The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Reflections: Charles Knott

On Loving Animals

A story has it that "in olden times" animals and humans separated out from each other and then the earth opened up a great divide between them. At the last moment, as the divide was opening, the dogs jumped over to be with humans and left the rest of the animal kingdom behind. So most people can love dogs—dogs are easy.

The most remarkable thing about Facebook to me is the extent to which so much of it is devoted to loving all kinds of animals: chickens, donkeys, horses, birds, cows—not to mention cats and dogs. Most any animal that is warm-blooded can be seen hungrily enjoying human affection and generously returning affection from its own amazingly deep feelings, like the donkey I saw in a video, braying its heart out as it hurries across the barnyard to accept the embrace of a little girl.

Besides the affection traveling from humans to other animals and back again, there is a lot of love shown between animals of the same species and even across species—such as a nursing mother dog accepting a kitten or even a duckling into her litter. That recalls to mind the statement “and the lion shall lie down with the lamb," often made in church with a tone of utopian hopelessness, as if this condition would be nice, but it can never happen. Nowadays we see that it is happening, or at least that it can be made to happen under the right circumstances.

Is there a new spirit of love and compassion entering the world? It is certainly new to me when I see a child lovingly hugging and caressing a rooster who returns to the child's arms time and again for more, or when I see a goat and a horse nuzzling each other's muzzles. In these instances, it is intriguing to watch the major biological premise of the universe (that life survives by devouring life) being suspended, no matter how temporarily.

All my life I have been averse to eating animals, though I have hypnotized myself like everyone else into thinking of grocery store meat as acceptable and necessary, and so blocking out slaughterhouse images. I have been fascinated by people who learned instead to eat plants exclusively. New information about plant sensibility brings the question of what then shall we eat?

One of my favorite images came from long ago reading about George Bernard Shaw’s belief that when he got to heaven, all the animals whose lives he had spared by being a vegetarian would come parading by and thank him. I also remember my father, who had vegetarian tendencies, saying, "As long as there is peanut butter, I will leave the animals alone." I am fond of Robinson Jeffers' remark, "I'd sooner kill a man than a hawk." And I remember reading a story about a man who approached Heaven with his dog and was told that he could come in, but no dogs were allowed. Rejecting such a heaven as this, the man turned away and left with his dog, only to be called back and told, "You just passed the last test! You and your dog can come in."

When I worked in South Georgia, I lived for a year in a little house beside a cow pasture. In this pasture with the cows was one male donkey, a jack. Jack was the most lively and playful animal I had ever seen. He jumped and ran and teased the cows, and they loved it. The farmer who owned the place did not appreciate this, fearing that one of his cows might get injured, so he put the donkey in a separate pasture by himself. The jack became totally depressed. I could not even get him to eat a carrot. Fortunately, he was soon relocated to a place where he could be with other animals and play all he wanted. This seemed to validate what I've heard many times, that animals must have companionship.

I visited with a beautiful Arabian stallion a few times and saw that he was housed with a goat and a couple of chickens! I learned that the presence of the goat and the chickens was to give the horse some creatures to love and enjoy. Without them, he would grow depressed.

My father tried his hand at keeping a small herd of cows at our home place in South Fulton County. Without giving it a second thought, I turned them all into pets. Their eyes were so dull when I met them. Love and affection from me lit up their eyes and within a few minutes, they were as playful and happy as large puppies. I remember sitting at the lake one day when one of the cows came along and tried to sit in my lap! That may be why my father didn’t pet the animals he tended.

A downside to extravagant love between humans and other animals was illustrated in a video segment I saw on Facebook where a man had gained the love of a grizzly bear. Unfortunately, the man now wanted to leave the grizzly and go on about his other business, but the bear would have none of it! He loved his new human and would not let go of him. I don't know what arrangement they finally made, but whatever it was, I expect one of them felt cheated.

I can't help wondering why a "dog-eat-dog" universe would be populated with animals so capable of loving so deeply. Even the most voracious animals are affectionate toward their young and will give up their own food for them. Nevertheless, all of nature seems to be caught up in a, "Now you eat me, now I'll eat you!" mentality. Once, when I was talking about these things at a conference lecture, I pointed fortuitously to a Native American drawing that had been framed and placed on the wall of the Lodge where we were meeting. The drawing showed a large fish eating a slightly smaller fish who was, in turn, eating a slightly smaller fish, who was, in turn, eating another slightly smaller fish, and so on. I truly regret that we are caught in such a system. Humans are capable of becoming vegetarians, and so they can escape this system if they want to. Dogs, however, have to have animal protein in their diets to be healthy. My two dogs eat grain free dry food that uses an assortment of vegetables and beet meal. Because their food is expensive (tell me about it!), it is also relatively high in animal protein. Joseph Campbell once said, "A tiger that lived on tofu would not be a very good tiger, would he?"

Their temperaments are fascinating to study. The female is a large Rottweiler; the male is a small crossbreed of Jack Russell and Pekingese. When my son first told me he was bringing a Rottweiler puppy home, I felt a moment of panic. These are dangerous, vicious dogs, I thought. She is surely going to cause serious trouble. I had visions of mangled children and devastating lawsuits. When she arrived, I encountered a harmless, playful, shy little puppy of six weeks. Jonathan had chosen her because she would not look him in the eye. He saw this as a sign of submissiveness and felt she would be easy to train. He was correct.

Although she is showing no symptoms of it, Frieda is now in her advanced old age of nine years. In her entire life, to my knowledge, she has never heard an angry voice. She is very sweet and gentle and tries hard to please. Once or twice a visiting dog has attempted to take her supper away from her, and each time Frieda has reverted to an extremely aggressive posture, showing her teeth, growling, and taking on a threatening and frightening aspect. I commented to the owner of the other dog, "Be careful. There really is a Rottweiler in there that we don't want to wake up!" When the other dog was removed from the scene, Frieda immediately went back to her peaceful ways.

Our little dog is named Bijon. His temperament is different. His energy level is extremely high, and he is hyper alert and aware of everything in the environment—seemingly at all times—and he loves to hunt. A year or so ago, when his energy level was even higher than it is today, he escaped from the yard several times and went to the barn to hunt whatever he could find there. Frieda went with him one night and injured her hip joints while trying to keep up with him. She kept to her bed for about a week until she recovered. Bijon likes to run and jump, and he is an endless powerhouse of energy. But, back to my main theme, they are both creatures of love and kindness.

They are capable of calling up powerful instinctual drives, but it seems that when they have a choice they prefer a serene domestic life. The dog-eat-dog world in the woods that surround their peaceful home is generally of no interest to them, although if they were abandoned there, they would recognize the place and its terms of life. If the environment were suitable, they could adapt and survive. I believe there is no place they would rather be than right here, curled up around my feet contentedly as I write.

In short, while it is conceivable that they could successfully bring off a "return to the wild," they greatly prefer a live-and-let-live approach. Ironically, they are mentally still close to nature in the sense that no pesky, conscious thoughts intrude into their lives, enslaving them to false values and spurring them on to do violence against their fellow creatures when they already have everything they need. They are not humans.

My mentor, C. G. Jung, wrote in a letter to Canon H. G. England in 1948 (Letters, Vol. 1, 483-486): "In a way the animal is more pious than man, because it fulfills the divine will more completely than man ever can. … [Man] can deviate, he can be disobedient, because he has consciousness." Jung believed that in order to develop consciousness, humans had to overvalue it and consequently to undervalue nature. Other animals never did that. We lost touch with our primitive instinctual selves and, not surprisingly, contact with animals tends to take us back to the evolutionary past when we, too, were creatures of the natural world. That journey is good for us.

I have noticed that animals are prominent in my dreams. Usually, they are calm and serene and embody an attitude that I can aspire to. On animal shows, when I see them in the wild as killers, it makes me sad. The circumstances of life do this to them. If they were able to make conscious decisions and were free to follow their preferences, they might become "good" or "bad," like humans. As it is, they are "pious" and well-regulated, abiding by the laws of nature: If they must kill a lamb in order to eat their dinner, they will. On the other hand, they will not drop a bomb on the whole flock for political purposes. Only people do such things as that.

Left alone in nature, the animal follows its own instinctual self, living the life that nature dictates, and that seems to agree with it very well. In nature, the animal does not gravitate toward excess any more than it shuns the various roles that nature has prescribed for it. Interestingly, there is a Japanese ashram where tigers, once they are fed to satiety on cooked meat, roam freely and harmlessly among the tourists who visit. Once their survival needs are met, they are nonviolent.

I have to admit that animals who still live in the wild have a certain magical appeal. I'm thinking now of the giant Blue Heron that visits the pond in my front yard every year. He was there last week. I happened to be sitting on my front porch when he decided it was time to go. He flew across in front of me, very close, and I could see the utterly unconscious expression in his eye, unchanged in thousands and thousands of years. Wild nature is still in process all around us, not only at the duck pond among some of the higher animals, but also between the cracks in the sidewalk, where insects and plants continue to realize their own ancient behavioral patterns.

As creatures capable of consciousness, we can see that being with animals is good for us. In return for furnishing them with food and protection, they not only gratefully return our love, they also allow us to imitate their moderation and their obedience to the laws of nature. It is a good exchange.

Photo by Jonathan Knott

Copyright 2017, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.