I’m no student of human psychology. That said, I’m truly astonished at how elusive the character and personality of those close to us can be. This is not a bad thing. To the contrary, it speaks to the inherent and beautiful mystery of the human individual, suggesting that, as social as we are, humans are also islands of isolation with unique perspectives and desires often not even known to ourselves. My closest relationships have lasted as long as thirty years and I would never claim to completely know these people, many of whom I love deeply. Nor would I admit that they know me, as I’m still trying to figure myself out. In fact, and not to get too personal here, I’ve come to the conclusion that the ultimate act of respect for another adult human is to allow that person the freedom to live without external strictures being imposed from another being. To me, such freedom is integral to any idea of love.
I raise this issue as a segue into a question that’s not asked enough: what makes us, as humans, think we can understand the desires—much less the minds—of non-human animals? Naturally, we can, through basic common sense, make easy assessments about animals wanting more space and food or, of course, not wanting to die. But when we drift into the vexed territory of benevolent control and ownership over animals, by what set of standards do we determine what makes an animal happy, or what kind of environments are conducive to the development of their mental and emotional lives? Given that answers to these questions are beyond the ability of humans to grasp for themselves, is it possible to own or oversee an animal while creating settings that foster genuine satisfaction?
I don’t think it is and—to be blunt—I think to think otherwise is profoundly self-centered and arrogant. Thus—with the exception of rescue situations—I think it makes much more sense to pursue long-term arrangements in which animals are ultimately left to determine their own strategies for fulfillment according to their own devices. I’m not saying that human–animal interaction cannot continue to be a deeply satisfying relationship. I’m only arguing that true liberation—as I think might also be the case with humans—is ultimately at the core of what it means to love another being. This position, by the way, is a major reason I oppose the hunting of animals (and people, for that matter) in almost every circumstance.
In a way, this position, at least theoretically, takes a burden off human shoulders. Do we really need to spend so much time creating humane farms that supposedly promote happy animals? No. We can quit worrying about it altogether. We can stop fretting over these animals’ happiness by not breeding and raising them at all. Do we really need to do all this scientific research trying to determine the intellectual and emotional capabilities of various animals? No. Just acknowledge that sentience alone warrants their access to a basic set of rights and leave them alone to apply their intellectual gifts and emotional predilections as they see fit. Do we really need to “manage” deer and rodent populations in order to live more ecologically balanced lives? No. We’re terrible at doing that, more often than not fostering extremely negative unintended consequences. Leave it alone. Our burden, in other words, should never be to actively create happiness or balance for other animals (again, rescue situations are different), but to approach our environment in a way that allows animals the freedom to create their own happiness in organic interaction with the humans they share the world with.
We’ve spent so much of human history trying to do otherwise. We’ve predicated human progress on animal exploitation and then, relatively recently in historical time, decided (well, at least a fringe has decided) that their happiness suddenly matters. Rather than altering the nature of our dominance, it makes a lot more sense to end the dominance—however benevolently intended—altogether and focus on getting to know ourselves a bit better.