We’re Not So DifferentPosted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on May 14, 2009
I spend more evenings than I’d care to admit trying to divine what my dog and two cats are thinking. It is a never-ending source of amusement for me to watch them relate to each other, and to me, and see how they motivate and manipulate each other. For example, my dog Eve, a white and tan Queensland heeler mix, likes my cats, Malinki and Johnny Rotten. But when she is snoozing on the couch she doesn’t want them anywhere near her. The cats, meanwhile, never seem to get that. So, last night I watched the mounting drama as Johnny Rotten, true to his name, endeavored to cozy up to a sleeping Eve. He approached and sniffed at her from a short distance without a stir. He then began his kneading on the blanket Eve was sleeping on. (I learned that cat “kneading,” where they press with alternating front feet, is also known as “pressy-paws.” Whatever it’s called, when they do it on your person with claws extended it’s really annoying.)
Finally, Johnny Rotten moved close to Eve and brushed up against her, hoping, no doubt, to soak up some of her body heat. Eve’s eyes snapped open, and in one quick movement she threw her haunches away from the intruding cat and spun her head around to issue a savage-looking snapping growl. The message was clear: “Don’t freakin’ touch me!” Always bold and unflappable, Johnny Rotten held his ground, testing her resolve. Eve repositioned a little further away and peace was restored. They slept close together (but not touching!) the rest of the evening.
This was a pretty minor and straightforward communication, but over a lifetime of watching my own menageries of rescued animals I have learned many basic truths first-hand that I sometimes take for granted. For example, they have the same basic needs and desires that we have. They need food and water, of course, and to be warm or cool depending on the weather. They also like creature comforts, preferring my couch to the carpeted floor. And most seek out companionship and affection. I have not met a dog yet who doesn’t melt when I give them a face and head rub.
They need to play and have a sense of fun, sometimes creating fairly elaborate games. And they have a sense of fair play and justice (something I’ve always known but that science has just recently “proven”). Basically, all the things that we claim to need or desire, we share with cats, dogs and all other mammals, really. And that’s basically it; we enjoy each other’s company because we “get” each other. We can recognize shared mammalian wants and needs. Beyond that, of course, are the individual subtleties of personality and the traits that make dogs, cats and humans. All the animals I’ve ever known are certainly as distinct as all the humans I’ve ever known.
All of this commonality makes me ponder the question of why humans seem to cling so desperately to the differences between us and them. In levels of behavioral complexity there is a spectrum, but the similarities overwhelm the differences in the important matters.
Perhaps our species’ need to find differences between “us” and “them” is based in ancient, and now irrelevant, rivalry or, perhaps, in seeking justification for our often cruel exploitation. Whatever the reasoning, or lack of, the truth is that we are not so different. But our choice as a society to focus on the differences has created an artificial wall (reinforced in our laws) that robs all of us of exploring our similarities rather than exploiting our differences. Personally, immersing myself in our similarities is something that has brought more of a sense of joy and wonder to me than anything else.