(ORIGINALLY POSTED OCTOBER, 2010)
So I ask you… do we, as humans, have any other frame of reference to describe the characteristics or behavior of our animals?
HOW THIS THOUGHT ERUPTED IN MY BRAIN
As some of you readers may know, one of the HORSE AND MAN posts called, “The Hardest Fix” was re-posted (with some edits) in HORSE AND RIDER magazine in August. Yay!
Of course, with every article printed in a magazine, there comes reader responses. Lo and behold, in the October issue of HORSE AND RIDER magazine, there was a box devoted to the reader responses to “The Hardest Fix”. Yay again!
But, not all the responses were positive. There was this rancher’s viewpoint which I have reprinted here.
I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS FOR A FEW WEEKS
OK, I don’t want this discussion to come across as a writer (me) who has to have total agreement from readers. I’ve certainly received comments from readers correcting me or challenging my opinions. I have had readers “unsubscribe” – ouch. I know I’m not going to please everyone all the time. And, I know that even though I try really to write posts without errors, it doesn’t always happen.
SO WHAT BOTHERED ME ABOUT THIS PARTICULAR COMMENT?
What bothered me about the above remark was something that runs deep with me. He touched on what I call the Superiority of Humans towards animals. It really bugs me when people think animals deserve less from this life or this planet simply because they are not humans. And, I become really upset when humans think they can treat an animal any way they wish because animals don’t have emotion.
Besides my personal feeling about animal rights, I also felt great sorrow for this rancher’s horse and dog. I also wondered how he lived each day on the ranch without feeling the gifts of animal nature all around him… How could he feel the soft breeze or the harsh winds but not feel the contentment or the upset in the beings around him – who work so closely with him?
So, I decided to make sure I understood the definition of anthropomorphism so I could be sure to understand what the rancher was saying in his remark.
I looked it up: “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object.”
OK, is it possible to attribute characteristics in any other way other than in a human way? I, as a human, cannot attribute characteristics in an equine manner. How could I? I’m not a horse. I mean, if I say a god is a skittish or spooky god, I’m still defining it from my perspective as a human even though those descriptors we, as humans, use to describe an equine. However, those descriptors of these attributes are concocted or measured or defined from our human viewpoint. So, is there any other way to describe the behavior of an animal?
Now, I’m not saying that describing an animal through our viewpoint is necessarily correct. I’m merely saying that we have no other vantage point in which to do so.
I cannot think like a dog or equine or a god or an object. I can’t even think like you. I can only think like me. A dog can only think for himself as a dog and a horse can only think for himself as a horse. And, thereinlies the communication breakdown. That is why we humans try to put ourselves in the viewpoint of another species so that we can try to better understand them.
Was Jane Goodall using primate expressions to describe her subjects? Nope. She wrote reports in human language. And, in those reports she described the interactions of the primates using her only frame of reference.
And, I kinda think dogs and equines attempt this cross communication as well. For example, I don’t think a horse bangs on a tree or a rock out in the wild when he is trying to get another horse’s attention. And, I don’t think a dog. left to his own devices, would do tricks on his own when he wants a treat. Banging on a gate or doing a trick for a cookie are ways that our animal friends try to bridge the gap.
MAYBE THE RANCHER IS JUST SAYING THAT ANIMALS DON’T HAVE EMOTION
If animals are not emotional, why do they all come to the barn when I’m crying there? Why do they flee from a helicopter? Why do babies cry for their mothers? Why do longtime companions pine for their lost friends? Why do horses explore something in tandem? Why do they retaliate? Why do they honor a good leader?
ON THE FRONT PAGE OF MSNBC TODAY
So, as I’m writing this today, freak of timing strikes and this is the article I see:
This article is accompanied by this photo:
So, I kinda think the rancher may have his rebuttal career cut out for him… But, I don’t want to stop there because I wish to really dissect his response.
(I COULD HAVE STOPPED THE ARTICLE HERE… BUT I CONTINUED…)
ENDEARING, FORLORN, EMBARRASSMENT
First off, I need to correct the rancher in that the article said, “They always give me that endearing look”… Just to be clear, that means that the look is endearing to me, not that they have a look on their faces of endearment. However, I’m not saying that horses cannot feel endearment, but actually, I don’t think I have ever seen that look from them. I think they like me and some may love me, but they don’t look at me endearingly. My dog looks at me endearingly, but not my horses.
Anyway, more to the point. I did write that my horses gave me forlorn expressions when they were caught in a gate. And I did say that they looked embarrassed when I discovered them stuck.
Yes, those are my words to describe what I felt from them. I don’t know the equine’s terminology for that expression I was seeing on their faces and the mood I was feeling from them. But, since I am writing as a human to humans, I wrote what I felt and what I thought humans would understand.
DEGREE OF QUALIFICATION OF EMOTION?
Has the rancher never used emotional adjectives to describe his horse… is this possible? Has he never said “rank” or “sore” or “spooky” or “good” before? And, are those words just adjectives? Or, are those words the rancher’s impressions of what he feels the horse is feeling? If he has ever used those terms, I’m guessing that he crossed that emotional bridge without even realizing it…
But maybe the rancher is just limiting the range of emotions he thinks animals can possess… or more to the point, he is limiting the range of emotions he is willing to allow his horses to feel. For example, horses can feel pain and feel anger, but they cannot be hurt or frustrated…
ADDING SOME HEART
The expression that a racehorse has “heart” means what? Or other well known human terms for equine expressions would be “he’s got fire” or “fury” or “presence”. Are those emotional expressions? And, we all know that stallions protect their herds… What are these terms besides anthropomorphising?
A PRIVATE PHONE INSTALLED
Lastly, I want to address the rancher’s idea of having a private phone installed for Aladdin to call me. First of all, we know this won’t work because I have no reception down at the barn. But it is also kinda silly. After all, it is quite clearly documented that horses communicate telepathically with each other. How else would herds know which way to run? Horses have no use for phones, duh.
DEGREES OF QUALIFICATION
In conclusion, all we humans can do is put ourselves in the equine’s hooves or rancher’s shoes and try to think from that perspective — Or at least that is our job as animal stewards.
Having said that… perhaps what the rancher was really saying is that complexity of emotions in animals is a tough concept for him. Perhaps I could say that he has potentially lived on a ranch all his life and has steeled himself to all the hardships the animals endure by ignoring the effects of those hardships on his stock. Or maybe this idea of animals not having human characteristics was handed down through generations of ranching dogma. Or, maybe he lost his beloved dog as a child and has blocked out the pain by refusing to go there ever again.
Or, maybe the rancher has forgotten the single attribute of human characteristic or behavior that cannot be applied to a god, animal, or object… humanity.
As an addendum, one reader suggested that animals have more humanity than some people… And, I would agree. However, my statement above was not suggesting that animals do not have the characteristics we apply to the definition of ‘humanity’, merely saying that humanity, by definition, is a human quality.
I just wanted to say I have been reading your posts for quite some time and really enjoy them, especially Saturday’s ‘Phoblog Day’, but this is the was the best post from you so far. I thought your analysis and breakdown of this subject was spot on. I just wanted to say thank you and keep up the good work.
Welcome and thanks for reading! Yes… I have always felt this way and was surprised to learn, as an adult, that
humans were superior. I still don’t believe it. I couldn’t spend the night out in the woods… or in the sea. I’m not saying
that an elk would do well spending the night in my house, I’m just agreeing that we should respect what the animals bring to the party.
I’m a rather new follower to your blog, and I enjoy reading it every day. I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. I also feel that animals have the same right to a healthy existence as we humans do….And should be given the same level of respect, irregardless of species. A life is a life, regardless how many legs its got, or none at all!
Thanks for this introspective and thoughtful post.
This rancher could have posed his argument in a much kinder and more compelling way, but I’ve seen some of the challenges that result when people ascribe human emotional characteristics to the behavior of their horse. So many tackle training activities with little understanidng of how a horse may be trying to communicate and assume they’re being ‘disrespectiful,’ ‘vengeful,’ ‘stubborn’ or displaying other intentional tricks designed to get an emotional response from a human. Most horses labeled ‘problems’ are that way because they’re misunderstood – and a lot of this comes from someone assuming their emotions are shared by the horse.
That’s not to say that I haven’t seen horses grieve, bond with a human in a way that includes an emotional connection, adapt to confusing human cues, intuit when someone is sad or hurt and go out of their way to ‘take care of them,’ or demonstate behavior that could be described as emotional. Your reference to ‘heart,’ Dawn is a good one. Some horses are born (or bred) with heart. Started right, they’ll put forth more effort than one could imagine to to excel at a human job request. There’s a difference, though, between a horse’s ability to pick up on rider or handler emotions and being able to experience them.
Personally, I’ve encountered a lot of horses that I’ve been able to connect with in uncanny ways. It’s hard to know how much of that is body language and other equine communications tools, how much of it is intiuted by the horse on a level that may be beyond our natural comprehension and how much involves true emotional responses that could be compared with what a human feels. Still, I think people can get into trouble when they assume their horse’s reactions are comparable to human emotions.
The horses I’ve worked with over the years have taught me so much – and humbled me a good deal, moreso as I’ve aged. Mari and Joanne make some good points. Rather than trying to attribute human emotions to horse behavior, we might find our relationships with equines a lot more rewarding if we work harder to understand what they’re tyring to tell us.
Yes, we DO have other ways of relating to the behavior of other species besides anthropomorphizing it. The denotative definition of that word is fine, but the connotative point isn’t that we use human descriptors for the behavior, it’s that we attribute human MOTIVATION to it. To say a horse is skittish isn’t anthropomorphic. To say he’s nervous about, say, the next day’s competition and that’s WHY he’s skittish is clearly attributing human motivation to animal behavior. The horse has ample motivation in his environment without caring one whit about the competition. LOL He’s more likely reacting to something uniquely horsey, like high air pressure, a breeze bringing unfamiliar smells, or our own nerves causing our heartrates to soar which he can both hear and feel. We have a tendency to be ego-centric and believe that every creature shares our feelings about the world. That’s dangerous in inter-species interactions. It ignores such effects as habituation (or lack thereof) and synchronicity, which is a horse’s mainstay. Two things happen concurrently, and we can sort them out (to an extent) without attaching them as causal. A horse can’t. We need to be aware of those differences.
If we’re going to understand animal behavior, we have to separate the action from the motivation and be sure we are seeing the world through our horse’s eyes, not assuming he sees through ours. It’s not about language; it’s about learning to view the world without coloring it with our imaginations.
I am 70 years old, was raised on a dairy farm, have had horses since age 4 and dogs since birth. This extended period of being around domestic animals has provided me the opportunity for a lifetime of observing their behavior.
I would say animals exhibit more humanity than humans. They love unconditionally, are loyal to a fault, forgive quickly, feel our sorrow and do not go to war.
Horse communicate mainly through body language and instinct.
One cannot see facial expressions of remorse from an animal; what we see is their body language expressing these emotions. A horse may hang his head when sad or in pain, a dog may skulk under a table when guilty, a cat may dash into another room from fear, a cow may back away from us…. all these beings are sentient. They are capable of feeling every human emotion: joy, freedom, pain, panic, grief, fun, exhaustion, guilt, loneliness, love or attachment, etc;
Ah, I bet the rancher feels his horses are just livestock, i.e. proslaughter. We on the other hand, know that horses have feelings much like humans. They know where the feed pan is and who to come to for help when it’s needed. Horses and dogs are much more advanced than humans in many ways. Bet the rancher expects his wife to clean up after him and bring him a beer when the day is done too. Geesh.
Well done, Dawn. Animals are sentient beings with different methods of communication. We are animals too–people sometime forget that.
You rock Dawn. I couldn’t have said it better –