Mirror, mirror, it’s time to be kind…

Posted October 01 2021
As I sit here to type, my thoughts and gaze are hijacked by a slight whooping sound that is coming from beneath my desk. It is a sound I am all too familiar with when I don this position.

Looking down to my left, I spy its source, as a wry smile becomes my mouth and Ruby whoop-whoops some more. Then her loud, old-lady snores stop, giving way to a twitching of her legs, her eyes darting about beneath her almost-closed greying eyelids and her cheeks puffing – oh, how gloriously they do so. She’s dreaming.

And if I had an MRI scanner nearby (which I alas do not), chances are, inside her sweet head I would see her neurons firing off this way and that to reveal her dreaming in much the same way we humans do.

Dreams that are connected to her actual lived experiences – perhaps to the encounter she had today with little Calvin Swine, her newest best buddy and constant source of me having to take her to him just to make sure he was ok; or maybe she is reliving when she set off to bury her treat just shy of the barn as she is so wont to do (a secret source of delight, though, for our wandering resident porcine, Aristotle); or perchance she was taken back to one of the many times, in her younger years, when she would race madly off down our fenceline after a car that just drove past HER road.

And whilst it is best to let sleeping dogs lie, there is no better time than now to follow their lead and put to bed the notion that animals do not dream, and moreover to understand that their world, just like ours, is driven by emotions – emotions of joy, happiness and delight; of fear, anxiety and dread; and all points in between.

And whilst many may be hostile to the thought that emotions exist in animals, they are more and more nudged there, not only by the gentle snout of their beloved pooch but science too. For emotions are not a bonus that has been randomly bequeathed to our species, and ours alone. They are the gifts of our shared ancestors that are still with us today. Linking us together, they shape who we are and how we live.

Charles Darwin readily posited that emotions played an essential role in evolution, guiding both behaviour and survival of species, and cited that the differences between human and animal were in degree, not kind.

That we have traditionally measured animals by yardsticks of our making, by which they so often fall short, says far more about who we are than they. Which suggests that perhaps it is we who fall short. But what if they were to measure us by theirs? Just how would we fare?

The mirror reflection test is one that is often used to determine self-awareness in other species, with only a handful passing. But perhaps this too is a reflection of us – although some animals may not understand reflection, they most certainly understand who they are, and who they are meant to be.

All too often I hear someone say of a pig or a sheep, “Oh, they think they are a dog”. But how can one know this with certainty? Such a statement shows a lack of understanding of dogs, pigs and sheep. It speaks more to the compartments into which we have conveniently confined these species, and which we fear they may escape lest we have to look into that mirror and see ourselves as more self-serving and less than kind.

Who is it to say that a pig cannot happily sleep inside on the couch, love trotting along beside their human and delight in going for a walk or exploding with virtual thunder and woof-woofing up the paddock in delight or fright (the tone of their woof-woof speaking of the emotion they are expressing)? Or for a sheep to respond to their name, relish a good old back scratch or even offer a hoof shake in greeting?

That pigs and sheep have been able to literally step outside the boxes into which our kind has traditionally consigned them, that of being production animals, speaks eloquently of their adaptability. And that they can do so with such diversity of expression speaks both to their individuality and intelligence.

To not understand this is not only their loss but ours.

It is a loss to our humanity that has seen our species ruinously alter the landscape of our environment and her animals to suit ourselves. We have turned our relationship with certain animals into battlefields on which they are the unwitting combatants. Devoid of defences against the many unkindnesses we send their way, either by direct force or legal (and sadly illegal) disregard, they languish, waiting for us to see them. To truly see them, and in doing so to see ourselves.

Animals are indeed the windows to our soul, and how we treat them is an echo of who we are. In looking behind their eyes and form, we can see so much of ourselves. Wants, desires, hopes and loves are an ever-present reminder that although we may be human, our duty should always be to be humane.

Ruby now is stirring; perhaps it is time to go check on Calvin or find that hidden treat. And in her awakening, she reminds us it is time to do so as well – to be better versions of ourselves. To reignite that long-held fascination with animals our ancestors had, to wag our tails wildly, and to look deep into that mirror and recognise that we are all a part of this great, wonderful, vibrant and diverse animal kingdom, where no-one should be king except kindness.

And what better time to do so than now? October 1–7 is Be Kind To Animals Week.