I’ve been told that when I meet a dog, my face lights up, but when I meet somebody with that dog, I’m not interested in the person, I only have time for the dog! It’s not strictly true, I just feel a need to make a connection with the animal more than I do with the person. One I can easily communicate with if I choose to; the other there is no obvious bond with, because we (apparently) share no common language and our physical forms are so different. So basically, one I work at, the other I don’t.
The thing is, I’m like that with just about every animal that crosses my path, not just dogs. Most young children do this spontaneously but grow out of it. I never did! I still feel impelled to create some kind of link that acknowledges the commonality of our existence. I will gesture to them, speak out loud, make sounds just to let them know that I am aware of their presence; I’ll even hold a full conversation if it’ll stay long enough and not get bored by how one-sided the dialogue may be! Am I crazy? Perhaps. But if I am, I don’t really care. That’s just somebody else’s interpretation. Not everybody is that way of course. A few weeks ago, my brother and his wife came to visit us. I gave them the full tour of our fledgling sanctuary, visiting each of the animal’s enclosures and explaining everything about them. They listened politely, but I was somewhat crestfallen that they made no effort, literal or figurative, to connect with the creatures before them. It was almost as if the experience were mundane and commonplace, when I knew full well that it was not. I guess from their perspective, they were ‘just animals’. Then last week we had visitors who (apparently) were more interested in the animals. Of course, they met a couple of dogs; but they too were able to freely interact with the horses, sheep, goats, turkeys, peacocks, alpacas and the llama. After my brother’s nonplussed reaction, I was interested to watch this group’s response to our collection of these wonderful beings. The impact was, at best, inconsistent. They were enthusiastic about the dogs, liked the lamb (but didn’t show any interest in the full-grown sheep) were seemingly admiring of, but content to regard the camelids from a discreet distance, and wanted nothing to do with the goats, who one of their party found to be a little bit scary. As for the horses, the turkeys and the peacocks, they didn’t get to meet them because they expressed no desire to.
They assured us that they had enjoyed the encounters, but again, I was deflated. I want to connect with each and every one of our extended family, every day. I never tire of it, so I couldn't understand why our visitors weren't absolutely thrilled by these encounters. I reasoned that it’s easy to be blasé about the familiar. They are, after all, ‘everyday’ animals. It's not as if they were meeting tigers or rhinoceroses. Only the alpacas and llama are even vaguely unusual.
But the thing is, being used to the idea of something doesn’t mean that you have really experienced it. We think we know and understand these creatures because they feature as peripheral background elements as we grow up. We have an awareness of them, but we don’t stop to consider how ambient our experience of them has been, or how superficial our connection with them is. Unless we have been raised or spent a significant amount of time on a farm, our knowledge of these beings is cursory at best. We may fix an image of them in our heads, but seldom have the exposure or the time to observe them. And what’s more, we don’t think it’s important to do so, so we simply take them for granted. Does it matter? Are we missing anything? “What’s to observe?” you may ask. From my perspective, only this:
Lives being consciously lived. Sentient beings trying to make sense of the world around them. Creatures with unique individuality, character and quite defined personality. Ways of existence that are different from our own, yet no less meaningful and no less important. Had I been our visitors, I would have wanted to reach out, to touch, to hold, to stroke, anything to create that connection with them. But then, I’ve always been this way. In my attempts to connect, I don’t expect the contact to be especially meaningful, but I do hope that in a world where there is so much of an ‘us and them’ mentality in every aspect of our lives, that my simple efforts may persuade the animals that there are humans who accept we all share the same world as equals; who don’t believe themselves to be superior; who don’t think it’s our planet and not theirs; who want to make it known that at some level, in some small way, we are connected. Why would I want to do this? I believe there is a natural human tendency to dismiss all that is around us that is not human, as relatively insignificant and therefore unworthy of real acknowledgement, let alone understanding, tolerance and empathy. Almost from birth we are instilled with the view that non-human planetary occupants are generally to be regarded with disdain. Such a dismissive attitude causes us to constantly ignore the simple fact that we are here to share this space. With the exception of those we choose as pets, or those we revere as 'special' or 'exotic', we are careless of animals to a point that allows us to do terrible things to them, without remorse or conscience. And by the same token, we rob ourselves of the priceless opportunity to embrace the rich experience of sharing their lives that we could otherwise have.
Yet to avail ourselves of this chance, all we need to do is open our minds, set aside any lurking fears, and be receptive to the connections we might make. And then we have to make that effort to reach out and connect. It's worth it.
PS. In case you're wondering, the photo is of our daughter Jenny, aged about two.