Which Foot is the Best One for Walking?
When we adopted Jiminy Cricket from the Jack Russell terrier rescue, she was ten months old. She was blind from juvenile cataracts. She suffered extreme allergies, with painful skin lesions that made her life miserable. But she was extraordinarily trusting and she loved to go to the vet, where she knew that the people in uniform helped her feel better. And she was also vibrant and lively. She loved to throw her own tennis ball, and chase it. She would bring that dirty, fuzzy, round treasure and place it in your hands, or on the seat of your chair, then play-growl as though you’d taken it from her; she clearly enjoyed her own sense of humor. From time to time, she would even place that saliva-wet ball into one of my open receptive hands when I was meditating. She was adventurous, and more than once ran off the end of a boat dock by mistake (mercifully she was, and is, a confident if sometimes surprised swimmer).
When we received her, her name was Mini. She came to us with beloved possessions bought for her by her owner, a college student who had bought her from a puppy mill, and now couldn’t afford her medical care. Mini had a pink crate, a pink harness with a pink bow on it, a pink fleece pillow with a kitten print on it, and pink pajamas to stop her from scratching her skin. But this pinked out persona and the name Mini didn’t fit our adventurous, whimsical, trusting, stubborn, provocative, tough-and-fragile dog. So she became Jiminy, and she loved the sound of her adapted name.
I have read scholars and pundits alike reflecting on the question of whether we can really understand other animals and respond to their needs, asking if it isn’t all a matter of projecting our humanity onto their various forms of animality and missing the mark completely. This seems like a perfectly valid question until you realize that it’s built on a false premise: that we humans are something other than all the other animals. But we are animals and, to the extent that being animals means we share things in common, we can understand other animals quite well… though this is not to say that we don’t also project our own experiences, needs, desires, fears, and all the rest onto them, just as we do in our human relationships.
It’s not at all impossible to accurately understand the needs of our animal companions, domesticated animals, even wild animals, but perhaps the biggest trick for us humans is to learn awareness of our own projections. The fact that we want a cute pink Mini Mouse of a dog doesn’t make this one into that, and it could in fact miss the mark fantastically. So in addition to getting familiar with our own projections—I want protection and so name my Rottweiler Rambo—we have to listen to the particular animal in light of everything we know about him or her, and give her some options to respond to, rather than imposing our one idea about what is best for her.
Jiminy was stubbornly afraid of stairs (we knew, from her foster parents, that she had accidentally tumbled down a flight of stairs in pursuit of her ball). When we brought her to her new home, which came with a very steep staircase, I sat with her at the top step and held her while she trembled, then carried her to some more comfortable place. As that became easier, I sat her down in a way that one whole side of her was touching the wall, and gently pushing her into that wall, moved her down to the next step. Then on another day, two steps, and finally she was willing to go all the way down, feeling me on one side and the wall on the other. On the evening of that triumphant day, I heard her ball hit the landing, and right after it came Jiminy, chasing it down the stairs!
Conquering fears, healing injuries, and mastering new tasks are things all animals enjoy. These are the types of experiences we can easily understand across species boundaries. So, instead of automatically teaching every dog your favorite trick, offer a few, and see which one he likes the most. Good listening is necessary for accurate understanding… and good listening always involves using our two cognitive feet: one step made with feelings—empathy and the imagination of what it is like to be that other—and the other step made with clear thinking, including knowledge of our own habits of thought and projection, knowledge about this species and breed of animal, knowledge about this particular animal. Just as we find it laughable to try to identify which of our feet is best and use only that one, so we must use capacities both of sensitive feeling and of critical thinking in a kind of constant rotation to understand another being.
Coming up, I will be writing about the biological and psychological sciences that describe how we can know each other across species boundaries. Stay tuned!