Peter Rock   People and Animals  
photo of Peter Rock


tiger kitten

  Like the protagonist in Carnival Wolves, I once worked as a security guard in an art museum. I found this job--where I was not supposed to touch anything or talk to anyone, where the only real measure of success was a complete lack of change--to be very alienating and dehumanizing. Even at the end of my workday, outside of the museum, I had a difficult time surfacing; I found myself uncertain what to say to people, or how to understand the things they said to me. My ability to communicate and interact atrophied.

Another occupation I had, working as a ranch hand, also involved much isolation, though in a different way. Whether teaching a calf to drink from a bottle, getting sheep to use gates, or helping a cow give birth, I struggled to make myself understood. The noted autistic author Temple Grandin is able to empathize with animals, to know what will frighten them and how they will make sense of the world. I did not share this advantage.

The frustrations of working with animals had parallels, I believe, in my attempts--both social and written--to communicate with and understand other people. The humility I learned has informed my work and my life; it has changed both the way I attempt to reach my readers and the way I try to live.

Early in my life, someone told me that people could be judged by how they treat animals; this has generally been good advice. We all find it easier to trust someone if we witness them being kind to an animal, if they've earned an animal's trust. I've often noticed how much more likely one is to approach and begin a conversation with a stranger if the stranger is accompanied by a dog. Hitchhikers with pets enjoy much better luck getting rides.

Speaking of a time in American Indian myths before people and animals became distinct beings, Claude Lévi-Strauss said, "No situation seems more tragic, more offensive to heart and mind, than that of humanity coexisting and sharing the joys of a planet with other living species yet being unable to communicate with them." Part of our sympathy for animals may lie in the fact that we cannot speak with them. We are forced to anticipate their needs, to guess at their desires. We expect and are willing to do this work.

The struggle to understand animals is a noble one, and sympathy for other species is never ill-spent; it is interesting, I believe, to wonder how much light this dynamic sheds on our interactions with other people. We assume the ability to communicate with each other, and this assumption absolves us of some responsibility; it allows us to take less care in our attempts to understand and make ourselves understood.

People are quick to express outrage, and rightly so, whenever animals are the victims of violence. Is our cruelty to each other somehow more acceptable than that to animals? Here in Philadelphia, shelters for abused animals outnumber those for abused women by a ratio of three to one. Often, human victims do not readily find sympathy, mostly due to our misguided belief that they should be able to communicate their pain and escape their situation without help. Perhaps this communication should not be taken for granted. Would we become more humane people if we treated each other like animals?
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Copyright © 1998 Peter Rock.

Photo of Peter Rock copyright © Frank Oudeman.