The Personalist Project

Accessed on January 26, 2023 - 9:17:55

The Increasingly Blurry Line between Animal and Person

Devra Torres, May 24, 2016

Have you noticed this too? 

First, people started talking about "adopting" a puppy or a kitten instead of buying one. 

Now you see articles like this one, about an army service dog being given a funeral with full military honors.  "'We’re not just celebrating a dog’s life, we celebrate a serviceman’s life,' said Sgt. Aaron Walker, U.S. Air Force." Arko the Dog "is now a fallen member of the US military."

When I took our cat, Louie, to the vet, they handed me a form with two boxes I could check: "This pet is 'just an animal'," or "I consider this pet a part of the family." Depending to my response, they'd recommend more or less expensive treatment for what ailed him. 

What started out as a metaphor, an analogy--"Look at this picture of my babies," the woman who calls herself her puppies' "mommy" urges--anthropomorphizing our pets, service animals, and wild beasts has come to be treated as the literal truth. Any objection is seen as hard-heartedness, not just respect for reality.

Something else I've noticed: an increasing number of pictures of cats cuddling baby birds, or other natural predators acting affectionate and harmless with species they usually seek to kill. There's the theme of reunions of man and lion--the now-full-grown lion raised by a man who releases it and later arranges to reunite. You get the impression that it's normal for animals--even dangerous predators--to disregard their instincts and act cute and cuddly. I worry that there are other, copycat cases without such a happy ending as Christian the Lion's. arranged by people who ended up believing that predator and prey are categories that can be modified at will.

Sometimes we imagine animals are crossing the line towards humanity and personhood--and sometimes it's the other way around. Here's a story about a man who decided to live as a goat. He wasn't under any delusion that he truly was an animal (unlike this woman, who reportedly believes she's a cat trapped in a human body).  "My goal," he explains, "was to take a holiday from the pain and worry of being a self-conscious being, able to regret the past and worry about the future." 

I can see the appeal of that. And I certainly don't set myself up as judge of whether my friends are too attached to their pets. I'm as fascinated as anybody by stories about the mama cat who nursed ducklings, and I'm very fond of our Louie (below, doing a little birdwatching).

But something else is going on here. The line between animal and person is being intentionally and increasingly blurred, and simple biological facts are being treated as the exception, not the rule. 

The hot-button headlines these days are about men who believe they're women, women who believe they're men, and who gets to use which bathroom. 

But maybe that's just the latest wrinkle in a much older game of make-believe.