Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Who needs birds anyway?

According to The Nature of Things, hosted by Dr. David Suzuki, the official stance in the neurological sciences has long been that animal minds are “black boxes,” that the existence or non-existence of thought and emotion in animals is unknowable. 

Dog owners, particularly, would always have objected. The antics of their German Shepherd when he sees the leash and collar come out is just too much like the elation in a child upon seeing mother come through the door. It's difficult to dismiss as something other than joy. The baleful look and the cowering of a dog being scolded is too characteristic of human behaviour in such a situation to be dismissed as something other than an emotion.
The documentary goes on to talk about recent research that points in the direction of rethinking the “black box” assumption. We humans have brains with left and a right hemispheres; the left controls the right side of our bodies—including our faces—and the right controls the left. But the left also houses our affective (emotional) controls and when we meet a stranger of whom we are apprehensive, we unconsciously focus on the right side of the persons face; it's where emotions first reveal themselves.

Interestingly, dogs do the same thing when they meet a person-stranger. So even if they don't experience joy, sadness, anger in the same way we do, they obviously recognize these emotions in us.

I suspect the “black box” sentiment was more a defense against the guilt of killing and eating animals than pure science. If animals experience fear, anger, joy, love in a similar way to humans, slaughterhouses begin to seem more and more like NAZI death camps. Furthermore, the bond that grows between people and their pets surely argues for more “feeling” than that between a human and a china cat.

Something we no longer practice—or are even conscious of, seems to me—is the reverence for living things and the elements that sustain them. Major world religions lack a doctrine of the interconnectedness of life on the planet; these days our relationship to living-things-that-are-not-us has been dictated by economists, lawyers and corporate entrepreneurs through manipulation of our governments.

The numbers of those who have embraced the dream of a more humane and sustainable world are increasing but we're nowhere near a tipping point. My personal hero in the struggle is Trevor Herriot and one of my favourite books is his Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. Herriot is the advocate general for the birds that lived in abundance on the Saskatchewan prairies before agricultural and industrial “progress” forced them into smaller and smaller habitats.

Like the canary in the coal mine, the elimination of species with a cavalier “who needs birds anyway” attitude is a signal of enormous loss that will both haunt and bite us back in the future.

Anyone who has seen a tiny bird's antics in protecting her nest can surely see that birds want to live; they struggle to protect their lives and those of their loved ones. What part of that can't we humans understand?

I'm grateful to CBC and to Dr. Suzuki for championing a better way to be in the world through The Nature of Things. Hopefully, more and more of us will begin to turn away from Two and a Half Men to The Nature of Things to learn about the world—but how many crises will it take to make that happen?

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