Something is wrong in our relationship with animals. Lurking beneath the smooth surface of our sophisticated lives there is a deep and unexpressed grief for the mass murder of the other animals to whom this planet belongs, what more 'primitive' people might have thought of as their brothers and sisters. We read that we, the human animal, are responsible for a mass extinction event. My good friend and colleague Rupert Read calls for 'a new convenant with all beings' and such a call is long overdue.
Modern westernised people most regularly encounter animals in two settings: as pets and as food. It seems to me that both these ways of relating are grossly distorted. Pets are deprived of their independence and their spiritual wholeness, forced to behave as a extensions of their human 'owners', prevented from expressing their animal natures. The system of domestication and animal slavery has been taken to even more gross extremes in factory-farm production process, where sentient creatures are tortured by techniques that seem deliberately intended to deny their spiritual existence, as though this excused our desire to consume them.
Human societies that live respectfully and comfortably within their natural environment have quite different relationships with animals. Stories are full of animals expressing their particular qualities or of metamorphosis between human and animal form. In his wonderful book, The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram describes the social and cultural role these stories play:
‘By invoking a dimension or a time when all entities were in human form, or when humans were in the shape of others animals and plants, these stories affirm human kinship with the multiple forms of the surrounding terrain. They thus indicate the respectful, mutual relations that must be practiced in relation to other animals, plants, and the land itself, in order to ensure one’s own health and to preserve the well-being of the human community.’ (p. 121)
In such communities, people often derived their ancestry from a particular animal, which then became the totem of their clan. We might think that we have developed a long way beyond the culture of totemic animals, yet there are hints of this closer relationship with animals in our own names. The Russian president's name, Medvyedev, for example, is derived from the Slavic word for a bear (medved), as is the familiar English forename and surname Arthur (from the Celtic ardd, a bear), while the familiar name Ralph is derived from a Scandinavian root meaning 'counsel of wolf'.
The journey towards a sounder basis for our relationship with animals will not be an easy one. For me, it will not include the abandonment of meat eating, but killing animals for our consumption will be undertaken in a different cultural framework. Because failing to respect the sacrifice of animals' lives is destructive to our own lives. In his book The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder recounts a native American story that is taught to children as they learn to hunt:
'Long ago, a boy went out to hunt deer. He rode on horseback. Pretty soon he saw one [a deer] standing by the side of a canyon. Then he went closer and shot it. He killed it. Then the deer rolled all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. Then the boy went down there. It was a buck, fat and muscular. There he butchered it. The meat was heavy, so he had to carry it up in pieces. He had a hard time reaching the top of the canyon with each piece.
He left the last leg behind. On his way home the boy got dizzy and nearly fell off his horse. Then his nose twitched uncontrollably, like Deer’s nose does. Then pain shot up behind his eyes. Then he became scared. He went back to the canyon to look for the leg but it was gone. He was very sick and nearly died and always had bad luck in hunting.'