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The Human/Animal Relationship

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As ‘subjects of human activity as well as objects of human curiosity’ (Ritvo, 1987 p. 11), animals attract all sorts of people; the old and young, rich and poor, man or woman. In Britain, especially, there appears to be an important socio-historic reasoning for this. With the rapid urbanisation of the 16th Century onwards, people were no longer living alongside animals in the countryside and while animals were still prominent in cities, man had to develop new relationships with them as a result of this new environment.

Thomas (1983) asserts that ‘between 1500 and 1800… there occurred… changes in the way men and women… perceived and classified the natural world around them… new sensibilities arose about animals, plants and landscape’ (Thomas, 1983: 15). While Ritvo (1987) focuses on the human/animal relationship of the Victorian times only, she corroborates this change but in association with the legal status of animals.

Prior to the nineteenth century animals were held responsible for their actions and once this was abolished their moral responsibilities were displaced to owners, a reflection of the more scientific mentality that accompanied the Enlightment, Before this change in legal stance, animals were often thought of as representing the power of nature but as technological advancements rendered nature increasingly under the control of humans it became less and less of an adversary until it could be viewed upon with affection and even nostalgia (Ritvo, 1983).

Thus, sentimental attachment to those mammals that humans were interacting with most became widespread and is still special today, worldwide as much as in Britain. This emotional bond has also led to an animal-discourse in which humans use animals as an expression of themselves. The fact that mammals are very similar to us and occupy the same space we do infers we identify more readily with them than with fish or birds, for example, and this strengthens our use of animal metaphors to express human concerns.

These are, however, commonly derogatory terms of abuse or disdain such as ‘you pig’ (Leach, 1972). As the Mammal Society also comprises of those under the age of 18, it seems true that they especially have a fondness for mammals. This is not only because animals can be cute and cuddly, but according to Freud this represents an innate recognition and he points out ‘they no doubt feel themselves more akin to animals than their elders, who may well be a puzzle to them’ ( as qouted in Fudge, 2002: 70). This is also intricately linked with the extensive use of animals in children’s literature.

Fudge (2002) depicts three situations where anthropomorphism in books offers different possibilities for our relationship with animals. ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is the most extreme where we forget that the animals are animals; we readily accept that the characters are humanised animals (or animalised humans) and that they speak our language, thus making them our equal. ‘Charlottes Web’, on the other hand, presents a slightly more troubling anthropomorphism.

Here, Charlotte is the only one who can understand the animals and it begs us to question ‘if we could hear animals speak to each other could we still do what we do to them? Upon hearing of his daughter’s barnyard conversations, Charlotte’s father relates it to her healthy imagination but also suggests that ‘maybe our ears are not as sharp as Fern’s’ (Fudge 2002. p. 73). This evokes a sense of loss, a recognition that adulthood brings with it a distance from the natural world, i. e. where dominion takes place such conversations cease to occur. Lastly, ‘Lassie Come Home’ does not present us with any talking animals but the narrator instead provides us with translations into our own language.

The narrator can thus see into the minds of both the humans and animals, effectively giving them a thought process and fulfilling the human desire to be able to read the minds of animals. The connection between man and animal is such that the past two decades have even seen the invention of xenotransplantation and transgenesis; the transplantation of animal organs and tissues to terminally ill people and, the transfer of genes from humans to animals (and vice versa) respectively (Papagaroufali 1996).

Countless other examples strengthen the idea of this bond and likeness even more, such as vegetarianism, the use of animals in fables, and the vast number of animal rights groups around the world, each of which represent various intricate connections between us and them. Despite this closeness, however, the relationship between man and animal is problematic. The narrow, occasionally even permeable, boundary illustrated above can at the same time be severely stretched by the conflicting perception of animals as objects.

Fudge (2002) notes that alongside the closeness there is a fear which manifest itself as disgust and which we overpower through control and domination. While animals are the recipients of this, Fudge argues that it is not a problem of the animal but that of the human. We are appalled that there is a kinship between us and them (one that is clearly, to some extent, the result of our own desires and making) and we wish to rid ourselves of it. In no example is this distance as apparent as with vivisection, the intentional torture of animals for our own benefit.

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