What we talk about when we talk about animals

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Animal Matters Bill Hutchison

This column is the first of a series we’re launching to talk about the issues that animals – with humans alongside them – are facing today. One of the central ideas that will guide these columns comes from the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Long an advocate for animals, Derrida describes the issues of animal welfare as a war. But it’s not a war that is fought – it’s a war that is thought. “To think the war we find ourselves waging,” he writes, “is not only a duty, a responsibility, an obligation, it is also a necessity that no one can escape.” The analogy to war is a complicated one, but the main thrust seems right given the intensity of our feeling for them. Animals produce in us so much emotion; an absolute overflow at times. It’s almost impossible to bear the squirming glee of an adorable puppy or the clumsy stumbles of a young kitten. When we lose them to age or illness, the grief is comparable to losing a dear human in our lives. And when we bear witness to the unkindness and cruelty to which our philosopher refers, who can deny the anger and frustration we feel at the human perpetrator of the violence?

But each one of us who has felt so deeply for animals also knows how difficult it can be to work effectively for them when we are blinded by those intense rays of feeling. And yet those feelings are our fuel, they keep us moving forward. Precisely because we love our animals, because we don’t want living things to suffer, our emotions about them are our most powerful tool. One of the most important traits we share with animals is feeling. Increasingly, scientists who study animal behavior tell us that animal emotion is quite real, and while it may differ from human emotion, it’s part of our obligation to animals that we recognize it. That shared capacity is one of many links of kinship we have with animals. But used alone on behalf of animals, emotion is a blunt instrument. To sharpen that instrument, to make it precise and effective in our efforts to help animals, we must hone its edge against our ability to think in our uniquely human way.

That’s what we hope to do here, with you – to talk about the issues facing animals, to think through them together, and to be aware of how driven we are by our feelings toward animals. We want those feelings to be our strength, not our weakness, and to do that we have to constantly challenge our own ideas and beliefs. It is as important for us to know why we think and feel the way we do about animals as it is to know what we think and feel for them. So with these articles, we want to challenge you. We want you to challenge us. When we look into their eyes and see them seeing us, it serves as a constant reminder. We want to think together for them because they need us to, and because we should never stop feeling like they are worth thinking about.

Bill Hutchison, the shelter's former communications director, is currently working on a doctorate in English at the University of Chicago, specializing in animal studies. His column appears twice monthly. Contact him at bill@anthologist.org.