Life Apart From People

June 27, 2018


The bear lay on its back by the side of the highway, one paw lying across its heart and the other reaching out overhead. Its face was a mournful mask turned towards the oncoming traffic, as if judging all us passersby to be somehow complicit in its death. Even viewed from a truck traveling at highway speeds the scene had an air of overwrought tragedy about it. I’ve seen hundreds of road killed deer, and their ubiquitousness makes it harder to view them as more than scenery, even if I rationally know that their final moments were likely every bit as horrible as those of any other animal that’s been run down. So part of what grabbed my attention was the unexpectedness of seeing a dead bear. But more striking was its physical presence, its rough-furred black bulk arranged in an almost human pose of pathos.

This is a problem, this natural tendency to assume the creatures that most closely mirror us externally have a more human inner life, that they feel fear and joy and pain more fully. I say this because the more time I spend around animals the more inscrutable they become. With the pigs, for example, I am better than I used to be at predicting how they will behave in a certain situation - what will make them curious enough to investigate, what will make them scatter in panic. But look a pig in its eye, watch it nip its neighbor’s ear and then lie down beside it a moment later, and try to imagine in any sort of complete way what it is to be a pig. I don’t mean how a pig feels pain or other physical sensations, which likely are similar to ours. What I’m asking is what it’s like to be a pig on an individual, subjective level.

Part of the issue is the hegemony of language. It’s hard enough to live a few moments of human existence without filtering them through a prism of words. Trying to imagine the experience of being a particular pig, with a relationship to the world that is different than that of a human on a sensory level - low to the ground, worse vision, far better smell, all-consuming hunger - but also one that has never had these sensory inputs mediated by language.

The reason I call our propensity to look for ourselves in animals a problem is that it distracts from this deeper truth about both them and the larger world. I can’t prove it, but I believe the reason that being in nature reduces stress and that people love visiting working farms and that children will happily spend hours building a dam across a stream is because engaging with parts of the physical world which unfold with more or less indifference to human foibles provides a visceral comfort that can’t be accessed intellectually. There is a rightness obvious in watching a cow eat grass, or any other creature engage as it is meant to with its environment. Whether its taking a walk in a nature preserve, swimming in a lake, or watching a squirrel raid a bird feeder, we should be trying to resemble the way animals animals engage the world, rather than looking for the ways they happen to resemble us.

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