What Do Humans Owe Animals?

The many dangers of anthropomorphism.

Do dogs get sad?

What remains of my education is now just bits of brain flotsam, random assertions and observations that were, at one time at least, thought to be true. One of those “facts” was that animals do not have emotions. To think they did was to engage in the error of anthropomorphism, a grave delusion that marked the human who gave in to it as an unscientific sentimentalist. Animals, I was taught, could best be understood as machines covered with fur or scales or feathers, their actions dictated by instinct. I do remember thinking, as I dutifully took notes, that the experts who had arrived at these conclusions must never have had a pet. Our cat–and-dog household always seemed to be a cauldron of multispecies melodrama, the animals daily demonstrating what clearly looked like affection, anger, jealousy, joy.

So thoroughly has the idea of animals as unfeeling automatons been discredited that Temple Grandin in Animals Make Us Human and Meg Daley Olmert in Made for Each Other, two books that explore the human-animal bond, dismiss this notion in a few clauses. Though my teachers were wrong about animals having no emotions, both books are reminders that they were right that anthropomorphism can lead to all sorts of problems for human and animal alike.

Grandin, whose new book is co-authored with Catherine Johnson, has dedicated her career to improving the lives of animals by insisting that they are neither mere sources of meat nor humans in a different form. She has done so from a distinctive vantage: As an autistic person, she draws on her hard-won insights into her own atypical emotional responses to try to understand how animals experience the world. She emphasizes the importance of transcending our emotional assumptions so that we can perhaps see things from an animal’s perspective. Olmert, a documentary film producer, sets out to turn anthropomorphism on its head: Animals, she claims, have helped improve our emotional lives. She argues that the evolution of modern humans was propelled in no small part by our ancient interactions with animals and the emotional bonds that formed in the process. Her warm and furry scenario, though, opens the door to the sentimentality I was once warned against.

Grandin is a realist who does not shy away from acknowledging how exploitative human dominion over animals often is. As a carnivore who works for the meat industry, she confronts the most, well, brute fact about our bond: We eat them. She takes clear-eyed aim at two misguided, anthropocentric responses to this fact. On the one hand, she is disgusted by the endemic, often horrifying abuse of our farm animals. She documents how our hunger has led to the breeding of grotesques and mutants: animals whose bodies we have so distorted they can no longer support their weight or reproduce, who engage in behaviors such as self-mutilation because of the misery of their short lives.

But she also criticizes the animal advocates who have done so much to enable her mission. She laments that people are becoming increasingly “abstractified,” and argues that, in this, animals have something to teach us. Where the typical human brain is a machine built to generalize, autistic people and animals live in a much more concrete world. Animal rights activists, she worries, can be so caught up in their grand principles and legal briefs that they miss the real-world consequences of their absolutism. She cites the abolition of horse slaughterhouses in this country. An admirable cause, it became a case study of unintended consequences. Broken-down horses are now shipped to Mexico, where they are worked to death or brutally killed by a knife plunged into the back of the neck. Grandin believes the goal of preventing animal death at all costs will often result in a worse animal life. Her desire is a decent life followed by a painless, swift end.

Improving those lives, Grandin argues, starts by understanding the emotional needs and drives of each species and requires us to rethink our relationship with both our pets and our livestock. To Grandin a cosseted cat or dog can be a victim. Left alone all day, they are bored and unable to act on their desire to explore the world—and then we come home and their job of making us happy begins. She laments the end of the free-roaming pets of her youth: In exchange for days of stalking and sniffing, the risk of a shorter life expectancy is well worth it, in her view. She accepts that our food animals are bred for quick economic turnaround but believes the profit motive does not trump human morality: We as a species are obligated to the species we exploit. Providing a minimally acceptable existence for pigs, for example, means that pork producers must acknowledge that pigs are intensely curious. She and others have discovered that simply supplying fresh straw, which pigs find endlessly fascinating, can satisfy porcine intellectual needs.

If Grandin looks through a microscope, species by species, to determine what they want, Olmert gazes through a telescope at the history of human-animal relations to see what we have gotten from them. She is the romantic to Grandin’s realist and focuses on our emotional similarities with animals where Grandin calls attention to the distinctions. The transformation of humans from frightened prey to hunters and finally to farmers, Olmert argues, was owed in large part to the flow of oxytocin, the mammalian hormone that facilitates feelings of love, devotion, and connection. Drawing on interesting research on the social role played by the hormone, she makes the case that our interactions with animals boosted its levels in us—and in them.

Her scenario is often highly speculative, based as it is back in that transitional, lost time when humans breeched the barriers between us and the species we domesticated. Olmert invokes a new, controversial theory about the human-wolf bond that Grandin, too, briefly cites in an earlier book of hers, Animals in Translation. An array of biologists, archeologists, and anthropologists propose that one reason we are so different from other primates is that we learned much of our kinship and hunting behavior from wolves, whose transformation into dogs began a great deal earlier than has generally been supposed—some 135,000 years ago, they say, rather than a mere 14,000. Olmert describes a cozy co-evolution, in which humans became so close to ever more domesticated wolves that we suckled wolf pups (try blocking those photos, Facebook!). The release of human and wolf oxytocin during our intimate encounters made each species gentler and more nurturing toward the other.

Olmert also credits the wolf-dog that guarded human enclaves with making us smarter as a species. Finally, she hypothesizes, we could stop being permanently sleep-deprived, twitching in fear all night; thanks to long and deep sleep, our brain function improved. Other oxytocin-enabled feats of cross-species bonding followed, with the taming of the horse for travel and for accompanying us into battle and then the domestication of other animals for farming.

Olmert falls in love with her theorizing, as Grandin warns us humans are prone to do, and like all romantics, she mourns a lost, golden age, which for her features constant, intimate human-animal partnership. In her idyll, we have dogs at our sides, helping us hunt mammoths who may be running for their lives, but at least are running free. Where Grandin has devoted her career to thinking about what animals have lost in the journey from the wild to civilization, Olmert closes her account by lamenting the toll that journey has taken on humans. She speculates that we gobble mood-altering drugs because we are suffering from deprivation of the oxytocin fix animals provided. Today, the untamed beasts are kept at bay, the livestock is hidden away, and to satisfy our longing to connect with other species all we have left are our pets.

But they can provide the wholesome therapy we need, Olmert promises. She ennobles animals as caregivers whose “love” doesn’t come with all the messy complications inherent in human relationships. Olmert unskeptically invokes studies that say that pets help us live longer and better, that pets are more soothing companions than humans, and even that most pet owners care more for their pets than for any human loved one. “Animals make us better people,” she writes. But to replace the scientific fallacy that animals have no emotions with the pathetic fallacy that they have human emotions does the kind of disservice to animals that Grandin warns against. Seeing animals’ highest function as serving our needs surely doesn’t make us better people or them happier animals.