John Bradshaw

The Animals Among Us: How Pets Make Us Human

“Our thinking of animals has changed drastically of the last century or so.... We don't just keep pets; we seem to want to believe that they provide some kind of elixir that will allow us to lead more fulfilling lives.”

“Until one has loved an animal,” wrote French novelist and poet Anatole France, “a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Our souls have been awakened in such a way for more 50,000 years, the date, which archaeological evidence suggests, we first became fond of animals.

While our helpless love for animals is demonstrable; why, we love them (not to mention invest, sacrifice, and finance to the point of absurdity) is less clear.

Fortunately, at the intersection of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, even biology sits the new science of anthrozoology. In this wonderfully researched and thoughtfully captured book, Animals Among Us, biologist John Bradshaw sets out to answer why pets?

Our thinking about animals has changed dramatically over the past century or so. Nowadays, we accord more kinds of animals ‘rights’, than ever. Over the past forty years, the idea has emerged, seemingly from nowhere, that having an animal in the home is part of a healthy lifestyle. We view pets as the antidote to the stresses of modern urban living, as a palliative for the loneliness that comes with the demise of the extended family.

How does evolution explain the belief that animals awaken our souls? Or a recent Gallop poll that found 44% of U. S. cat owners wouldn’t part for their pet for less than $1 million dollars? We are helplessly devoted to pets. Surely the survivalist in us would select out of these ridiculous habits to spend resources more wisely.

We might look at pet keeping as no more than an evolutionary accident that’s never been selected out, because, while we may indulge in it when we have surplus resources at our disposal, we can abandon the practice whenever it becomes a problem. […]

In other words, we haven’t devolved from our earliest needs of using animals for food and skins because there has been no real harm to outweigh the benefits. (For those griefing, the benefits of owning a pet can be transformative).

Until something of a plague occurs, (which is less likely in cats and dogs than say pigs, or chimps or even birds because we aren’t susceptible to the same pathogens) owning certain pets hasn’t really been a problem. Keeping rats, for example, just isn’t done in most countries. Without the Black Plague, would rats be more attractive?

Bradshaw goes even further and suggests we have actively selected for pet ownership: “people who were naturally good at taking care of animals left more descendants than those who excelled at hunting them.”

Of course, the stereotype of the “crazy cat lady” a woman bereft of society except cats contradicts this notion. There is something of our modern obsession of pets that exists outside evolution. If the book falls short it is in Bradshaw’s inability to address this convincingly. He tries, “Any health benefits that result from ownership of a dog we can plausibly ascribe to the relaxing effects of exposure to green spaces,” but that doesn’t’ explain why people who live in city apartments walk their dog to the nearest cement-surrounded tree, while remaining on their phone, only to return indoors, find this ownership worthwhile in the long run.

Fido’s personality does everything to make him wonderful, but will the children of that family – if there are any – also want a dog? Although evolution works in a cadence of millennia, not decades.

I think our modern obsession with pets addresses, first and foremost, our current loneliness and separateness from each other and from nature. Which is not a humanity thing, it is a civilization thing.

There might just be a time when we decide as a civilization that pet ownership is most costly than the benefits and a new generation suddenly decides, no pets! But let’s not forget the animal’s co-evolving to make themselves useful and attractive. As those who have opened their souls to pets know, we might think we’re in charge, but we’re really not.

Whatever happens, it is and always will be human to have a deep bond with animals. As Douglas Adams wrote in Last Chance to See his journey to discover critically-endangered species like the Rwandan Mountain gorilla and New Zealand kakapo: “The world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.”