It is said that Martin Luther looked up from reading Romans 8:21 (“The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay”) and said to his dog, “Any you will have a little golden tail!” He was joking, of course, because we have no assurance that the animals will be our companions in the next life. But they are certainly our companions in this life. Yet, a stranger to our planet would not think so, from the way we treat them.
In general we seem to have a very neurotic relationship to animals: taming and spoiling some of them, buying them special food and even clothes (I have seen small dogs wearing waistcoats), and then going out to kill their brothers and sisters for fun, reducing beautiful elegant creatures to bloody masses of fur and feathers. It is like the way a neurotic man can be tearfully sentimental about his wife one minute and terrorising her the next. If you want to kill animals, I suggest, you should leave the birds and small animals alone and pick on someone about your own size: a chimpanzee or a gorilla. And don’t hide behind a rock and shoot him: that's a shameful piece of cowardice; be fair, face him with your bare hands! Admit it: without your firearms and your traps you are no match for any of them. The hawk has incomparably keener vision, the deer can leave you standing, the dog has a vastly superior sense of smell, the chimpanzee is several times stronger….
We sometimes say of people that they are “fighting like animals.” Would to God that we always fought like animals! Have you ever noticed that animals don’t drop bombs on cities or exterminate one another by the million, or send young conscripts to the front while the organisers sit safely at home, or use nuclear or chemical weapons to destroy whole populations? Then look at how dogs fight. There is a lot of noise and threat, but very little action usually. And then, once one dog submits, exposing his most vulnerable part (his throat), the other is unable to close its jaws on it, killing him - unless, that is, he has been specially trained by humans to do so. (If you want to know more about this, read some of Konrad Lorenz’s books.) When we compare ourselves with animals, it seems we are the ones who have reason to be embarrassed.
I say all this by way of preface to a long quotation from The Art of Teaching, by G. Highet. Our language of insult features many animals: dog, cat, snake, rat, chicken, etc. This is an aspect of our neurotic relationship with them. But once we understand that, we can usefully think of human traits in terms of different animals. We have to know that if anyone should be insulted by the comparison, it is the animals. This quotation from Highet has been with me for more than thirty years, and I don’t want to keep it to myself any longer. Here it is.
“The young are quite unlike adults. They are so different that it would be easier to understand them if they looked like animals. You know how a baby before it is born passes through the main stages of evolution. It begins by looking like an amoeba, goes on to look like a fish, resembles a big-headed monkey for some time, and ends up at birth still looking remarkably like a little red blind clutching grimacing ape. I have often thought that in this first fifteen years of life it passes through another series of animal existences. Boys of nine or ten, for instance, are very like dogs. Watch a pack of them hot on the scent, yapping, running and jumping, bouncing aimlessly around, full of an energy, kicking one another or breaking down a door as carelessly as a dog nips at its neighbour’s flanks or bursts through a hedge. When they are really enjoying the chase, all their teeth and eyes gleam and their breath and laughter go ‘huh, huh, huh, huh’, like a leash of fox-terriers. Girls in middle teens are like horses, strong, nervous, given to sudden illnesses and inexplicable terrors, able to work remarkably hard if they are kept firmly in hand, but really happiest when they are thinking of nothing in particular and prancing about with their manes flying. Both dogs and horses are amiable creatures and can be domesticated, but it is a mistake to treat them as though they were human. It is also a mistake to treat horses as though they were dogs, or dogs like horses.
“So if you are interested in teaching, do not expect the young to be like yourself and the people you know. Learn the peculiar patters of their thought and emotion just as you would learn to understand horses or dogs - or other animals (for there are all kinds of different animals implicit in children: the very small ones are often more like birds) - and then you will find that many of the inexplicable things they do are easy to understand, many of the unpardonable things easy to forget.”