I have never liked the word “humanity”; I think it’s biased. It implies that only humans can have humanity, and I think that isn’t true. I believe in the humanity of animals.
Coming from a zookeeper, this is a risky statement to make. We are taught, and rightly so, not to anthropomorphize the animals we work with: not to think of them as “cute” or “loving” or “mean-spirited”. This leads to assuming these behaviors can be controlled, and that is a dangerous thought-process to take with wild animals.
I’m not an idiot. I know that the pythons I held during snake shows weren’t curling around my waist to hug me: they were wrapping around to expose themselves to my body heat. I know the tigers don’t follow me from the other side of the fence because they love me; they hear my keys and associate the sound with their dinner. I know the red pandas don’t let me pick debris from their coats because they want to be pet; they’re just too busy eating their treats to pay attention to me.
And yet, I also know that these animals are a lot smarter than they are often given credit for. They may only be doing something for their own gain, but they show a conscious thought-process in the way they go about doing it. Like the zebra who sometimes grabs carrots too quickly from me and ends up pinching my fingers. I’ve noticed that, after I show pain, he takes the carrot from me much more gently the next time; it certainly doesn’t do him any good if I’m too afraid to feed him. And the spider monkey who screams at any men standing near me; his fits of “jealousy” at least get him the attention he was probably looking for in the first place. And, of course, the myriad of dogs and cats and other domesticated pets I’ve owned who seem happy when I get home. Maybe they’re just excited because they know I’m the one who’ll feed them and take them out to explore and groom them as they sit on my lap. Maybe it’s nothing personal. But what is “personal”, anyway? As a person, don’t I search for others to make me feel secure and comforted? And, once I’ve found these people, don’t I respond to them in kind?
I’ve taken entire classes on altruism and symbiotic behaviors, and I’m not out to debate what makes a human a human and what makes an animal a brute. But I’ve seen plenty of conscious brutality in humans, and I’ve seen animals behave with what would be called “humanity” were it a person exhibiting that behavior. I’m not going to assume that the bear I come across in the middle of the road would take pity on me and leave me be; but I wouldn’t say the same about some guy in a back alley, either.
While I don’t believe animals are human-like, I believe in the beauty of the behaviors and goals we all share.
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