Cultures and Animals

views updated

Cultures and Animals

There have been many attempts to determine what it means to be human. At one time, biologists suggested that humans were the only tool users. However, many different animals use tools. Some scientists thought humans were the only animals that had language. But we now know that many animals use sophisticated communication systems similar to language. It would be an ironic twist if the thing that makes us most distinctly human is our relation to other animals, but as far as we know, humans are the only animals that keep other animals as pets.

Humans have had relationships with animals for as long as there have been humans. The human record, from prehistoric through the classical and modern periods and in every culture, is filled with examples of animals helping to shape our understanding of ourselves. Animals figure in our traditions, in our religions, in the stories we tell each other, and in our literature, such as the animal fables and parables of Aesop or Orwell.

Animals as a Natural Resource

Current debate on environmental issues is dominated by discussion of the dwindling supply of certain renewable and nonrenewable natural resources. However, one obvious renewable natural resource is often overlooked in this discussion: humans depend heavily on other animals.

As far back as our hominid beginnings, humans have exploited other animal species to meet our fundamental requirements for food and shelter. Animals have also served to meet other less tangible needs. The exploitation of animals as natural resources began at least 10,000 years ago as humans made the transition from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to the sedentary lifestyles of agriculture and pastoralism (herding of domestic animals). The domestication of animals brought about a fundamental change in the nature of human-animal relations. Instead of human as hunter and animals as prey, the relation became one of humans as master and animals as servant. Instead of thinking only of the dead animal as a source of food for the present, humans began to consider the living animal as a source of food for the future. With human protection, domesticated animal species have flourished, multiplied, and been transformed in many ways, so that they bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors.

We usually do not think of domesticated animals as a natural resource because they have become so much a part of our industrialized society. We tend to think of domestic animals as a sort of organic machinery for producing food. To some extent this is true. Selective breeding for desired characteristics in domestic animals has substantially reduced the genetic diversity of domestic animals in addition to making them into cultural objects. The size, shape, behavior, color, and fur of domestic animals has been transformed to make them more attractive or useful.

However, placing domesticated animals on the side of culture, rather than nature, is misleading. The natural world and the human environment do not stand separate and apart from each other. Domestication, even with human manipulation, is a product of evolution. Natural selection still operates on domestic animals.

The Human-Animal Relationship

While domestic animals constitute a crucial resource to human culture and have been given special human protection so that they now live almost exclusively within the bounds of human culture, regarding domestic animals as a product of human culture separate and apart from wild animals is an artificial distinction. Even those animals we think of as the wildest of wild animalssuch as lions, tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, and gorillaslive almost exclusively within culturally constructed environments. National parks and nature reserves set up to preserve endangered species and their natural habitats are just as much cultural artifacts as are zoos and wild animal parks.

Even when the environmental debate does consider domestic animals, the discussion is usually not about the animals themselves, but is about the pollution caused by animal waste, the plight of wild animals being threatened by human activity, or about the rights of animals involved in medical research. The discussion rarely considers human-animal relations.

The human-animal relationship has changed significantly since animals were first domesticated. Early pastoralists lived with their flocks, aiding in birth and protecting the flocks from predators. Modern human society has become increasingly more dependent on animal products while the separation between most humans and the agricultural animals we depend on has become more dramatic. We are more dependent, but less aware. The domestic animals that provide us with the wide variety of valuable products we depend on have become essentially invisible to most people.

As the divide between domestic animals and us grows ever wider, we have seemingly become more dependent on a special class of animals kept as pets. We keep pets to satisfy emotional needs rather than material needs. We enjoy stroking and cuddling our pets and seem to receive substantial emotional benefit from doing so. Thus the human-animal relation has profoundly shifted from a relation with domestic animals to a very different sort of relation with our pets.

Humans and Their Pets

Humans keep a variety of animals as petssnakes, lizards, roaches, spiders, fish, gerbils, rats, mice, birdsbut the two most common are cats and dogs, with cat-owning households slightly outnumbering dog-owning households in the United States. Most pets serve no utilitarian purpose (although some dogs contribute to household security by barking at intruders). Pets are kept because they evoke affection or curiosity and often are given a special status as companions for members of the family. Cattle, horses, and other large domestic animals usually serve a more utilitarian purpose and are not ordinarily considered pets. However, elderly horses that can no longer serve a specific purpose are often kept as pets out of respect for the long years of service and companionship they provide.


Modern domesticated cats (Felis sylvestris catus ) are generally considered to be the descendants of the European wild cat, Felis silvestris silvestris, and the African wild cat, Felis silvestris libyca. Domestic cats probably evolved from African and European wild cats around 6,000 years ago.

The cat seems to have domesticated itself. In northern Africa, several cultures had developed well-established agricultural societies. Agriculture meant grain, and stored grain invited rodents. Out of the population of wild cats in the area, some had a higher tolerance for the presence of humans and a willingness to be near other cats (most cats are solitary creatures). Cats with these characteristics were able to move into the cities and onto the farms, where they found abundant prey. Keeping the rodents in check benefited the humans, so the cats were adopted and gradually increased in status. By 1600 B. C. E. , cats were accepted as pets and by 1500 B. C. E. were regarded by the Egyptians as personal representatives of a deity, Bastet.


The dog was probably the first animal to be domesticated by humans. This apparently occurred about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. Domesticated dogs are classified as Canis familiaris. Some experts think that dogs are descendants of wolves (Canis lupus ) and even go so far as to assign them to the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris. Dogs certainly freely interbreed with wolves and produce fertile off-spring. Others suggest they are descendants of a now extinct wild dog similar to the pariah dog of India.

How dogs were domesticated is still being debated. One suggestion is that dogs began to follow humans around, living off of discarded scraps of food. Through a gradual process of acclimation, both dogs and humans become more accepting of each other. Because dogs are natural scavengers, village trash heaps would be perfect places to find food. The wild dogs would scavenge through the scraps removing all the meat that would attract more dangerous scavengers. In this way, the dogs provided a substantial benefit to the humans.

Another suggestion is that humans deliberately domesticated dogs to aid in hunting. Dogs that had begun to hang around human settlements but were still interbreeding with wild dogs were first captured and kept in pens. Selective breeding gradually eliminated the wild characteristics. Subsequently, specialized dogs were bred by selective breeding. Also, to prevent cross-breeding, the remaining wild dog population was systematically exterminated.

Dogs often are put to work. This work includes sheep herding, rescue work, drug sniffing, pulling a sled, sentry duty, and serving as guide dogs for hearing-or vision-impaired persons. During World War I, the Red Cross used dogs to help search for wounded men on the battlefield. The U.S. Army started officially using dogs around the time of World War II.

Problems in the Human-Pet Relationship.

Abandoned pets are an enormous problem in most cities. In some cities, hundreds of cats and dogs are euthanized each day. Those euthanized may be the lucky ones, because house pets abandoned or released back to the wild almost always suffer a short, miserable existence, inevitably resulting in the animal's death.

The number of feral cats and dogs is a significant problem in most countries in the world. Feral animals are domestic animal breeds that live wild. One strategy that has been attempted to reduce the number of feral cats is to capture the cats, neuter them, and then return them to their original territory. The theory is that the cats will remain in the same approximate area, thus keeping new cats out in addition to their not being able to reproduce to replace the population. Results of this experiment are still being debated. This technique will not work for feral dogs because their behavior is different. They run in packs and defend a territory as a pack. Feral cats and dogs are a major concern in many countries because they can act as disease vectors (rabies) or carry the parasites (fleas and ticks) that act as disease vectors (plague and Lyme disease).

The relationship between humans and domesticated animals is loaded with contradictions. Dogs are often kept as cherished, pampered pets, but may also be severely maltreated and abandoned by their owners. An animal destined for the dinner plate may nevertheless receive a great deal of respect, care, and affection during its lifetime, demonstrating that the boundary between pets and livestock is blurred.

Both the manner in which we perceive animals and the way in which we treat them is evidence of the contradictory nature of the human-animal relationship imbedded within our cultures. For example, humans (who are not prohibited by religious belief) regularly consume the flesh of pigs. On the other hand, most Westerners are repelled by the idea of eating dog meat. Yet we keep both pigs and dogs as pets. In other parts of the world dog meat is regularly consumed, even by people who also keep dogs as pets. People from Western European culture are disgusted at the thought of eating insects, but readily consume many other arthropods with apparent gusto. In other parts of the world, insects form a significant portion of human diet. Although the relationship between humans and other animals has received increasingly more attention within the social sciences, only a few authors have explicitly drawn attention to the ambiguities that pervade everyday human-animal interactions.

Animals as Entertainment

Since 1958, the World's Largest Rattlesnake Round-Up, an event that benefits local charities, has been held in Sweetwater, Texas. It takes place annually around the first of March. The project was begun by local farmers and ranchers in an attempt to rid the area of an abundance of rattlesnakes that were endangering people and livestock. Over the years, more than 100,000 kilograms of rattlesnakes have been collected in the region.

The rattlesnakes are displayed for entertainment and most are "milked" to obtain venom to be used in the manufacture of antivenom vaccine. Events include a parade, the Miss Snake Charmer Pageant, snake-handling shows, brisket and chili cook-offs, and plenty of fried rattlesnake meat to snack on. Animal rights activists and environmentalists from all over the world have protested and criticized this event for many years. However, the event continues and the local rattlesnake population seems to be very little affected by this human tradition.

In the name of entertainment (sometimes thinly disguised as education), circuses, dog races, horse races, and marine parks often use animals. Unfortunately, some of these animals are not well treated. Orcas and dolphins in marine parks live only 25 percent as long as animals in the wild. These animals regularly swim long distances, up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) per day, in the wild. When kept in small pools the animals are not able to swim such long distances, hence, they suffer from stress and increased rates of disease. Circus elephants also experience stress when kept in captivity for entertainment purposes. Since 1990, circus elephants have killed 43 people. Elephants are not normally aggressive animals, but the stress of captivity can cause these highly intelligent animals to go insane.

Animals and World Religions

Religion, whether organized or not, is an intimate part of human culture. All of the world's major religions have explicit or implicit principles concerning the proper character of the human-animal relationship. Most of the world's religions recognize the importance of animals and the animal-human interaction. However, few major religions hold ceremonies to mark the birth or death of animals that are the equivalent of ceremonies marking the birth or death of humans. This seems to indicate that many world religions relegate animal life to a secondary status when compared to human life. Nonetheless, ethics and morality concerning the use of animals is an important issue that most world religions consider to be within their domain. Sometimes, the religion's standpoint on issues relating to animals is clearly stated in holy writings. In other instances, an interpretation of a written passage is made by a person or official body within the religion.

With few exceptions, the general attitude of most of the world's religions toward the relation of humans and animals can be characterized by five general principles. 1) Human life is more valuable than animal life because humans have a "soul" (or something equivalent to a soul). (2) Humans have a God-given authority over other animals. This is usually expressed as "dominion" or "stewardship." (3) The right of humans to consume animals for nutrition and to use the labor of animals is recognized by several, but not all world religions. (4) Cruelty to animalspointless acts that will cause an animal to experience pain or sufferingis prohibited by most religions because it displays attributes that are undesirable in civilized societies. Even religions that previously or currently practice animal sacrifice often specify that the animal be killed in as painless a manner as possible. (5) Most religions urge kindness toward animals.


For many Christians, an indicator of the desired relationship of humans to animals is found in Matthew 10:29-31 in the Christian New Testament. The verses suggest that, although the life of a sparrow is of much less value than a human life, "not a sparrow dies without God taking notice." For Christians, humans may have a soul but God still considers the life of a sparrow important enough to take notice of its passing.


The God-given authority of humans over animals is recognized by Judaism, but not without restrictions. The prohibition of cruelty is so strong in Jewish law that the slaughter of animals for human consumption is carefully scrutinized by a specialist in the field. If there is any indication that the animal suffered unnecessarily, it is considered unclean (unfit for human consumption). There are exceptions to this rule for medical research. The Polish rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (1525-1572) taught that anything necessary for medical or other useful purposes is excluded from the prohibition of cruelty to animals.


The right of humans to consume animals for nutrition and to use their labor is recognized by most Muslims. The Qur'an is neutral on the subject of the consumption of meat. However, moderation in all things, including eating, is encouraged (Qur'an 7:31; 5:87). If animals are slaughtered for food, the slaughter must be done in strict accordance with Islamic law and in such a way as to cause as little pain as possible. Most Islamic scholars hold that the Qur'an prohibits animal cruelty, which is defined as causing unavoidable pain and suffering. This last prohibition is generally applied to sport hunting as well.


The Hindu religions also denounce cruelty to animals. The Bhagavad Gita (verse 5:18) proclaims that a self-realized soul is able to understand the equality of all beings. To a Hindu, animal souls are the same as human souls, progressing to higher means of conscious expression in each life. Hinduism teaches that every soul takes on a life for a specific purpose and that to kill an animal stops the progression of the soul and may cause great suffering. For this reason, most devout or orthodox Hindus do not consume meat or use meat products in any form.

Many Westerners have difficulty understanding why a country as poor as India allows cows to wander the streets, break into gardens, and pilfer food from market stalls. To a devout Hindu, the cow is sacred. The Mahabharata, an epic poem of ancient India, teaches that spiritual sacrifice must be accompanied by milk curds and ghee (clarified butter). Ghee and the cow that produces ghee becomes the very root of spiritual sacrifice. Hindus hold cows sacred because cows are the symbol of everything that is alive. In the same way that Roman Catholics and many other Christians revere Mary as the Mother of God, Hindus revere the cow as the mother of life. To a Hindu, there is no greater sacrilege than harming a cow. Even the taking of a human life lacks the symbolic defilement attached to cow slaughter.


Like Hinduism, Buddhism also teaches reincarnation, the belief that sentient beings are subject to rebirth as other sentient beings and that consciousness cannot be killed. The interconnectedness of all living organisms is an important precept of the faith. The first of the Five Precepts, the foundation of Buddhist ethical conduct, is not to harm sentient beings.

The relationship between humans and animals is evident in the literature, folklore, and practices of cultures around the world and through the centuries. Yet ambiguity and inconsistency often characterize this relationship. We love our pets and we depend on our domestic animals for food and valuable products, yet we sometimes mistreat our pets and we have almost completely separated ourselves from domestic animals.


There is a growing body of literature and an emerging scientific discipline concerning the human-animal relationship, sometimes called anthrozoology. The field includes social scientists, psychologists, zoologists, ethologists, historians, philosophers, veterinarians, and physicians. Several groups have been organized to study the human-animal relationship, such as CENSHARE at the University of Minnesota. However, these groups tend to focus on the relationship between humans and their pets. Issues concerning factory farming, vivisection, zoos, and pet-abandonment have generally been addressed by animal rights activists, ethicists and moral philosophers, such as Peter Singer and Thomas Regan. Singer writes about the ethical treatment of animals as a part of human ethics in general.

Humans are dependent on domestic animals for food and companionship. Perhaps the increasing study of human-animal relationships can help us better understand our relationship to the animal species on which we depend and that share our homes and our planet.

see also Animal Rights; Human-Animal Conflicts; Hunter-Gatherers; Hunting.

Elliot Richmond


Borowski, Oded. Every Living Thing: Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1998.

Budiansky, Stephen. The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Chose Domestication. New York: Morrow, 1992.

Caras, Roger A. A Celebration of Cats. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Clutton-Brock, Juliet. A Natural History of Domesticated Animals. London: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Ember, Carol R., and Melvin Ember. Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.

Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture. New York: Random House, 1974.

Regan, Thomas. The Case for Animal Rights. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.

Serpell, James, ed. The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interaction with People. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York: New York Review, 1975. Rev. ed., 1990.

Tabor, Roger. Cats: The Rise of the Cat. London: BBC Books, 1991.

Understanding Cats: Their History, Nature, and Behavior. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1995.

Thurston, Mary E. The Lost History of the Canine Race: Our 15,000-Year Love Affair with Dogs. Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1996.

Zeuner, Frederick E. A History of Domesticated Animals. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

In West African and Caribbean cultures, animals play central roles in the native folklore. Asanti folk literature tells of the clever spider, Anancy, who frequently outwits the other creatures in his animal world. In the Caribbean, Anancy and monkey stories are known and narrated by most Afro-Caribbean children and adults. Throughout the African diaspora, these and other anthropomorphic folk tales frequently convey information about expected human behavior, good or bad.

The relationships of animals to each other and to their environment give us something to compare ourselves to, and thus form a basis for describing our relations to each other. Many of the phrases we use to describe human characteristics are drawn from the animals we live with, such as "eats like a pig," "stub-born as a mule," or "fierce as a lion." These phrases anthropomorphize animal behavior and then use the imagined behavior as a description of human behavior.

Cats have not always been honored. During the Middle Ages, cats were associated with witchcraft and were slaughtered in large numbers. This slaughter may have led to an explosion in the rodent population. As fleas carried by rodents can transmit bubonic plague, the destruction of cats may have contributed to the spread of the plague epidemic known as Black Death.