Is it dead? Or not?

Most of us have some idea about what life is and what, or when, death is although the latter is a concept that has changed over time with scientific development.

In terms of life, a lot of high school textbooks go with movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition.  There are always exceptions, possibly designed just to annoy those high school teachers… But it works as a basic idea.  Apparently, NASA’s definition is that ‘Life is something that undergoes Darwinian evolution’ (Dr Louisa Preston quoted in Death on Earth).

Defining death intuitively feels like it should be straightforward… In the past, your heart stopping would be the end of your life but today we have CPR and technology that brings the possibility of being revived.  If your body cannot function for itself, you may be considered dead, or you may be considered brain dead and be reliant on machines to keep your body alive.  Where is the defining line in these cases?

Jules Howard adds further complicating examples…

“Consider those creatures that undergo cryptobiosis, able to survive for long periods as lifeless shells or hardy eggs.  Consider, for instance, the tiny sexless metazoans that live in birdbaths (among other places), the bdelloid rotifers, which expel all water from their bodies and form a hard stone-like ball when their puddles dry up… They can last for seven years in this dehydrated state.  They undergo no growth or metabolism, nothing life that, in all that time.  They are surely not alive in this state… but they are surely not dead either.  They might revive.  And then there are the sea monkeys (brine shrimps), which can undergo cryptobiosis like bdelloid rotifers but for far longer, perhaps for centuries in some cases. Not all of these dehydrated life forms will find water.  Many of them may blow away or be buried in places without water, and many will break down over years or decades, eroded by the elements.”

With these cases, when did the organism finally die?  Wood frogs are another weird case, seeming to die and be revived each winter:

“Wood frogs stop breathing and their hearts stop beating entirely for days to weeks at a time. In fact, during its period of frozen winter hibernation, the frogs’ physical processes—from metabolic activity to waste production—grind to a near halt.”
National Geographic

To throw another spanner in the works, let’s have a look at a case involving a zombie caterpillar…

Trees have developed tactics to win the war against pests, and some can influence parasites into attacking caterpillars.  The tree influences the rate that caterpillars are infected by baculovirus.  Once infected, the baculovirus enters the caterpillars gut and multiplies before overwhelming the entire body.  The caterpillar swells because of this internal flood of the virus.  The virus then manipulates the caterpillars behave, in a way that zombie writers would be proud of.  The growth cycle of the caterpillar is halted and the caterpillars mind is essentially taken over.  Instead of carrying out normal caterpillar behaviour, they seek out light, struggling up the treat and eventually burst.  This is great for the baculovirus as it creates a virus shower that covers the tree, the leaves and all the other caterpillars who live there… Baculovirus 1 – Caterpillar 0.

Does the caterpillar die when it explodes?  Or does it die when it’s mind is taken over by the virus?  Or when it gets infected?

If we return to the school definition, the caterpillar is moving, respiring but is no longer growing or reproducing and I would have questions about whether it is sensitive any more…

Given that there are over 100,000 species of parasitic wasps, compare that to the less than 10,000 species of mammals, the case of the zombie caterpillar becomes important to our question about when is death.  And spoiler alert, I probably won’t be answering that question…

Aside: If you want to explore a related question, why death is, then I recommend Death on Earth.

It seems like viruses may well be making zombies out of all of us.  Apparently if you are infected with the flu, but aren’t showing any symptoms, you are more likely to engage in social activities and hence spread the virus.  The rabies virus changes personality and causes aggression which again helps it move hosts.

Toxoplasma is something that cat owners may be familiar with, at least on an intimate level, possibly unawares.  It loves cats because the only place they can have sex is inside the cats digestive system.  This means they have to get from current host to cat, and they do this by manipulation.  If they’re in a mouse or a rat, for example, they control the host’s behaviour and turn animals which are fearful of cats into animals that seek out cats.  They travel further, explore more and have less anxiety about unknown or dangerous situations. Ultimately, toxoplasma is hoping the host will get eaten by a cat, turning the host suicidal.

“Animals, on the whole, don’t kill themselves unless their parasites want them to.”
– Howard

Just for fun, let’s have a look at some of the other zombies that are currently making our planet their home…

There is a type of parasitic barnacle that sets up home in a crabs reproductive system, cutting off all chance of the crab reproducing.  The barnacle has such power over the host that it can cause a male crab, who doesn’t normally take care of eggs, to care for the barnacle as if it was a brood of eggs.

Ants and caterpillars can get taken over by fungi, essentially becoming a fertilizing, transport vessel.

And for one final example, there are cicadas who end up pumped full of hallucinogenic drugs and have to face the horror of their abdomens falling off…  Despite this, males then become hyperactive and hypersexual.  Personally, sex is the last thing that would be on my mind if half my body had fallen off…

I’d love to know your thoughts about the when is death question.  Until I started looking into zombie creatures, I’d not really thought much about it.

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How we mourn (some) animals

If you have had a pet, it is likely that you know how strong the bond between human and animal can be, and how painful the death of a pet can be.  Some people have even said that they feel a greater loss when they lose a pet to losing a human loved one.  Either way, in the 21st century, the loss of a pet is often seen as akin to the loss of a family member.

With grieve tends to come a desire for ritual and remembering.  Whilst these paths are generally societally proscribed when it comes to human loss, when it comes to pets there is more freedom to choose what seems right to you.  This is reflected in the growing pet death care sector.

Options when your pet dies include: freeze drying your pet, pet cemeteries, taxidermy, cremation, burial in the garden, skull on mantlepiece, leaving them in the wood biostyle, funeral/wakes and much more.   You can choose to turn your beloved’s remains into jewellery, tattoos or artworks.  For the death itself, if a pet is being put to sleep, home euthanasia can be more personal but more expensive.  And the price of the after death options don’t come cheap either.

 “For some grieving pet owners, the combined costs can climb into the thousands—though for most, still below the $7,000 to $10,000 median human funeral cost. But while the options were once limited to burial in a backyard or abandonment at the vet’s for disposal, pet owners now can access a spectrum of services that rivals—and sometimes exceeds—those available to humans.”
Atlas Obscura

To help you through the grief there are apparently how social workers and counsellors who specialise in the mourning of pets.  There are classes for vets to attend to help their human clients with grief and pet psychics who can communicate on behalf of your pet to provide you with reassurance.

As I explore a couple of key options for pet death care in upcoming posts, we’ll see that the idea that pets can be legitimate objects of grief is becoming much more wide spread.  That’s not to say that it’s uncontested, but it does reflect a changing status of pets as more than objects.

There will be a short break in blog posts but when I come back, I’ll have a look at pet cemeteries, pet obituaries and a couple of other options and what they say about the status of pets and the meaning we imbue our animals with.  And note I say pet.  Animals are not all deemed worthy of grief and being mourned for and I aim to unpick that idea a little further.

What happens to animals when other animals die?

Before leaping into how we experience animal death, I wanted to take a quick look through the eyes of non-human animals.

“There is no question that animals grieve.”
– Marc Bekoff

“A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that nonhuman animals are aware of death, can experience grief and will sometimes mourn for or ritualize their dead.”
Jessica Pierce

Grieving animals may withdraw, seek time alone and not respond to attempts to draw them out.  They may sit, staring into space.  They may stop eating.  They may lose interest in sex.  They may attempt to revive their lost friend or relative.  In other words, they react to the death of a loved one as we do.

Grief is interesting as there is no evolutionary purpose to it.  In fact it goes against the behaviour we engage in to continue our species; it does not aid reproductive success and it can end up killing the affected individual.  There are cases where it seems an animal has died of a broken heart but even if we take those out of the equation, the behaviour of grief – not eating, not moving etc – opens up the individual to risks which could result in death.

“Some theorize that perhaps mourning strengthens social bonds among survivors who band together to pay their last respects.  This may enhance group cohesion at a time when it’s likely to be weakened.  Whatever its value is, grief is the price of commitment, that wellspring of both happiness and sorrow.”
– Marc Bekoff

In addition to grieving behaviour, we see ritualistic activity that could be described anthropomorphically as a funeral.  We know gorillas hold wakes, baboons seek comfort from friends after a death and there have been numerous cases of elephants showing concern for dead relatives, and even extending this beyond their family to nonrelatives.  Without this become a list of observed displays of what might be grief, I want to add that wolves, foxes and llamas have been seen grieving.

Corvids have been said to hold funerals, and it’s certain there is some prescribed behaviour surrounding death although we cannot know their motivation.  Some suggest it is a grieving process with others suggesting the birds are trying to understand why and how their friend has died.  Either way it suggests an awareness of the concept of death.  Magpies have even been observed laying grass over their dead comrades.

“We can’t know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there’s no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend”
– Marc Bekoff

 

Of course, the easiest animal grief to see is that in pets.  It is not unusual to hear people talk about how a pet grieved for another pet when it died, or there are cases where pets have died after their owners have passed, seemingly not get over their loss.

It is currently impossible to know where the line between accurate understanding of animal behaviour vs anthropomorphism lays but I am inclined to agree with Marc Bekoff and return to where I began in stating that

“There is no question that [at the very least some] animals grieve.”

Reading:

Animals and death

In this post I’m going to highlight a few topics around animals and death which will be explored in more detail in later posts.

 ‘Animals become extinct. They are also killed, gassed, electrocuted, exterminated, hunted, butchered, vivisected, shot, trapped, snared, run over, lethally injected, culled, sacrificed, slaughtered, executed, euthanized, destroyed, put down, put to sleep, and even, perhaps, murdered’
Animal Studies Group

One of our most common interaction with animals, is through death.  We kill them to eat, to wear, for leisure and yet we also distance ourselves from animal death.  We call dead pigs pork, dead cows become beef, we take our pets to vets to have them put down in a clinical setting.  This isn’t all that surprising given how much we distance ourselves from human death – we get the body ushered off as soon as possible to be tended to by professionals and so on.

When talking about animal deaths, it’s important to note that, like in life, animals are not equal in death.  There are some which die without comment and others which we mourn and grieve for like kin.  We accept some animal deaths through wilful ignorance and justify others by putting human needs above animals.  Diana Donald noted that ‘perhaps the absolute basic distinction is between those kinds of killing that are wilfully invisible, removed from the consciousness of the perpetrators and excluded from the sight of anyone else, and those that are in some way commemorated or represented?’

We have selective empathy and that can be turned on or turned off depending on how we categorise animals; Are they useful to us? Are they wild or tamed?  Are they physically similar to us?  One simple example of this animals that are killed on the roads.  The reaction to roadkill versus the reaction to pets being hit by cars.  Another example to think about is the difference between swatting a fly and kicking a dog.

The majority of the animals we kill for meat are invisible.  They live and die out of sight, behind closed doors.  These are animals which only exist so they can die, for us.  And yet in contrast with these invisible, distant animals, we are living incredibly intimately with a different group of animals, namely our pets.  We share our houses and even our beds with our furry friends and this intimacy is reflected in how we feel when our beloved pets die.

The idea of who is grievable is cultural specific.  In the UK today, most people see pets as uniquely grievable within the animal kingdom whereas in Japan, ritual mourning for animals has been going on for thousands of years and was necessary to appease the spirits of the animals they hunted.  This respect for animals and the rituals around the kill is found in other hunting communities and often is part of thanking the animal for giving their life.

As is clear, killing animals doesn’t happen in a bubble, it happens in a society with particular attitudes and perceptions of the animals.  Quite often this is a society or culture in which man has dominion over nature and killing animals reinforces this hierarchy.  Hunting, and then killing, can bring with it status and thus the act of killing is imbued with meaning.

“It is possible to argue that the killing of animals deconstructs, redefines, or reshapes the social order between humans and animals… in the case of human-animal relations, the human need and ability to kill animals and the general acceptance or tolerance of the violence of killing is fundamental to the creation of the social order between these sets of creatures; such killing constructs, defines, and shapes this order.”
Garry Marvin

So, that’s a bit of a taste of what I’m hoping to look at in the next few posts and hopefully it gives you some ideas and concepts to mull over.  I will specifically be looking at who is grievable and how we mourn for (some) animals as well as any other rabbit holes I fall down!

(Also, an apology if this isn’t as coherent as normal, or has mistakes, I’m not on top form so it’s not been as carefully edited as normal.)

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Moles

“Of all the animals the magi hold moles in highest regard … they give credence to no other entrails as much, and they credit no other creature with more supernatural properties, so that if someone should swallow the heart of a mole, fresh and still palpating, they promise the power of divination and foreknowledge of future events. By removing the tooth of a living mole and binding it to the person, they claim that toothache can be cured.”
– Pliny The Elder

Moles have a strange place in our consciousness.  We are all aware of them, we talk about mole hills semi-frequently, and yet how many of us have actually seen the mole itself?  Like the iconic iceberg, we tend to just be aware of the surface.

Moles, the ones who throw earth, the ones who turn soil.  Heaps of soil appear overnight, seemingly out of nowhere, a physical presence of these ghostly, otherworldly creatures.  These characteristic piles of soil are what the mole has thrown to the surface whilst excavating their extensive network of tunnels.

But what actually goes on down there in the dark, damp world of the mole?  They spend their time burrowing around, a lifestyle they are well adapted for with their squat figure and their powerful front feet that are shaped like shovels.  Indeed, moles are incredibly strong for their size and can apparently easily burst open a human fist from inside.  Despite only being about 15cm long, they can move up to 540 times their own body weight of earth, and tunnel up to 200 metres a day.  Their adapted body has become streamlined and unlike most mammals, it doesn’t hold it’s tummy off the ground, instead it has a very thick, tough skin there for protection.  Other specialised equipment on this velvety critter includes a highly sensitive nose that is used both to smell and feel.  Handily for underground life, their velvety black fur is water repellent and can also lie each way (so when they are going backwards it doesn’t jam them in the tunnel).

They have a small, seemingly insignificant tail which plays an important role in navigation – they carry it vertically and use it to feel their way along tunnels and is especially useful if the mole has to reverse for any reason.  The tail is so effective at this that they can run backwards almost as fast as they can forwards.

Whilst it is commonly believed that moles are blind, they can actually see movement and distinguish light from dark.  To have large eyes would be a disadvantage for the mole as they would fill with dirt and given their subterranean lifestyle, they don’t need them.  Especially as they are wonderfully adapted for their world.  As well as their build, their senses and their strength, moles have a greater proportion of red blood cells than other mammals and this means they can live in low oxygen areas.  They also reuse exhaled air which adds to their ability to survive in environments others may not.

Moles come to the surface to find food, nesting material and when they move from the tunnel that they were born in to dig a new tunnel of their own.  As you’d expect, it is at this time, when above ground, that the mole is most vulnerable to predators.

Typically, moles have three phases of activity – digging, eating and patrolling – and apparently start the same time each day!  Patrolling might seem odd for a mole but I think it’s to renew scent markings which act as a warning to other moles, telling them to keep away – an effective strategy as moles are rarely found in groups!  They are solitary but have overlapping territories and males will fight if they meet.

When it comes to eating, moles don’t dig through the soil to find worms, instead they use their tunnel systems as a pit trap for worms, beetles and other insects that happen to be in the soil.  The mole senses when prey falls in and runs quickly and eats it.  If too many worms fall in and the mole can’t eat them all, it saves them for later.  The mole’s saliva contains a toxin that paralyses earthworms so moles can store living worms for later in a larder specially constructed for the purpose. Researchers have found larders with over a thousand earthworms in.  Before eating them, they pull the worms between squeezed paws to force earth and dirt out of the worm’s guts.  Whilst their habit of saving for the future might see them through some hard times, if things get really tough shortage of food will drive moles above ground despite the danger this entails.

The mole is clearly asking us to consider our relationship with darkness and light.  It’s about tuning in to our senses and paying attention to more than just what we see, if we rely just on what we can see we may be blind to opportunities.  Digging through the dark to find the treasure is another obvious message.  And don’t make mountains out of mole hills!

For less obvious interpretations, consider your relationship with the earth, with the planet.  Are you feeling in tune with nature or disconnected?  How can you connect with your environment?  A mole-ish way that leaps to mind is standing on the soil with bare feet, something that I find really grounding.  Lean into your intuition and trust your instincts.  Look for the root of things if the mole has come into your life.

As Pliny the Elder alluded to at the start of this post, the mole features heavily in folk remedies and beliefs.  I’ve included just a flavour of these below:

  • hold a mole in your hand till it dies and your hand gets healing power
  • a cure for ague was made from powder of a skinned and dried male mole
  • blood of a freshly killed mole dripped on warts cures them
  • sugar dripped with blood from nose of a living mole controls fits
  • mole cut in half or skinned alive could be bound to the neck till it rotted to treat cysts on the throat and goitre
  • mole hands ward off evil and treat rheumatism
  • there was a belief that moles have a single drop of blood, eyes on the soles of their feet and those above ground in the day were taking the air or moonstruck
  • it was thought their ears were under their armpits to keep the soil out
  • people believed that if the molehills were picked up on St Sylvesters day the moles wouldn’t throw up earth again and if a mole throws up earth during frost, the frost would disappear in two days
  • in Scotland, a mole working near a house meant that the inhabitants would be moving soon, if it circled the home then there would soon be a death

One folktale explains the mole’s lifestyle as the result of a proud and arrogant woman whose pride was punished by fairies who turned her into a mole and made her life in the darkness of the ground.

“it’s habitat and blindness made it a natural symbol for those engrossed with earthly cares and vain delights or for the heretic blind to the true faith”
– Beryl Rowlands

Eight of swords

The mole on this card has dug through the earth’s surface and has come through to find a storm and that he is surrounded by swords.  He has been forced into a less familiar world, one where he is vulnerable.  Why is he here?

It might be that the mole is self sabotaging, that he’s being his own worst enemy and putting himself in a dangerous or risky situation.  It might be that he’s stuck here, or is feeling stuck.  Either way, he can’t stay here for very long, he needs to act to get out of this precarious situation.

As swords are about the mental realm, it might be that analysis paralysis is at play.  It may also be that we have got stuck but are too ashamed about getting into the situation to ask for help.  Believing in your own helplessness is yet another possibility but regardless, there is something in the mind that is keeping you still when you should be moving.

The harder we think, the more trapped we can become.  Perhaps instead, we should lean into our senses and feelings?

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A history of seeing animals, part two

Part one

Christianity had a huge impact on how some parts of the world saw animals.  The teaches claimed that God had given man the right to rule over animals, that they were made for us and each animal had a specific purpose.  The bestiaries of the middle ages encompass this way of thinking.  Animals were used to teach religious principles and morality through illustrated lessons.

In medieval times, we have people living alongside their animals, often farmers sharing their home with their stock.  This meant they knew each animal individually and valued them because of their contribution.  This type of relationship had been the case for thousands of years before but would soon be changed.

When the black plague hit Europe, animals were looked at with suspicion.  Scapegoats were needed to quell the panic and try and set the world back in order.  In particular, wild and potentially diseased animals were seen as dangerous and were often killed as a way of cleansing the community.  It was around this time that we saw animals being put on trial for crimes, in a serious way, just as humans were.

Renaissance thinking brought a more scientific way of looking at the world and with it, nature became something to be investigated, to be put under a microscope.  Again this was looking at animals as something that were here for us, as instruments, a world view that kept humans in the centre of the universe.

In the 1600s, Descartes presented animals as equipment, as mechanical objects that don’t feel pain and this was another way of rationalising poor treatment.

Moving forward, we find the Enlightenment playing host to conversations and debates about animals as philosophical and ethical subjects.  This was fuelled by urbanisation and commodification of animals, the increase of print media and the popularity of vivisection in science.  Around the same time, farmers began moving animals out of their home, putting distance between man and beast which would of course have an impact on how animals were viewed.  The urbanisation and industrialisation of England would take the urban rural divide and amp it up.  The gulf between human and animals would grow and animals would increasingly be seen as commodities and would thus be treated badly.

By the 18th century, controlled breeding was happening which would change the very species themselves, more so than domestication had, into the most efficient object for our use.  Animals were being turned into the food machines that Descartes saw them as.  Around this time, it was also being argued that domestication was good for animals – they were protected from predators, given a reliable and regular source of food and butchering them was an act of kindness that prevented suffering.

“Farm animals became statistics rather than individuals, which took into account their marketability, the level of meat production, and the density of customer populations.  By the end of the eighteenth century, farm animals were mathematized.”
– Brian Fagan

Up until this point in time, animals determined how humans lived, now humans were determining how animals lived, and even how they grew.  The depersonalisation of animals was increasing at a pace as rapid as industrialisation.

Darwin’s work on evolution, whilst it took a long time to take hold, also changed how we looked at animals.  For some people, it confirmed that (western) humans are the highest evolutionary point, for others it connected us to (some) animals.

During the 1700s and 1800s, pet keeping was becoming more common.  But class mattered.  At first pet keeping was for the upper classes whilst the animals of lower classes were looked down upon.  By the 19th century, pets were much more widespread and this brought with it another change in how we see animals.  It started to be accepted that animals, at least pets, had personalities and were individuals that should be treated well.  Juxtaposed against this increase in pet keeping was an increase in big game hunting which would symbolise dominating nature, conquering the wild and imperialism.

The reputation of Britain also changed over the last few hundred years.  In the 1700s we were perceived as being cruel to animals, as having an indifference towards the suffering of animals and generally thought to be harsh towards them.  By the end of the 1800s, treating animals well had become part of what it meant to be British.  For a while, during the wars, animal kindness took a bit of a backseat but would be revived in the 1960s and 70s.

Today we seem to care about animals as individuals, as status symbols – such as #animalselfie – and sometimes from a conservation perspective.  However, we also still very much see a divide between humans and other animals, with humans being the superior side of this.  This is having, and will continue to have, devastating impacts on the world we live in.  Unless we change how we see non-human animals and nature, sustainable change will not be made.

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A history of seeing animals, part one

“The kinship between humans and animals has never been static, having been at the mercy of changing social norms and fleeting trends… human economic, cultural, and demographic factors play a major role in how we perceive of, and treat, animals.  So do age, education, ethnicity, occupation, religion, and sex.”
– Brian Fagan

As we saw when we looked at bestiality, how we view animals and think of them is time and culturally specific.  As we are at time when it seems clear we need to rethink our relationship with nature, a quick glance back seemed useful.

Our ancestors developed an awareness and understanding of the animals around them, predators and prey.  At least seventy thousand years ago, human cognitive abilities improved and so did hunting skills and technology.  This would be a move that changed how humans interacted with their world.

Hunters would treat prey as a living being, often seeing them as sacrificing themselves for humans, and thus we treated them with respect.  In order to successfully hunt, and hence survive, they had to know their prey.  They had to watch them and understand them, they had to know when not to approach and how to make their prey less fearful.  This creates an intimate relationship between predator and prey and we can see this in the cave art and in the stories that we told each other about the world.  Importantly, humans and animals were equal and there was no hard line between humans and other animals.  In this culture, individual wealth wasn’t a concept in the way it would become with domestication.

“Domestication changed the world, it’s landscapes, animals – and humanity.  About ten thousand years ago – the precise date will never be known – numerous deliberate acts, such as the corralling of young ungulates, turned animal-human relationships on end… Humans were now the masters, so the role of animals changed.  They became objects of individual ownership, tangible symbols of wealth, and powerful social instruments.”
– Brain Fagan

Domestication marks a shift in attention from dead animals to live ones, from communal resources to personal ones.  Its thought that dogs started to be domestication around 15,000 BCE and by about 10,000 BCE, other species followed.  In particular goats, sheep, pigs, cattle, donkeys, horses and camels.

“There were advantages on both sides in these history-changing partnerships.  What were now farm animals, bred in captivity, acquired better grazing and foraging carefully orchestrated by deliberate herding, and security from predators.  Humans acquired predictable meat supplies, milk, and a whole range of valuable by-products – everything from hides and fur to horn and sinew.”
– Brian Fagan

Dogs helped our ancestors to hunt, they offered guard functions, they may even have pulled loads and would become companions in their own right, as we are familiar with today.

Through domestication of sheep and goats, humans were able to settle in an area.  Livestock would provide meat, milk, skins and wool and would be a predictable and more reliable resource.  It also allowed humans to claim a piece of land as theirs, and this land would pass from generation to generation.  This was the time at which animals became more than just resources, they became a symbol and they linked generations.  The size of your herd was a sign of your wealth and thus your status.  Where previously animals were not owned, they were prey for hunters, now animals were property and with this came changes to human existence.  Rules around inheritance arose and this meant marriage ties became more important.

Around 6000 years ago, humans hitched a plough to an ox and established the first source of animal power for food production.  This meant it was possible to create surplus food which meant less time needed to be spent working and created leisure time and a social division of labour.

Then, around 4000 BCE, cities were established and grew which in turn meant a increased demand for goats and sheep.  This would lead to increased flock sizes which would have its own impact on how we saw and related to livestock.  In more rural areas, farmers and herders knew their animals by name, maintaining a close relationship but in more urban areas, the relationship between human and beast was changing.  The demand for meat and animal products increased and in response, so did the size of herds.  This led to depersonalisation, and seeing livestock as commodities rather than living creatures.

By 2500 BCE, pack animals were on the scene.  This involved the donkey, the horse and later the camel and would allow humans to travel over long distances, carry commodities for trade, supported armies and so on.  Areas became linked, empires grew and the world became more interconnected.

“Donkeys have worked alongside people for more than eight thousand years – but “alongside” actually means in the background, for they have always been inconspicuous players in history.  Plodding asses carried food and water, exotic luxuries, and essential commodities.”
– Brian Fagan

Despite the huge role they have played in our history, we still tend to see donkeys as stubborn beasts of burden.  As pack animals were often used as a caravan, they were treated as a group rather than individuals, and relationships are between individuals, thus it was easier to mistreat or overuse the donkeys.  This highlights a difference in how we have seen donkeys and horses – humans ride horses but tend to use donkeys to carry things, the former is a one to one relationship, the latter isn’t.  Thus there tended to be a bond between man and horse that wasn’t there when it came to donkeys.

Horses were likely domesticated somewhere around 4000 BCE and from there on, we established an, often, intimate relationship with them.  This was a relationship which was beyond function, the horse and rider were bonded, they were a team.  Horses, like cattle before them, became a status symbol.  They were an animal which brought prestige to the owner or rider.  They were noble creatures and as such were named and cherished.

“The Greeks made a clear distinction between the noble horse and the “servile” donkey, which corresponded in broad terms with that between people who were free and slaves.”
– Brian Fagan

Aristotle felt that nature had made animals as food and labour for humans and that they were subservient to us.  This fits with how we used animals and also made it ok for us to use them that way.  Animals were utilised for human benefit and human development.  Whilst some people will have had a personal relationship with some animals, on the whole, they were considered food and labour.  For the Romans, animals were beasts of utility as well as a source of entertainment.  Animals were pit against each other, against humans and were slaughtered as a form of amusement.

For more about how we view non-human animals, come back tomorrow!

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