Commentary: According Animals Dignity
As of late Monday afternoon, when I was finishing this column, the most frequently emailed story on The Times’ website for the previous week wasn’t about the polar vortex, Chris Christie or “Downton Abbey.”
It was about cats.
I suppose that’s no big shock. On blogs, on Facebook and all around the Internet, claws and clicks go hand in hand (or is that paw in paw?). While the meek may be inheriting the earth, the furry have already claimed cyberspace.
But what is surprising — and indicative of a new chapter in the interactions of Americans and the animals around us — is the focus of the cat story in question.
It wasn’t about kittens doing the darnedest things. Under the headline “What Your Cat Is Thinking,” it examined the new book “Cat Sense,” by a British biologist, John Bradshaw, who flags his seriousness of purpose with his subtitle, “How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.” Bradshaw means to get into the cat brain.
He’s already plumbed its canine counterpart, in the 2011 book “Dog Sense,” which was also grounded in research, not sentiment, and in the idea that pets have inner lives more complicated than we imagine. “Dog Sense” was published just two years after the huge best-seller “Inside of a Dog,” by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz, which pivoted on the same notion.
It was “Inside of a Dog” in particular that caught my friend Kerry Lauerman’s attention, cluing him in to a quickly shifting human perspective on animals.
“There’s this growing obsession with animal cognition,” he said. Referring specifically to pets, he added: “We don’t want animals just for comfort. We really want to know them.” He mentioned another widely emailed story in The Times, from October, by a neuroeconomics professor who was doing MRI scans of dogs’ brains and finding suggestions of emotions like ours. Its telling headline: “Dogs Are People, Too.”
Lauerman wasn’t merely musing. He was explaining the rationale for a new website, The Dodo, that’s dedicated to animal news and features and made its debut this week. He’s its chief executive officer and editor in chief, and came to it from the influential online publication Salon, where he was the editor in chief from late 2010 to mid-2013.
One of The Dodo’s principal financial backers is Ken Lerer, the current chairman of BuzzFeed and one of the founders of the Huffington Post. His daughter, Izzie Lerer, created and developed the site with Lauerman. Additionally, she’s finishing up her doctorate in philosophy at Columbia University, where her research focuses on the evolving compact between people and animals.
The Dodo’s pedigree speaks to a broadening, deepening concern about animals that’s no longer sufficiently captured by the phrase “animal welfare.” An era of what might be called animal dignity is upon us. You see signs everywhere.
A story in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday reported a sharp rise over the last few years in the fraction of American dog and cat owners with provisions in their wills for their pets. Nearly 1 in 10 have made such arrangements.
One of the most fervently embraced documentaries of 2013 was “Blackfish,” shown over and over on CNN. It doesn’t just depict mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld; it makes the case that these glorious mammals have rich social and family connections and a profound capacity for grief.
There’s been extensive discussion lately of elephants’ emotional lives, and Hillary Clinton, with her famously active political antenna, recently found time to narrate a documentary, “White Gold,” about the bloody wages of the ivory trade, and to speak at its premiere.
People who go on lion hunts encounter stern public shaming. (The Dodo recounts a recent example.) Bill de Blasio has prioritized the retirement of Central Park’s carriage horses. Several prominent retailers, including Gap and H&M, stopped procuring angora last year after a widely shared video of the fur being yanked from rabbits’ bodies. The movement to accord chimpanzees and some other kinds of apes legal rights is accelerating, and greater scrutiny of food production has prompted keener disgust over the fate of many farm animals, along with state legislation to spare them florid suffering.
This is only going to build, because at the same time that scientific advances force us to gaze upon the animal kingdom with more respect, the proliferation of big and little cameras — of eyes everywhere — permits us to eavesdrop not just on animal play but also on animal persecution. It’s all documented, it all goes viral, and we can’t turn away, or claim ignorance, as easily as we once did.
“Those creatures big and small that have fed, frightened, entertained, comforted and awed us are no longer just them,” Lauerman writes in a letter to The Dodo’s readers. “Increasingly, they are us.”
Frank Bruni is a columnist for the New York Times.