Today, I have a special treat: an interview with anthropologist/author Barbara J. King. Her book, Being with Animals, takes a look at “the importance of the human-animal bond as key to our evolution and as a significant spiritual aspect of understanding what truly makes us human.”
Giveaway time! I have one copy of the book for someone in the US or Canada. Just leave a comment and you’re automatically entered. On April 28, I’ll put all of your names in a hat and Reggie will pick the winner.
JC: What made you write this book now?
BJK: I was pining to explore the depths of thinking and feeling by animals beyond the fascinating monkeys and apes that I’ve studied for so many years. I’m an anthropologist, and our closest living relatives are a natural for me to observe. But at this point in my life I wanted to take on board and interpret some of the scientific writings and film clips about elephants, whales, pigs, buffalo, ravens, tortoises, and a host of other species. Writing Being with Animals allowed me to expand my range to do that, and to describe the manifestation of humans’ bonds with all these creatures. Also I was keen to do another book with my editor at Doubleday/Random House, Trace Murphy, because I enjoyed working with him on Evolving God, my 2007 book about the deepest roots in the animal world of human religious practices.
JC: Religiosity and spirituality is an important discussion in your book. Do you view religiosity as a social convention rather than a divine one, especially in light of the discussion later in the book regarding the potential for animals to have spiritual experiences?
BJK: I take a stance of agnosis– of not knowing– on questions of meaning and the divine, just because theological questions are way out of my scope. I focus instead on how people around the world today, and back into human prehistory, express or have expressed their religiosity through connection with animals ranging from reindeer and jaguars to dogs and buffalo. Along similar lines, many respected thinkers including Jane Goodall believe that animals may have spiritual experiences, but it’s not my intent to make an argument on that question.
JC: It’s very interesting to theorize how some animals became domesticated. How do you define wild versus domesticated? Does the distinction impact our emotional attachment to the natural world?
BJK: In the book I ask readers to imagine an alternate world in which young girls beg their parents for moose-riding lessons, and avidly read books about moose. The idea here is to realize that, of course, we have domesticated the horse and not the moose, but that it’s not entirely clear why that outcome came about. To some degree, certain species—and certain individuals within those species—were motivated to “hang out” with ancestral humans for reasons of their own. The line between wild and domesticated is certainly blurry. In our society we tend to feel emotionally attached to our live-in pets or to creatures on our family farms, but think of the outpouring of love expressed by people in New York City when the red-tailed hawk named Pale Male nested on a building near Central Park. There’s no natural boundary there in our capacity for feeling.
JC: You relate the story of young Martin Buber who had a “soul-stirring” encounter with a horse. Have you ever had a similar experience?
BJK: My experience may not rate up there with Buber’s, but many times I’ve felt soul-stirred when with other animals. I remember sitting, all alone, on a small hill overlooking a waterhole in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, where I did my dissertation work on baboon behavior. No other human being could be seen or heard for many miles. I was in the heart of the African savanna, watching species who had roamed there for millions of years. But I feel that same deep connection too when observing the wild bison herds of Yellowstone National Park, or even when we rescue a shy homeless cat and finally one day she trusts me enough to sit in my lap and offer me that lazy eye-blinking greeting that relaxed cats will give to a beloved person.
JC: You write, “Animals bring to life the virtues that we want our families to live by.” Some people would argue that we’re placing too much of a burden on animals’ shoulders, especially our pets, that it steals their “dogness” or “catness” away from them. How do you feel about that?
BJK: Well, dogs and cats are domestic creatures. One of the intriguing things I learned when doing research for the book is how long ago we have archaeological evidence for bonds between humans and either dogs or cats. Our lives are entwined and have been for ages. I do think we need to respect the fact that our pets are not small children; their species-specific biology and perspective on the world needs to be taken into account. Still, it’s the wild species that we harm most when we radically alter their lives. No chimpanzees, no tigers, should be our pets, and no elephants should be in zoos.
JC: What is the next step in the human/animal relationship?
BJK: So much needs to change, I believe, in how we use animals for our nutrition, our biomedical experimentation, and our entertainment. I’d sum it up this way: if each of us comes to believe that the day to day concerns of many, many animals are as important to each of them as our day to day concerns are to each of us, we’ll be heading in a good direction where we act with respect and love towards our fellow creatures.