What Facebook Kitties are Really About

In my college years, the 1960s, scientists were telling us that animals have no emotions. This struck me as patently ridiculous, but they insisted. As someone much later said, “Don’t any of these guys have dogs?”

Somehow these brilliant scientists seem to have missed out on fundamental brain anatomy. We differ from other animals in that we have a greater cerebral cortex. But the cortex is not the seat of emotions. The “seat of emotions” is found in the Limbic system, one level up from the “reptilian” brain, the brainstem and cerebellum. Obviously, then, a bigger cortex cannot separate our emotions from those of other animals. Hell, even reptiles are easily shown to have emotions. Even fish.

Franz de Waal, in one of his earlier books, relayed a story told to him by Nobel winner Conrad Lorentz, who researched geese in the early 20th century, among other things. A visiting woman read the look on a goose’s face and remarked that she must have had a tough life. Indeed she had. Lorentz explained that she had lost two mates to violence.

It pleases me very much that our understanding of animals has improved greatly since my college years. But still, there are still many who make use of the “rubber ruler”. That is they claim that we differ from “the animals” (somehow neglecting to realize that we are animals ourselves) because “animals can’t do”… and here they mention some specific thing. Then they learn that certain animals can indeed do that certain thing, and so the ruler is stretched and some other thing that animals can’t do is found. But then the process repeats, requiring the ruler to be stretched again. This has been going on for some time but it has become more and more difficult to pretend the idea makes sense. The ruler won’t stretch any more.

This brings us to our favorite source of all wisdom, Facebook. Even though it is now becoming more difficult to winnow out the nonsense, I still like Facebook for all the animal photos and videos, if nothing else.

Recently I saw a photo of a cat embracing the back of his busy human, eyes closed. The love was obvious, as it often is in photos. Remember the huge tiger, all but bowling over his favorite person as he slurps his cheek with that big tongue, eyes closed. Or the baby elephant who came running whenever his fave guy drove up. Or the big owl who was in bliss when his head was scratched. I’ve also in person seen birds who wantonly turn belly-up for a good scratch. Facebook swarms with photos of all kinds of animals, big and small, from all over the animal world, who very obviously love and are loved. They can love their own species, another species, or specifically the human species. Is there any other reason a dog would come to his human’s grave every day for years?

Videos can be priceless because we are amazed, or because they make us laugh. One of my recent favorites showed a smallish rabbit watching a border collie herding sheep. Apparently that seemed interesting enough to try, because the video next showed the rabbit taking a shot at it. To everyone’s great surprise, he was pretty good at herding sheep. I howled at a video of a mischievous dog watching the cat as it stood on the edge of the bathtub, watching it fill. Then the dog pushed the cat in, and in an instant took off running, knowing the cat would be in hot pursuit, which it was, and furious, with laid-back ears and a snarl on its face. Then there’s the one with two dogs seated on the stairs. A woman’s voice demands, “who made this mess?”. Two noses turn in synch to point to a third dog, who immediately looks embarrassed. I come across the video now and then, and laugh every time.

We’ve all seen various parrots do hilarious things, like really get down and dance in perfect rhythm, or make up operatic songs with nonsense lyrics, or be swung around on clotheslines. I saw the wild blackbird “sledding” down a snowy roof on a jar lid. And the magpie stealing clothespins, and hanging on the bottom of the sheet a woman was trying to dry, between the times he was harassing his dog friend.

Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t some really interesting video of an animal doing something we might not have believed if we hadn’t seen it ourselves. There are hundreds of them.

This is why the kitty videos on Facebook are important. Not because kitties are cute, but because they and all the other animal videos show us that we are not nearly so different from animals as we once thought. They do very many of the things we also do, and express sadness, surprise, and pride. Facebook shows us that their emotional lives are virtually identical to ours.

How dare we mistreat an animal when we know we are so close to them, and they are capable of deep love. Cruelty to animals is deeply offensive, and earns hefty jail sentences. And if we dare not mistreat the animal that shares all of our emotions, how dare we mistreat someone of our own species?

The Soul Connection

Matador Torero Alvaro Muñera had a promising career as a bullfighter. But in the middle of a bullfight, with the bull already wounded, awaiting only the fatal thrust by the matador (matador means killer), he had an experience that changed everything. “And suddenly, I looked at the bull. He had this innocence that all animals have in their eyes, and he looked at me with this pleading. It was like a cry for justice, deep down inside of me. I describe it as being like a prayer – because if one confesses, it is hoped, that one is forgiven. I felt like the worst shit on earth.” He quit at that moment, and became a vocal opponent of bullfighting.

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Many people have found a soul connection while looking into the eyes of an ape or other animal, and many say it changed their lives. “When I look into the eyes of an animal I do not see an animal. I see a living being. I see a friend. I feel a soul.” (A.D. Williams) People who are around animals in daily life readily come to see them as sentient creatures not unlike themselves. That’s why farmers don’t dare give names to the animals they raise for slaughter, and even then many are disturbed by the practices of factory farming they are forced to use.

What defines the difference between humans and other animals? It’s not so obvious. Over the past century or so, we have suggested that the difference is that animals cannot do this or that. Use tools, solve problems, count. But then we find that there are animals who can do these things that supposedly set us apart. So we find something else they can’t do, and then we find that some animals can do that too. That’s called the rubber ruler, which expands as necessary to make us unique. We’re still looking, and so far it doesn’t look like we’re unique.

We are superior in some ways, not in others. Birds have far better eyes, dogs have far better noses. Some parrots have the intelligence of grade schoolers, and can carry on pretty good conversations. Elephants have elaborate family relations, and can hear other elephants miles away. Various animals have rather striking musical abilities, or artistic skills. A number are tool users. Many are excellent parents. Many love to play in all sorts of ways. Our pets become like family members, and we sincerely grieve their loss.

Humans are unique only by degree. Whether that’s superior—with our endless wars and violence—is a matter of opinion. We have overpopulated the planet and endangered all life, but we do make some pretty cool gadgets, music, and food.

Here’s my question: If we can recognize this deep connection between ourselves and an other not even of our own species, what is it that prevents us from recognizing the soul connection we have with other humans? All humans.

There are European-Americans who are unable to see people of different races, different colors, different religions, and so on, as humans like themselves. Some judge whole classes of people as naturally inferior to themselves, not even deserving of equal treatment.

My belief is that one must be taught this kind of deep intolerance, that it is not an inherent part of being human. But the teaching is not overcome without long effort, and maybe even a moment of epiphany. In the US, blacks are the most common subject of this discrimination, obviously because of hundreds of years of brutal slavery, followed by many decades in which they were held back in every way imaginable, which has not ended even now, a century and a half after slavery.

Perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of such treatment is that the maligned population becomes mired in this treatment, and the treatment, although officially ended, continues by itself. The schools are inferior, so the students are seen as inferior, and therefore can’t find good work at decent pay, and the poverty carries to the next generation. The same happens to the Romani (aka Gypsies). They have a reputation as thieves, which prevents them from finding work at fair pay, which perpetuates their reputation.

But there are others. The caste system of India, although outlawed for over a half century, is still used to discriminate. In the US, First Nations people (Indians) have been treated horribly since 1492. Immigrants of every sort have been hated, until a generation passed, and they were absorbed into the national fabric. The Chinese were not allowed to emigrate, and were confined to ghettos. Japanese-Americans were tossed into concentration camps during WWII, everything they owned confiscated. And now many of us bring this same attitude to Muslims who want to become citizens.

We learned from Hitler that a population can rather easily be turned against an ethnic group. In WWII Germany it was Jews, and the population was too easily corrupted under Hitler’s guidance, with consequences more horrible than anything before or since.

Some who have studied these conditions believe they descend from very ancient times in which suspicion of others may have served as protection against groups that may have had plans to harm the tribe and steal valuables. But the long term trend seems to be away from attitudes of hatred and discrimination. The majority of people in any given population today do not hate others.

But the question is, once a person has a discriminatory attitude toward a group of people, is it possible for that person to overcome that attitude, or must it take at least another generation? If change is possible, what are the conditions under which it can occur? These are important questions, unanswered so far.