I am an animal lover. When I lie in bed at night with my husband and feel our two cats hop onto the bed and snuggle down purring, I am blissfully happy. The feeling of connectedness, of physical and emotional contact, is hard to convey to those who do not have intimate relationships with animals.
Not only cats provoke this response. One of my fondest memories from the years I had horses was going into the barn late at night, smelling that mixture of horse sweat and manure that is so delicious to horse lovers. Sometimes there would be a gentle nicker from my horse in greeting ? is there a sweeter sound? ? and sometimes only contented, basso profundo snores. I'd walk quietly through the barn, hugging this one, patting that one, delighting in feeling hot, warm breath upon the back of my neck. I'd check that water buckets were full and that all the horses were contented. I am not alone in finding something deeply soothing about walking into a barn at night, knowing all the horses are well and happy and safe, knowing you have done your best to give them a happy day untroubled by fear or hunger.
My friend Joyce recognizes the same feeling when she talks about the Bernese Mountain Dog that is part of her family. The dog is, in her words, "Just a furry mountain of love" that challenges, comforts, wrestles with, and looks after her two lively boys. Is there anything better than being greeted at the end of any day by a whirling dervish of tailwags and loving excitement?
When I ask people why they have animals, I get a range of answers, but a few themes keep recurring.
"They love us more than anyone else."
"I have always felt they understand and accept me better than anyone else."
"They keep me grounded and in touch with myself."
"I like myself better when I am with animals."
"My animals teach me a lot about my behaviors. Whether it be through training them, caring for them, or introducing others to them, they remind me of the layers and layers of social constructions we humans operate within. It's a wonderful exercise to have to communicate with a creature who doesn't recognize the same cues that you do. You have to re-learn what it means to communicate."
The habit of choosing to include animals in your life in an intimate way is universal among humans, as universal as language. Language usually receives more attention from scientists than the animal connection does, but that link is very old and very important ? a defining characteristic of humankind, in fact.
I'm not talking only about pets, though they evoke the strongest emotional response from people. Surveys show many pet-owners consider their pets to be part of the family. When a huge earthquake triggered a tsunami in Japan and the failure of a nuclear power plant, people fled their homes. Many arrived at shelters with their pets and some refused to stay if they could not keep their animals with them. So deep is the connection that the risk of death was preferable to abandoning their loved ones. In terrible times of loss and fear, people need their pets more than ever for love, comfort, and companionship.
The scientific term for our relationship with animals is cross-species adoption. It is a very rare behavior, unknown among other mammals in the wild. Why? When you offer food, warmth, shelter, or care to a member of another species, you risk depriving your own kin. Cross-species adoption is dangerous from an evolutionary perspective.
I take up this issue in my new book, The Animal Connection, and show that our connection with animals has given humans (and our ancestors) enormous adaptive advantages.
Fossil evidence shows that the animal connection began at least 2.6 million years ago, when our early ancestors first invented stone tools. Tools left telltale cut marks on the bones of our prey.
Tools enabled our ancestors to become effective predators, while skipping the millions of years other predators underwent to evolve sharp claws, keen senses, slashing teeth, and strong limbs for running. Tools were an evolutionary short-cut that greatly increased the fat and protein in our once-vegetarian diet. Tools were an extra-somatic (outside-the-body) adaptation and they put us in a precarious position.
Yes, we could take more prey and larger prey than ever before: In fact, our ancestors swiftly became superpredators, like lions, that took down animals much larger than themselves. But we lacked the physical adaptations to compete with the true carnivores for prey and carcasses. Our main defense lay in our increasing ability to observe other animals, to learn their behavior, ecology, and body language, and to remember and apply those observations to new situations.
Should I sneak up and slash off a piece of the antelope that lion has just killed? Or should I wait until the lion is sated and sleepy, dozing under a bush, risking that nothing edible will remain?
Should I pursue that baby zebra wobbling on newborn legs, or is its mother too close and too protective?
In time, knowledge and our ability to organize and use it became our most valuable adaptation. In a phrase used by John Tooby and Irven DeVore, we became consumers of knowledge: informavores.
The problem was that, although information was a great benefit, our ability to communicate it to others was very limited. If I knew something, I had no way to tell you what I knew. The selective pressure to evolve a better means of sharing information ? a faculty we now call language ? grew intense.
Though we have no direct evidence of the earliest use of words (arbitrary symbolic sounds or signs) in complex combinations, we can see when the foundation of language arose. At least 130,000 years ago, people made geometric engravings on slabs of ochre in South Africa. Beads and other objects of personal adornment ? the ancient equivalent of team jerseys, gang colors, or uniforms ? appear at about the same time. These different signs are clearly symbolic and communicative, but their meaning is obscure.
What we can decipher are the extraordinary figurative works of prehistoric art, like the paintings in the cave of Lascaux in France, the depictions of kangaroos or giant snakes in rock shelters in Australia, the delicately drawn eland and giraffe of Drakkensburg, South Africa, or the carved mammoths from Germany. None of these depictions is older than about 50,000, and most are younger. They are far more recent than the engravings on ochre, but they are far more communicative. We know what they mean, instantly: animals.
The dominant subject of figurative prehistoric art is the color, shape, stance, movement, and habit of various animals. Of all the important things that might have been communicated ? the location of waterholes or safe places to sleep, how to make shelters or tools, how to skin an animal, which plants and fruits are edible and which are not ? what was communicated was information about animals. These drawings are the signature of the origin of language in our ancestors, and they show that our ancestors spoke urgently about animals.
The most recent direct outcome of our ancient connection with animals is domestication. Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, "He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf... " And yet clearly our ancestors did, or we would have no dogs today.
Creating a domestic animal is altering the genetics of an animal by exerting control over breeding for generation after generation ? a risky and extraordinary endeavor. No one could foresee the family loving golden retriever of today when humans first began to tame a wolf. Probably the process began with cubs, but undoubtedly many turned nasty or aggressive as they matured and were killed. Many tamers trusted the tame wolf too much, or too little, for success. Nonetheless, the dog was first domesticated about 32,000 years ago.
Though the need for a walking larder is often cited as the underlying motivation for domestication, the dog shows this was not true. A madder choice of meat animal than a tamed wolf is hard to imagine. Wolves do not like to live in large groups, are slow to reproduce, and eat meat throughout their lives. Where dogs excel is as hunting companions, protectors of home and "pack," givers of warmth through cold nights, not as dinner.
Mutual understanding was the key to successful domestication, as it was to the origin of language. Values must be shared; vocabularies must be held in common, whether ideas are expressed as a word, a gesture, a snarl, or a posture. The millions of years of close observation of animals by our ancestors set the stage for successful taming and then domestication.
Those that studied their animals and perceived their needs did well, and their animals thrived; those that did not pay close attention had much sickness, bad temper, and death among their animals. With domestication, animals offered humans new and valuable extrasomatic adaptations: strength for transport, traction, or protection; wool for warmth; milk for weaning our babies; and others. These are renewable resources until, at the end of their lives, domestic animals become meat.
Skill in understanding the body language and emotions of another species can only have enhanced our communicative success with our own kind. Perhaps they were the strange fisher people from the river and you were a forest hunter from the valley with different mores and appearance. Today, we struggle with ethnic, cultural, religious, and sexual differences, not cross-species ones. However, the principle of seeking understanding and common values remains the same.
Why do we love animals? Why do we spend billions on their care and regard them as family members? Why is animal-assisted therapy so successful at alleviating a wide range of emotional and physical ills? Because we are deeply, essentially connected to animals and have been for millions of years ? because their presence in our past has made humans what they are today.