humanisation are happy with the status quo. They will say dogs belong outside and they'll have no problem putting a chain around their neck. They will claim cats are supposed to fend for themselves even though the numbers prove most of them won't. They will keep hens for their eggs and if they go without food for a few days, well, it's okay because they'll survive. They will refuse to believe animals feel fear and pain at the slaughterhouse. Their attitudes keep all these animals where they are: way below us. Not important enough to care enough.

Sometimes they claim those of us who care about other species are putting them above our own. "You care more about them than people", they say, as if there was limited capacity in our heart for compassion, as if defending their cause meant turning our backs to every other cause. What fascinates me is that often these people are the kindest, most generous human beings I've ever met, but they only offer this kindness and generosity to fellow humans. I just wish they would open their hearts a little more and extend their compassion to other species as well. 

We don't lose anything by treating other species with care and respect. That doesn't mean we are humanising them or putting them above anyone else; there should be no hierarchies in our empathy. If we want to be fair, if we want to be consistent with our moral compass, we should be treating others exactly as they'd like to be treated. In the case of other species, it starts with learning about them so we can understand what their needs are. Reading and observation go a long way. (One clue: Animal sanctuaries are a great place to start.)

“We are all animals of this planet. We are all creatures. And nonhuman animals experience pain sensations just like we do. They too are strong, intelligent, industrious, mobile, and evolutional. They too are capable of growth and adaptation. Like us, firsthand foremost, they are earthlings. And like us, they are surviving. Like us they also seek their own comfort rather than discomfort. And like us they express degrees of emotion. In short, like us, they are alive.”  ― Joaquin Phoenix

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