Our Relations With Animals.

From: The Creed of Kinship (1935)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Constable & Co Ltd 1935 London


  “Do you think I should shoot YOU, if I wanted to study you?” (THOREAU.)

  A great deal has been spoken and written on this subject; but where the wild animals are concerned it has been mostly about their world-wide massacre for purposes of commerce or sport. It has been said that in all the dealings of mankind with the nonhumans, domesticated or wild, the expectation of Food plays a considerable part, and it may be so; but in this chapter I wish to draw attention to the much more remarkable part that is played by the Affections.

  It is needless to dwell at any length on the wonderful instances of friendship that are recorded between men and domestic animals; yet I have again and again been surprised by facts that have come quite casually to my knowledge. Think, for example, of a man who, poor himself, preferred that the pony whom he could no longer afford to keep should be shot, rather than sold for ten pounds into strange hands. I have known, too, a case where a horse who drew a fruiterer’s cart was so attached to his mistress that when she was laid up, after an accident, a daily meeting between them had to be arranged. These are but two cases out of the hundreds that might be adduced, where the Affections leave no doubt of their reality and keenness. The stories of dogs and cats are innumerable. There is a clergyman, a friend of mine, who invites his parishioners to bring their animal friends with them to church. Why not?

  There was published as far back as 1886 a very interesting book on Domesticated Animals in their Relation to Man, by Mr. Nathaniel Shaler, of Harvard University, who took the view that mankind’s association with the higher forms has been of much importance to what we call our civilisation; the strength and swiftness of the horse, the fidelity of the dog, the sagacity of the elephant, and the various qualities of other kinds, having been gradually enlisted in our service. Sympathy, according to Mr. Shaler’s opinion, has been a powerful influence in this process, and is destined to be still more so. That is most true, and I venture to look still further ahead, and to suggest that what we need in the future is not to go on “domesticating” animals on the same lines, the old form of domestication being now of less value, but to face the more interesting problem of the reconciliation of man with nature—how to establish friendly relations with the wild tribes. That this will become possible, if there is ever a real desire for it, I do not doubt. There is already evidence in plenty, for those who care to know; it must suffice here to quote the authority of Thoreau. It was his opinion that there may be a civilisation going on among animals as well as men. The Walden foxes seemed to him to be “rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation.” The horse was “a human being in a humble state of existence”; and he was pathetically affected by the human behaviour of the oxen when loosed from the yoke at nightfall; even the wild moose in the Maine forests were to him “Moose-men, clad in a sort of Vermont grey or home-spun.” He remarks how “man conceitedly names the intelligence and industry of animals ‘instinct,’ and overlooks their wisdom and fitness of behaviour.”

  Perhaps the most charming feature of Thoreau’s character was the influence which he wielded over the wild inhabitants of the forest. “His intimacy with animals,” says Emerson, “suggested what Thomas Fuller records of Butler, the apiologist, that ‘either he had told the bees things or the bees had told him.’ Snakes coiled round his leg, the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection from the hunters.” This power was perhaps owing in part to his habit of silent watchfulness, which enabled him “to sit immovable, a part of the rock he rested on, until the bird, the reptile, the fish, which had retired from him, should come back and resume its habits”; but we cannot doubt that it was mainly due to his humane sympathy, the sense of love and brotherhood which, as in the case of St. Francis, lent so rare a charm to his relations with the non-human races. We read that when a sparrow alighted on his shoulder, he regarded it as “a greater honour than any epaulet he could have worn.”

  Speaking of man’s lack of knowledge of the inner life of the non-humans, Thoreau remarked that a great book, and an intensely interesting one, is waiting to be written by some genius of the future. When such a book is published, which can hardly be until the general feeling of mankind is quickened and humanised, it is to Thoreau that the world’s thanks will be largely due, as the pioneer who braved the ridicule of critics and scientists in his advocacy of the true method of nature study and the understanding of animals.

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