Friday, July 29, 2011

Animal Lover

A couple of years ago, I signed up with the  handle "animal lover" on a website that promptly informed me  I was violating their decency code.  It honestly took me a few beats to realize what was meant. And then, when I did, I burst out laughing, making very uncomfortable the service rep on the other end of the phone  call I had made to protest the assumption.  Eventually, he saw reason and reluctantly agreed to let  me to keep the handle. But it got me thinking (no, not about bestiality), but about how commonly we hear people  express some version of, "Oh, I'm  an animal lover," and what they mean by it.

I also had to ask myself what I meant by claiming those terms. What does it mean to be a lover of animals?

So I did the obvious thing: first tried to define the terms, beginning with animal, and the various classification schemes available. Here are just a few:

1) an·i·mal/ˈanəməl/

Noun: A living, multicellular organism that feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and nervous system, can move voluntarily,  and is able to respond rapidly to stimuli.

2)  A mammal, not a fish or a bird.

3)  Any member of the Kingdom "Animalia"

4) Adjective: Pertaining to the physical, sensual, or carnal nature of humans, rather than their spiritual or intellectual nature: animal needs.

5) The definition of “Animal” under the oxymoronically titled Animal Welfare Act:

The AWA defines “animal” as any live or dead dog, cat, nonhuman primate, guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or any warmblooded animal used for research, teaching, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet. By definition, coldblooded species (amphibians and reptiles) are exempt from coverage under the AWA. The AWA further excludes the following:

- Birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research;

- Horses not used for research purposes;

- Farm animals, including livestock and poultry, used or intended for use as food or fiber or in agricultural research;

-Fish; and

- Invertebrates (crustaceans, insects)

6) Some legal definitions (look at your particular state statute for definitions of "animal"---you may be surprised). Some states make specific exclusions:  for example,  it should come as no surprise that some states, like Alaska exclude fish.
 (According to  the appeals court in Knox v. Massachusetts Soc'y for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 1981, the animal cruelty statute that forbade "any live animal" to be given as a prize was found to  include goldfish.)   

Many states exclude whole classes of animals, such as those who  are farmed and hunted, or those who are used in research, etc. If, for example, fowl are excluded, then why would it be illegal to cockfight? 

Some state statutes define animals as "mammals."  Others as "vetebrates."  Some distinguish domestic from wild, and so on. 

Most states define "animal" as every living creature except for human beings.
But, are  human beings animals?  Let's take a look at human taxonomy:

Kingdom Animalia. Human beings are part of the animal kingdom.

Phylum Chordata. This phylum consists of animals with spinal cords.

Class Mammalia.  The human being is a mammal, a warm-blooded animal who bears its young live.

Order Primates. This order includes human beings and all apes, monkeys, and gorillas.
Family Hominidae. The hominids include human beings  and chimps, bonobos,  and gorillas.

Genus Homo. The family of man, including extinct predecessors, Homo erectus and the neanderthals.

Species sapiens. If you're able to read this, that includes you (and me, of course).

I suspect that for every person who refers to herself as "an animal lover," there are that many definitions of what animals that person has in mind.  For starters, it seems that we distinguish between "people lovers" and "animal lovers," so that a broad statement about loving animals generally presumes we are not including the two-footed versions.  But then things get a little thorny.  Often when people say they're animal lovers, could it  mean they love just certain kinds of animals? Dogs, for instance. Or horses.  Or birds.  But not pigs or rats.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, might presumably mean, in his gourmand approach,  that he loves to eat animals, even if he claims to do it thoughtfully and with a conscience,  while pondering the ethics of his actions as he devours animal bodies. He is, by his own account, unwilling to forego pleasure. Jonathan Safran Foer, who was prompted by the birth of his first child   to explore the health and ethics impact of eating animals, is willing to go so far as to become a vegetarian and realizes that it's a set of choices that one makes every day. But in his case, there is still that pesky dairy industry and the chicken egg industry to puzzle over.

So, what does it mean to "love" animals?

Let's take a  little peek at the English word "love."

Ours is a funny language. As big and sprawling as it is, with synonyms galore, we've pressed the word "love" into service to mean many things. "Love your car!" "Love that pork chop." "Love to sing." "I love you, will you marry me?" We love activities, actions, inanimate objects, and sentient creatures. It's an all-purpose word.   A language like Spanish offers more options, with specific nuances and inflections: amar, encantar, gustar, and querer.  If someone says, "Te amo," that's serious. You don't use "amar" or "querer" for shoes.  If you enjoyed a book, you might use "encantar."  I think it's okay to use "amar" for animals. "Querer" implies desire or want, which gets us back to my  earlier animal lover handle fiasco.

In truth, loving animals is a serious business. Some would claim we "love them to death."  Those who dote on companion animals, for example, by overstuffing them with  treats, or substituting  lap time for  exercise, or caging birds, may be, in fact,  satisfying their own needs and ignoring those of the animal.  Is that really love?  A traveler passing a herd of cattle in a field might remark, "I love cows," but in what way? Is it the bucolic setting that appeals? Does the traveler have a particular aesthetic affection for ruminants? Or, does the person mean he enjoys consuming milk and beef? 

Assuming the statement "I love animals," means  that she or he appreciates the beauty of fur, skin, shape, personality, habits, and so on, what does it mean then to eat,use,  and wear some animals, and not others? 

If one eats burgers, or wears leather shoes, can one really claim to love animals?  Maybe a qualifier is in order. "I'm a dog lover," but I eat cows and pigs and chickens.  What does it mean to visit zoos, but despise the wildlife so inconveniently eating your favorite plants?

It's an interesting puzzle to consider what each of us means when we say, "I'm an animal lover."  Those of us who live with critters often  utter the phrase  spontaneously.  But what responsibilities and obligations are attached to these very powerful feelings, and how do we separate those feelings when we engage in the eating of meat and dairy, the hunting of animals (many hunters will tell you they love animals), and the confining of animals for our own pleasure? 

Is it really necessary to consume animals at all, or is it just what we're used to, more convenient? 

Even as I write this, I am now thinking what I mean when I say I'm an "animal lover." I learned the term early on when my parents billed me, as a little child, as an "animal lover." Apparently this meant that I was constantly picking up toads and frogs and snakes and turtles, keeping mice as pets, sleeping on the floor with a neighbor's dog, and so on.  In some ways I think they used the term to refer to a certain fearlessness around animals they were not always comfortable with. But is that love? Certainly I have always been drawn to animals. I am incessantly curious about them, want to understand them, want to be around them, and don't distinguish among kinds of animals.  However, I have also unintentionally caused harm to animals, out of ignorance and even carelessness.  I made many mistakes over the years, some of which I still have trouble forgiving myself for. 

I don't take the self-description, "animal lover," lightly.  And as I examine my own relationship to "animal loving," I think I will try to devise a way I can ask others who announce themselves as "animal lovers" what it is they mean.  Not to challenge, but to learn.  Maybe even to expland our idea of what loving animals means in very concrete terms. How to reconcile our hypocrisies and inconsistencies.  How to say, "I love some animals, but not others." 

I love my dog, but do I love all dogs? Probably not.  Does the act of abstaining from consuming animals as food  and clothing mean I love the ones I don't eat? 

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